Two days after players from American Heritage high school's Lady Stallions basketball team donned Black Lives Matter shirts during warmups for a December 2020 game, the team's coach, Brett Studley, was called into the office of a campus athletic director.
In a recently filed federal lawsuit, Studley claims the athletic director scolded him and tried to undercut the Black Lives Matter movement by referencing black-on-black crime and complaining about looting that had broken out during nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
Studley says the Delray Beach private school warned him that his players would be benched and suspended if they wore Black Lives Matter shirts at a game again. Despite the alleged threat, at least seven of the players continued to wear the shirts.
Studley stood behind the students' decision, he says.
Media coverage of the team's protest mounted during the 2020-2021 school year, and the coach found himself in the middle of a Culture Wars firestorm as the Stallions made their way to their division's state semifinals, the farthest the team had ever advanced, Studley says.
"As coaches we ask so much of our young athletes. We ask them to shed blood, sweat and tears for us. The least we could do is have their backs," Studley said in a public statement amid the controversy.
Studley claims in the lawsuit that he was fired in the summer of 2021 for supporting the students who wore the Black Lives Matter garb. He says his teaching contract was not renewed for the current school year "because of his association with and support for black student athletes" and "because of his opposition to and refusal to participate in American Heritage’s racial discrimination."
He wants damages for alleged wrongful termination and violations of a federal employment-discrimination statute.
"It was very disheartening,” Studley tells New Times
. "I worked very hard while I was there, not just as a coach but as a teacher. I got to know the students."
Studley says American Heritage informed him in no uncertain terms that his son, who was a middle school student at the school, would not be attending after Studley's contract was axed.
"He was mature for his age about it. We talked about it and he told me that I did the right thing," Studley says.
The lawsuit is pending in the Southern District of Florida. The coach has named American Learning Systems, the company that owns the school, as a defendant alongside school president Douglas Laurie and Laney Stearns, the onetime athletic director, who has since retired.
Tuition for high school students
at American Heritage is reportedly more than $30,000. American Heritage also has a Plantation-area campus in Broward County.
Laurie tells New Times
that Studley's termination had "nothing to do with the Black Lives Matter movement and everything to do with him being an extremely uncooperative employee." He says that Studley went "rogue" and refused to work with administrators as the controversy played out last year.
According to Laurie, no students were punished for wearing the Black Lives Matter shirts.
The school president says that Studley "kept going out to the news and twisting the truth." Studley's actions incited fury against the school, culminating in professional basketball players Natasha Cloud and Erica Wheeler, among others, criticizing American Heritage on social media before knowing the whole story, Laurie claims.
Laurie also contests the lawsuit's assertion that Lady Stallions' games in December 2020 were canceled in retaliation
for students' donning the Black Lives Matter shirts. The games did not count towards the state championship and were nixed on account of concerns over the COVID-19 outbreak that was raging at the time, Laurie says.
"American Heritage is one of the most diverse private schools around. Take a look at our profile. We reflect the culture and ethnicity of South Florida," Laurie says. "To have these claims brought against us just hurts a lot of good educators' feelings."
The dispute partly stemmed from an incident in which a kid logged into an American Heritage online class activity in November 2020 and displayed the words "blacks smell" as a username on the screen. The bigotry sparked outrage on campus and was a driving force behind the basketball team players' decision to wear Black Lives Matter shirts, by all accounts.
The school says the perpetrator hailed from Connecticut and was not a student of American Heritage.
Studley was openly frustrated that it took three weeks for administrators to address the incident with parents and students. Later, in May 2021, when Studley received an email from the school asking him if he would be interested in joining the school's new diversity task force, he declined, referencing the school's response to the incident and saying the task force was "just another way to put lipstick on a pig."
Laurie says Studley's opinion on how long the investigation should have taken "is completely unfounded."
"Our school principal lost many nights of sleep over this," Laurie says. "Studley doesn't realize that when an incident like this happens, it takes some time to figure out what happened."
Studley, who is white, worked at American Heritage for four years before his termination. He has held coaching positions at San Jose State University and across South Florida, at Lynn University, Lake Worth High School and West Boca High School.
He has also worked as a history and business teacher since 2011.
After leaving American Heritage, he took his current position as coach of Spanish River High School's female basketball team.
American Heritage allegedly told him he was fired because he was making false statements to the media, but he says he's not convinced.
"I let the girls do what they felt they needed to do," Studley tells New Times
. "The school management was angry because of the stance that the girls took and the fact that I supported them. They made it clear that they thought it was my job to support the school, not the kids."
In 2018, American Heritage was at the center of another controversy in which racial tensions ran high.
Senior Cyrus Nance, who was a classmate of Miami Heat legend Dwayne Wade's son, was expelled over an incident in which he had a heated verbal exchange with an American Heritage coach. Wade got involved, and prominent civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump was brought in to represent Nance, though the dispute never made it to litigation.