KELLER -- A dispute between a Keller High School volleyball player and coach about a $7 T-shirt triggered a months-long grievance process, with district officials placing the coach on administrative leave while an outside attorney investigated. It also resulted in the creation of several policies and procedures in an attempt to prevent similar strife.
Trustees unanimously decided this month to reinstate Sylvia Ortiz as volleyball coach and girls athletic director.
Their decision upheld findings from a district official that while Ortiz acted improperly in the T-shirt incident, the district had no clear guidelines on whether students could be required to buy T-shirts or other nonclassroom supplies.
The board also upheld findings that the coach had acted inappropriately and had violated a federal privacy law in a separate incident in which she discussed a player discipline issue when another player was present. The district response also said Ortiz did not follow district policy on reporting an incident that may have been interpreted as bullying.
Ortiz, who has been at Keller High for 12 years, declined to discuss the situation but issued a statement thanking supporters: "I love coaching, this community, and I am so proud to be a part of Keller High School. I consider coaching an honor and a privilege, and through God's will, I will continue to do so."
But the parents of the player who filed the complaint said they are pursuing a second set of complaints against the coach.
"The fact is that she didn't get fired, but she was found guilty on these things," said Rebecca Stogner, the player whose parents filed the grievance.
Ortiz's volleyball teams have had a strong record. Keller High has made the playoffs nine times in her 12 years there. Before arriving at Keller, Ortiz coached at Conroe and Spring Woods high schools. In 1987, her Spring Woods volleyball team was the 5A state runner-up.
Stogner had been in the volleyball program throughout high school but had heard from Ortiz that she was unlikely to get much playing time. The dispute was never about playing time, however, Stogner said.
Days before the Nov. 1 playoff game against Hebron, players were encouraged to buy playoff T-shirts, but Stogner did not. In the past, she had been allowed to borrow one.
She said that when she stopped by Ortiz's office after practice to tell her, Ortiz insisted that she buy one immediately and told her to use the only money she had with her, from an honor society fundraiser. "That money was for something else, and they had no right to take it," Stogner said.
She told her parents and also vented about other issues. The most disturbing incident, she said, occurred the previous spring.
Stogner went to the volleyball office when Ortiz was disciplining another player about an inappropriate public display of affection on campus. Stogner said that to demonstrate the inappropriate behavior, Ortiz pulled Stogner onto her lap. According to district documents, Ortiz did not recall the incident, but the other player confirmed it.
The two incidents and others, such as Ortiz's handling of instances when players criticized one another, prompted the Stogners to file complaints with the district right after the opening-round playoff loss. They believed the coach allowed bullying.
"It's an abusive atmosphere of players cussing each other out," Don Stogner said.
He said Ortiz encourages a negative environment by telling players to "call each other out."
When the Stogners complained to Keller High administrators, they were told they first had to talk with Ortiz as part of the formal grievance process. Don Stogner said they met with the coach to tell her that they were filing complaints and would seek to have her fired.
Principal Jeff Bradley conducted the first investigation and said Ortiz would be subject to campus corrective action, according to a document given to the Stogners.
Not satisfied, they took their complaints to the next level. That required an investigation by an official with no knowledge of the events, and Joe Griffin, chief technology officer, was appointed to handle it. He wrote to them in February to relay his findings.
On one bullying allegation, he said the coach "may not have interpreted the incident as bullying," though he found that she had not followed the process defined in board policy by handling it on her own and not informing campus administrators.
Another instance involved a few players allegedly downloading an unflattering game picture of another player making a mistake and posting it on Facebook with derogatory comments. Ortiz notified campus officials but did not follow district policy in disciplining the students, the district report said.Griffin also wrote that the district will review its bullying policies and make sure that all staff members understand and follow procedures. Trustees will vote on new bullying policies next month.
Still dissatisfied, the Stogners appealed to the school board. During the week before their April 12 hearing with trustees, the Stogners spoke with Bradley about a second set of complaints.
As part of the investigation, Ortiz was placed on paid administrative leave. An attorney was brought in to interview the players.
At the April 12 hearing, trustees said they wanted more information before ruling in May.
The Rock Gym, where the Keller school board meets, was packed for the May 10 meeting. More than 50 people showed up in support of Ortiz, dozens of them wearing green "Team Sylvia" T-shirts. Seven spoke to trustees in Ortiz's behalf during the public-comment portion.
Chelsi Lake Reichenstein, a member of Keller's 2003 state championship softball team and now an attorney who lives in Colleyville, said Ortiz was an inspiration when she was a varsity setter in volleyball. "A big part of who I am is because of her," Reichenstein said.
Kathy Schmitz, parent of a current volleyball player, told the board that Ortiz instilled positive character in her students. "You need to bring her back. Too much negative energy has taken a toll," Schmitz said.
After an executive session, trustees voted 6-0 (with Cindy Lotton abstaining) to uphold Griffin's findings and reinstate Ortiz.
She went back to work Monday.
Rebecca Stogner will graduate next month, but the family plans to keep pursuing the second set of complaints against Ortiz.
Sandra Engelland, 817-431-2231