BREWER, Maine — Former Brewer High School softball coach Kelly Jo Cookson, who claimed she was fired in 2006 because she is a lesbian, agreed Monday to drop her discrimination case against the school department.
Her attorney, A.J. Greif of Bangor, said Tuesday the parties involved agreed to “walk away from the litigation” in “what amounts to a tie.”
“She and her partner are raising a beautiful adoptive son and she would rather spend the time with Kane than in a courtroom,” Greif said.
School officials have said they decided in early 2006 not to renew Cookson’s coaching contract after they learned she had allowed student athletes to walk barefoot through sheep manure during a team picnic, and that one of her disgruntled players had threatened to sue.
Cookson, who was the softball coach between 1992 and 2006, decided to sue the school district and Superintendent Daniel Lee in October 2006. The Clifton resident, now 47, claimed Lee slandered her, and that she was fired because she is a lesbian, not because she was involved in hazing activities, as the district claimed.
A jury was selected last week, but after the Brewer School Committee unanimously voted at a special meeting at noon Monday not to award her a settlement, Cookson dropped the discrimination lawsuit against the district, Melissa Hewey, a Portland attorney representing the school board, said Tuesday.
“Once that was communicated to her, she dismissed the claim with prejudice,” she said.
The proposed settlement was for $5,000, Greif said.
By voluntarily dismissing the case with prejudice, Cookson basically “conceded that there was no merit to her allegations,” and “that she wasn’t going to win,” Hewey said.
“Cookson was not rehired because she hazed student athletes by leading them through several initiation activities during the 2004 and 2005 seasons, including assigning new players to be servants of veterans and having new players handle and walk barefoot through sheep feces,” a Tuesday statement from the school department said.
The former coach’s lawsuit was the first filed in the state after sexual orientation was included in the Maine Human Rights Act in 2005.
In 2007, Superior Court Justice Kevin Cuddy ruled that the school district’s decision not to rehire Cookson was not discriminatory. In a 10-page decision dated Nov. 19, 2007, Cuddy said Cookson was not rehired because of “a pattern of engaging in or supporting the hazing of the players, and in particular younger players,” not because of her sexual orientation.
Cuddy also found that Lee did not slander Cookson. Cookson claimed Lee allegedly slandered her on Jan. 19, 2006, in a conversation with the parents of a Brewer student when he said, “I know some things about Kelly that I can’t say publicly,” according to court documents.
After Cuddy’s decision, Greif appealed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which last summer, upheld the lower court’s ruling that Lee did not slander the former coach. It ruled, however, that a jury should decide whether Cookson’s contract was not renewed because of her sexual orientation or because of the hazing.
The fact that the superintendent did not make his decision on whether to rehire Cookson until after he learned she was a lesbian was a major factor in the court’s decision, wrote Chief Justice Leigh I. Saufley in her 17-page opinion.
“Having won before the supreme court and having no desire to have the job back, there was no reason to go forward,” Greif said.
Cookson is a graduate of Brewer High School and the University of Maine at Presque Isle, where she played softball, basketball and field hockey. She was a 1,000-point scorer in basketball at UMPI, where she is a member of the school’s athletic hall of fame.
Hired as the Brewer High softball head coach in 1992, Cookson was the Penobscot Valley Conference Class A Coach of the Year in 1995, 1996 and 2001. Brewer won the Eastern Maine Class A championship in 2004, and had been in three other regional title games during her tenure. She also has taught physical education at Indian Island School since the early 1990s.
When Cookson agreed to dismiss her case, she basically closed the book on the legal matter, Hewey said.
“It’s finally over,” she said.
A telephone message to Cookson on Tuesday was not returned. The award-winning softball coach, so far, has not taken a different high school coaching job.
Even though the school department and Lee basically have been cleared of any wrongdoing, their names, and the names of others involved in the case, nevertheless, have been marred, Hewey said.
“What Cookson has done here did real damage to innocent people,” Hewey said in a prepared statement. “The student who had the courage to bring Cookson’s hazing to light was treated as an outcast for the remainder of her time at Brewer High School.”
Lee also has been unfairly maligned by Cookson’s allegations, Hewey said, adding the dismissal of the case “is — finally — a complete vindication of the school department.”