Despite new law, parents' complaints remain an issue for high school coaches

  • Article by: DAVID LA VAQUE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 22, 2014 - 7:03 AM

A state law appears to have helped them somewhat, but they said the pressures have not gone away.

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Evidence of his coaching chops hangs on a wall of Tim Sension’s home. Sension helped coach Hopkins to three state titles before going to St. Louis Park.

Photo: Jerry Holt • jerry.holt@startribune.com,

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A new law enacted to keep disgruntled parents from costing Minnesota high school coaches their jobs seems to have quelled some of the potential firings.

Believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, the law stipulated that “parent complaints must not be the sole reason” for a school board to get rid of a coach. It was passed in 2013 after high-profile boys’ hockey coaches were ousted and amid pleas from coaches under growing pressure from demanding parents unhappy about playing time and team roles for their children.

In 2013-14, during the first school year with the new measure in place, calls from coaches seeking help dropped significantly, according to a statewide coaches association.

But heading into a new fall season, coaching advocates say parent complaints remain a significant issue, often contributing to coaches leaving jobs voluntarily before ever having to face the sting of not having their year-to-year contracts renewed.

Tim Sension experienced both.

Sension, who coached girls’ basketball at St. Louis Park for two seasons, resigned in March after he was told that parents had complained, he said. He said he was not told specifics of the complaints and that his only alternative was to not have his contract renewed. Sension, who previously coached boys’ basketball at Breck and spent seven years as an assistant girls’ basketball coach at Hopkins, figured his future coaching chances would be better if he resigned.

Sension, a grade-level coordinator at the high school and an assistant softball coach, said he had a change of heart after hearing from players and parents within the long-suffering program who supported his admittedly high-intensity approach.

“I’ve got eight kids that played basketball for me that play softball,” he said. “If I’m that bad that they won’t let me come back and coach basketball, why am I still able to coach softball? And why am I able to still work there full-time?”

Sension rescinded his letter and decided to fight. It didn’t change the outcome. A May 17 letter from the St. Louis Park school board to Sension said his “coaching style was detrimental to the well-being of our students” and that he “engaged in conduct that both degraded and humiliated” players.

Sension said the letter marked the first time he was told his ouster stemmed from anything other than parent complaints. He strongly denied the allegations and said efforts to find out specifics have been stonewalled by privacy laws.

“If I did things wrong, then fine, make me go away,” Sension said. “But I still don’t know what I did. They won’t tell me.”

The school district sees it differently. Board Chair Nancy Gores told him at a June 23 meeting, opened to the public at Sension’s request, that more than parent complaints led to the board’s decision. She did not elaborate as members voted 5-0, with two abstentions, to not renew Sension’s coaching contract.

But the district and Sension agree on one thing: The process that led to his ouster could have been handled better.

Calls down, pressure remains

Until the spring of 2013, about 10 to 15 coaches dealing with parent complaints would call John Erickson each year, seeking his advice as executive director of the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association. In the year since the new law was signed, Erickson said he heard from only two coaches. One was Sension.

But fewer calls can be misleading.

“This new legislation has had zero effect on protecting coaches,” said Tim Morris, Minnesota Girls Hockey Association executive director. Parent complaints were involved in “more than half” of the 16 coaching openings since the 2013-14 season ended, he said.

Rogers girls’ hockey coach Dale Sager can relate. He resigned after his first season at Centennial despite support from school administration to return. Clashing with combative parents, he said, became too much to bear.

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