UNION, NJ – The public school district’s athletic director claims she was pressured to fire the high school’s white football and basketball coaches by the black principal in a race and sex discrimination lawsuit against the principal, several district officials and the school board.
Linda Ionta, a white Union school district employee for 29 years, filed suit in state Superior Court on Nov. 1, outlining what she described as years of harassment and discrimination by the school’s principal, Corey Lowery, and how there was no corrective action by the administration. Lowery, who was hired in 2015, has been on unspecified leave since Sept. 13.
Superintendent Gregory Tatum and assistant superintendents Gerald Benaquista and Annie Moses also are named as defendants.
According to the lawsuit, Lowery has “engaged in a severe and pervasive pattern of conduct designed to usurp and undermine Ionta in her position as athletic director” since he was hired in August 2015.
Ionta’s suit claims Lowery, who is black, told Ionta multiple times to fire the head coach of the basketball team, Kevin Feeley, and football coach, Lou Grasso, both of whom are white. Employment decisions relating to coaching staff are Ionta’s responsibility and Lowery “has no authority or responsibility to participate in such decisions,” according to the lawsuit.
Lowery allegedly told Ionta that the coaches were “unable to reach our kids because our kids cannot see themselves in them.”
“On the advice of counsel, at this time, the district does not wish to comment on the complaint as reported. All matters pertaining to this case will be handled by counsel,” district spokeswoman Akua Boakye said in an email on Nov. 8.
Board attorney Robert Tosti did not return a phone call seeking comment by deadline.
The lawsuit went on to say that when Ionta asked Lowery what he meant by his comment, he responded that he “is the face of Union.”
Ionta, Feeley and Grasso declined comment when contacted by LocalSource.
The lawsuit described an incident on April 28, 2017, when Lowery allegedly told Ionta that he was going to fire Feeley that day and restated his intention to also fire Grasso.
“One by one I will get rid of every one of your coaches that I feel cannot contend at a state championship level,” Lowery told Ionta according to the lawsuit.
Before this, Lowery sent an email to Ionta stating, “I would like to see the evaluations of all Fall, Winter, and Spring coaches and discuss with you your recommendations. No coach is to be hired or re-hired without discussion and consent with me first.”
Feeley and Grasso are still coaching at Union High School.
Feeley began as Union coach in 2011, with his team posting a 5-18 record. Since, his teams have finished with winning records in four of the past six seasons including 16-11 last year.
Since Grasso first started coaching in 2013, the varsity football team has qualified for the playoffs four times. This year, the team’s record was 8-3, including a 46-6 sectional semifinal loss to Union City on Friday, Nov. 9.
The lawsuit also referenced an incident regarding the hiring of a spring head girls track coach for the 2015-2016 school year where Lowery “insisted that he be involved in making the hiring decision even though that decision is Ionta’s responsibility.”
During a meeting in January 2016, Ionta recommended a candidate who was white, female and a lesbian because she felt that she was “the most qualified for the position.”
Lowery disregarded her recommendation because the candidate “doesn’t look like a head coach” and made comments about her weight. Ionta was then forced to hire co-head coaches, her candidate and Lowery’s, which the suit claimed caused disorganization within the program.
The complaints were brought to Tatum, Benaquista and Moses, who took no measures against Lowery, the suit said.
“Lowery has not been disciplined, suspended, or terminated, despite Ionta’s frequent complaints to Tatum, Benaquista and Moses,” the lawsuit read.
Most recently, Ionta provided a five-page “Affirmative Action Complaint” to Benaquista on July 21, 2017, which outlined Lowery’s conduct toward her during the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 school years. The suit alleges that the district was required to provide Ionta with a response to the complaint within 30 days.
The suit also alleges that in July, Ionta requested a copy of a report conducted by an outside investigator.
The Board of Education has not responded to Ionta’s complaint and she has not received a copy of the report, according to the lawsuit.
Steven Le, a former BOE member who unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the Nov. 6 elections and who is a frequent critic of the board and administration, told LocalSource that he feels the board should put Tatum on administrative leave.
“These charges are very serious and appalling. They also sound like they can be backed up and corroborated,” Le said in an email on Nov. 11. “I believe Ms. Ionta and find her to be very credible.
“If these allegations are found to be true at any stage of the legal process, Mr. Tatum and Mr. Lowery should resign or be subject to tenure charges. In the immediate, the board should do two things: cease negotiations to renew Mr. Tatum’s contract which would give him a salary raise, and put him on administrative leave.”
In Lowery’s absence, vice principal Althea Bossard has been serving as acting principal. Parents were made aware of the principal’s administrative leave in an email from Tatum on Sept. 21.
No reason was specified for the leave.
“Please be assured that the integrity of teaching and learning at Union High School will not be compromised,” the letter read.
Sports editor J.R. Parachini contributed to this report.