Former, current Vero Beach High students file civil rights lawsuit against school, district

TCPalm | by Sommer Brugal – Treasure Coast Newspapers | May 20, 2021

VERO BEACH — Two Vero Beach High School students are claiming they were wrongfully dismissed from the high school’s girls soccer team, and faced retaliation and discrimination from the team’s head coach and athletic department because of their gender. 

The allegations are among a handful included in a 50-page lawsuit filed Thursday against the high school by Gabrielle D’Elia, a former student; her younger sister, a current student and referred to in the lawsuit as plaintiff D.D.; and their parents, Megan and Anthony D’Elia, which fault the school, school district and certain staff for gender discrimination, harassment and bullying. 

The school district does not comment on threatened or pending litigation, spokesperson Cristen Maddux said. 

The lawsuit names as defendants the Indian River County School Board, Superintendent David Moore, Vero Beach High School, Principal Shawn O’Keefe, Vice Principal Greg Ahrens, Athletic Director Lenny Jankowski and girls soccer Coach Dan Dickens.

The complaint was filed in federal court under Title IX, which protects people from gender-based discrimination in schools, and alleges violations of the girls’ civil rights. The family is seeking a minimum of $75,000 in damages, records show. 

In a news conference Thursday announcing the lawsuit, the family’s lawyer, Jasmine Rand, asserted Gabrielle, the eldest daughter, was unfairly removed from the team during her senior year following a 2019 incident when she spoke back to her coach, Dickens, during a game. 

Gabrielle did not use curse words or inappropriate language, but was denied due process, and because of her sex and gender received disproportionately higher punishment, the lawsuit stated. Furthermore, Gabrielle was retaliated against when she and plaintiff D.D. were denied participation in the end-of-year soccer banquet, according to the lawsuit.

Rand, during the news conference, alleged similar or worse behavior would have been tolerated, even permissible, by male athletes at the school. 

“There’s two rule books” at the school, Rand said, “one for girls and one for the boys.”

Additional allegations include negligence, breech of contract and failing to provide Title IX training to staff and coaches. The lawsuit includes previous examples that date back more than a decade in what Rand claims is discrimination of former students and staff.  

As a result of the 2019 incident and subsequent events, the lawsuit claims the girls suffered “severe psychological and emotional damages” such as “depression, anxiety, panic attacks and extensive pain and suffering.”

Moreover, the lawsuit asserts that plaintiff D.D. “did the majority of her classes online during spring 2019 and was effectively prevented from participating in in-person education and soccer due to fear or further retaliatory conduct.”

The defendants are seeking compensation for past and future medical expenses; emotional pain and suffering; and attorney fees. 

Image: Vero Beach High School Patrick Dove/TCPalm

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