Encinal School volunteers sued by coach


A conflict that originated on the Encinal School basketball court appears headed for a court of law after a father who was stripped of his volunteer coaching position filed a lawsuit against the school's Parent Teacher Organization and three parents who volunteer as PTO officers.

Lawrence Hecimovich, the father of two boys and coach for two years of his older son's after-school basketball team, names Kelly Perri, Julie Roth, and Leslie Burke in addition to the nonprofit PTO in a lawsuit filed in late August in San Mateo County Superior Court.

Among the causes of action listed in the suit are libel and slander, negligence, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, and fraud.

Mr. Hecimovich, who is a deputy city attorney for San Francisco, is seeking reinstatement as a head coach in the school's basketball program, punitive damages in an unspecified amount, and attorney fees and costs associated with the lawsuit.

He also wants to require the PTO to provide program coordinators and volunteers "the training and resources needed to provide a safe school environment for Encinal students," asserting that "PTO's unsafe practices needlessly expose students to the risk of serious physical injury."

The defendants, through their attorney Robert A. Muhlbach, declined to comment for this story.

Mr. Muhlbach said a court date is set for Nov. 17, at which time he will argue for a motion to dismiss the case based on California's "anti-SLAPP" law, which prohibits lawsuits brought primarily for the purpose of intimidating others into making concessions rather than face a costly court fight.

Although he declined to comment on the lawsuit itself, Mr. Hecimovich said in an e-mail, "I offered to settle for (no monetary damages) a number of times, asking only for an apology, and got no response, so a settlement seems unlikely." He is asking for a jury trial.

The basketball program is under the auspices of the city of Menlo Park's community services department, but the school's PTO appoints the coaches and is the program coordinator.

Behind the lawsuit

The conflict arose during the 2008-09 school year, when a player on the fourth-grade team Mr. Hecimovich coached "engaged in behavior that went beyond disruption to posing a serious risk to his own safety and the safety of other players," the lawsuit states.

That behavior included "kicking and throwing basketballs at the gym lights, clock and fire alarm in an effort to break them; throwing or kicking balls at other players or other players' basketballs to disrupt their shooting or dribbling; and disappearing without notice during practices, including the final incident lasting half an hour," according to the lawsuit.

Mr. Hecimovich's attempt to make the boy's parents aware of the problem was first ignored, then resulted in "extreme anger and hostility ... and the threat that the parent had rallied and would continue to rally team parents" to remove him as coach, he says in the lawsuit.

The document also says that appeals to the PTO basketball coordinator, Ms. Roth, to allow him to respond to the boy's misconduct by reducing his playing time were rejected; Mr. Hecimovich's persistence resulted in threats to remove him as coach.

The following year, the lawsuit says, Ms. Roth, her successor Leslie Burke, and then-PTO President Kelly Perri "found Hecimovich unfit to coach and permanently barred (him) from participating in the Encinal League."

The lawsuit cites conflicting statements allegedly made by the defendants regarding whether complaints had been made against Mr. Hecimovich by parents, and states that, after the end of the 2008-09 season, "virtually every parent complimented (him) for a wonderful season and several confirmed their son's interest in being coached by (him) the following year."

When Mr. Hecimovich asked for a review of the decision to take away his coaching position, district Superintendent Ken Ranella assigned a consultant, former Hillview Middle School principal Michael Moore, to investigate the matter. (Mr. Moore was on a retirement contract that year to perform a number of services for the district, Mr. Ranella said.)

Mr. Hecimovich asserts that the investigation was not carried out in the way he was told it would be, but in spite of flaws in the process, the consultant found, among other things favorable to Mr. Hecimovich, that "there was no truth to (Leslie) Burke's original rationale for the decision to ban Hecimovich, ... that the PTO had acted despite the absence of any complaints or other information from the other team parents," and that an allegation that the coach had assaulted a child "was entirely without merit."

Before being dumped by the PTO, Mr. Hecimovich had coached basketball, baseball and soccer for five years, and had intended to coach throughout his sons' adolescence, he says in the lawsuit. He hasn't coached since, the lawsuit asserts, because of "the defamation and other unlawful conduct" by the defendants, and he "will not be able to coach until (they) acknowledge their deceit and clear his reputation."

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Like this comment
Posted by Not Surprised
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 2, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Who knows where the truth lies in this. It comes as no surprise that the private ladies club attitude of the PTO would reject the idea of a coach disciplining an out of control or aggressive student. It flies in the face of the passive, let's all just get along culture that is the norm in polite and genteel volunteer organizations.

Like this comment
Posted by WP
a resident of Woodside: Woodside Heights
on Nov 2, 2010 at 12:34 pm

Wow, this is just so sad, and a story of a wild child and parents run amuck.

Other team parents know if this kid was really destructive, and if the description of the boy's behavior is accurate then they needed to step up, and not let the coach take the fall.

That being said, there's plenty of blame to go around. While my sympathies lie with the coach, there are time to take a stand on principle, and times to swallow your pride and just walk away. I think this is the latter.

A cautionary tale of too many strong willed parents who lost sight of the goal of recreational school sports.

Like this comment
Posted by Osceola
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 2, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Perhaps the reporter should have taken the time to inquire of the consultant as to his "findings," rather than rely on the plaintiff's assertions as to what a neutral third party found and then imply that those assertions are facts.
This article reads as far from neutral, and omits a fairly significant fact: the children at issue are all under ten years old. There is no input from any of the defendants, or from the parents whose children were on this team. How about more balanced reporting?

Like this comment
Posted by willows
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 2, 2010 at 1:17 pm

I've witnessed Lawrence Hecimovich coach and I'd NEVER want my child to be coached by him. Thank you to the PTO and the ladies in question for standing up to this [portion deleted] and keeping our children safe!

Shame on Lawrence Hecimovich for suing a group of volunteers just because he wasn't asked to lame is that??? I guess it shows exactly what a [portion deleted] he is..I bet the city of SF is so proud to have him as an employee..

Like this comment
Posted by Behind the scenes
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 2, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Don't let the fact that the parents can't speak because of the pending law suit fool you -- this guy is the one that's out of control. The volunteer coordinators were just trying to protect the kids on the team. Hecimovich was one of those crazy coaches who intimidated the kids, threw balls at them, brow-beat them when they didn't do what they were supposed to do...this is a 4th grade team, mind you. What a crybaby and a bully. His reputation is ruined?? Give me a break -- he ruined his own reputation by having a big snit and suing a bunch of moms who are just trying to organize an afterschool sport. What incentive did they have to boot him -- it's hard enough getting parents to volunteer?

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Posted by Todd Johnson
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 2, 2010 at 1:39 pm

I'm sad.

Children learn most from how they see grown-ups behave (as opposed to what we tell them).

I guess we are teaching them that, when you have a disagreement, fight it out in court?

Like this comment
Posted by JoAnne Goldberg
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Nov 2, 2010 at 2:11 pm

I was the Encinal basketball commissioner or co-commissioner for 9 years, most recently 2007-08. The last three years I worked with Julie Roth. I have also been a basketball coach for many years and have had my share of difficult kids!

I am not familiar with this case and do not know Lawrence Hecimovich, but agree with Osceola that this piece is seriously biased. And to second Behind the Scenes comment: the commissioners are indeed volunteers, as are the parent coaches. Obviously, the program cannot run, nor be as successful as it has been for many years, without dedicated coaches. The commissioners do everything they can to work with each coach and help resolve any one of a myriad of issues, including asking the principal or school counselor to intervene if a player is truly out of control. Requesting that a coach step down is the last resort, and only occurs when there have been serious concerns raised by many parents over an extended period of time, sometimes years.

By the way, any of you casting aspersions about the "private ladies' club" are encouraged to volunteer to run a league yourself! (Yes, you can do it while managing a demanding job and raising your kids, but it requires real effort and may prevent you from having enough time to post regularly on Town Square!)

Like this comment
Posted by Another Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 2, 2010 at 4:16 pm

It is very clear to me that there was inappropriate behavior on the part of the coach (regardless of the difficulty level with the child...). He was quietly and privately not asked back to coach again the following year.

It was the coach who decided he wanted to make a big public stink about this. The volunteer coordinators do not owe him an apology; he should have used last season for self reflection. He did not uphold positive coaching guidelines. Tempers must be held in check on the court by the coaches. If there is a particularly challenging issue with a child, they should enlist the help of the parent rather than become enraged and model very poor behavior.

[Portion removed; no evidence for allegation].

This was not a public issue until he made it one.

Like this comment
Posted by btkmenlo
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Nov 2, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Having been a volunteer coach for the Junior High and HS, I have run into many disrespectful kids. Having been raised in a private Catholic school environment unruly kids were severely disciplined, kicked off the teams, served punishment. At the public schools it is a different culture. When coaching you want to make it inviting and an opportunity for each kid, but discipline, respect for authority is not always there. I blame the parents!!! Yes, I said it! It would be different if the parent said, 'We have a problem with Johnny and would like you (Coach) to help us out". That would be a cooperative effort and the backing of the parents to follow through. The kid would be warned and would know that he/she would be cut from the team/activity. Some parents are in denial about their kids and that is a real pity, because they are letting outside forces shape this kid.

I am all for giving a warning and then, if need be, kicking the child off the team. Let's get some sense about coaching. I have known some business owners that volunteered to coach some basketball teams and came to the conclusion that coaching is hard and dealing with unruly children who are disrespectful to adults is a real challenge. The one gentleman said that he is highly respect in his industry, but when he comes to coach these kids run all over him and don't listen. The kids miss out on learning the game and the lesson of interacting with adults respectfully..

Like this comment
Posted by Common Sense
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 2, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Let me see if I understand...the Deputy City Attorney of San Francisco is suing the local school district because he's worried about a 4th grade boy throwing a basketball around in a gym? Really? How about this: "Oops! Never throw balls in a way that can hurt people or property -- here's a Nerf ball to practice with for awhile until you show me you can handle it!" For heaven's sake, what kind of lame, pathetic person would do something like this and how much is it costing taxpayers and PTO contributors for legal fees to defend against him? Does he sue his kids for not making their beds in the morning? Shameful.

Like this comment
Posted by what?!
a resident of another community
on Nov 2, 2010 at 7:26 pm

You're kidding me, right? I can't believe I'm reading this story.

The story does seem naturally biased since only one side is talking - I hope the reporter will report back once the trial has concluded.

Regardless of the details, this is an attorney suing other volunteers! Good lord. What's the real lesson this 'coach' is teaching his kids - win at all costs, blame someone else, take away probably hundreds of hours of productive volunteer time (and probably thousands of dollars in attorney fees) for your own cause. Great coaching - you'll never coach my kid.

Like this comment
Posted by ol' Homeboy
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Nov 3, 2010 at 9:37 am

Regardless if this coach was good or bad in his techniques, the original issue is that players (at any age) should not be disruptive to the team. It is a privilege to be on a school team — not a right. Parents need to understand this before they encourage their children to participate in sports, band, etc. and they need to explain it to them.
I agree with btkmenlo. Organized sports is just that. If you don't follow the deportment rules of the sport and the facility, your off the team. It's that simple. Catholic schools have had it right with sports for years and it's one of the big reasons they kick public school teams butts year after year.

Like this comment
Posted by Role Model
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 3, 2010 at 11:59 am

Kicking butts? That's the point of after school sports for 9-year-olds? And using that as an argument in favor of CATHOLIC school, no less! How's that for the pefect definition of irony? Lovely world we live in with parents who bully other parents by suing them to get their way and set the example of winning at all costs. This isn't about a 4th grader -- this is about a supposed grown-up throwing his weight around to intimidate and bring down a school district and a few moms trying to help out.

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Posted by Shocked Parent
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Nov 3, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Hey -- Tough Guy -- pick on someone your own size! What a joke. I hope the judge throws him and his whiney complaint right out the door. Thanks to the parent volunteers who are protecting our kids from this kind of irrational, overreactive behavior.

Like this comment
Posted by Rochester
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Nov 3, 2010 at 2:15 pm

After reading this article I am struck by several thoughts. First, I find it difficult to believe that this man is completely innocent of any questionable behavior. Knowing a little about PTOs/PTAs, a decision like the one made by the persons involved was not made lightly. Second thought, absolute shock and disgust that anyone would take legal action against volunteers at a school. Third, unmitigated anger that this man has precipitated a lawsuit that is wasting valuable resources and money in order to defend the school and these parent volunteers. To ask for punitive damages from a PTO and school district that is just able to keep it's head out of water and retain some very wonderful teachers and programs due to the passing of Measure C is, at the risk of being repetitive, appallingly selfish and small-minded.

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Posted by Also Shocked
a resident of another community
on Nov 3, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Totally agree with Shocked Parent. & Role Model. This lawsuit is just another example of parental entitlement run wild. You weren't wanted as a coach. Get over it already. Isn't 2 years a bit long for a temper tantrum? Now the school has to have a more costly program, even more people aren't willing to volunteer their time because they might be sued for doing what they think is best for our children, and fundraising dollars are now going to pay insurance and legal fees for what in my opinion is a frivolous lawsuit filed by an officer of the court who ought to know better. Next time maybe just meet with the principal if you have a problem with a kid or a parent. Discipline within the confines of a program is one of the things they do daily.

Like this comment
Posted by Curious
a resident of Atherton: other
on Nov 3, 2010 at 2:54 pm

So if the anti-SLAPP law is applied and the case is dismissed, is Mr. Hecimovich required to make the PTO, Volunteers and School District whole for their attorneys' fees and expenses? Also, does the SF city attorney's office know that one of their employees is picking on a PTO?

Like this comment
Posted by legal beagle
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 3, 2010 at 3:02 pm

If a court rules that a lawsuit is a SLAPP, the anti-SLAPP law requires the plaintiff to pay attorney's fees for the defendant.

Like this comment
Posted by Shari Conrad
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Nov 4, 2010 at 1:53 pm

While this is a negative event for our community, I feel compelled to write about some very positive aspects. Our schools are wonderful places for our kids because our community has chosen to make them so.

First, our parents contribute funds to our PTO and Foundation and our entire community contributes to parcel taxes that help fund programs and teachers that add significant value to the education that we can offer our children.

Second, parent volunteers contribute thousands of hours of volunteer time. On any given day there are parents and grandparents reading to children, working on math facts, checking out books in the library, preparing materials in art, assisting with science labs, serving hot lunch, working on special projects, coaching our kids in sports, balancing the books of a fundraiser, or planting seeds in our community garden. It is almost impossible to place a value on this time, but it makes a huge positive impact on our schools and our kid's education.

I want to express my sincere gratitude to all our parent volunteers who are out there working every day to make our schools better. Even though I don't know you - thank you Lawrence for volunteering to be a coach. I have had the pleasure of working with Kelly, Leslie and Julie and they are the types of parents who add incredible value to our community. They are giving, kind, capable and full of heart. I am so very thankful to have them working in our schools and I hope this event does not discourage people from taking on volunteer jobs.

I am disappointed that this situation has ended in a lawsuit. It is the type of event that adds distress to our community and distracts people from the work that is needed to be done and there is always work to do.

Finally, I think about what I want to teach my kids. Change can be good. Sometimes change is needed. You can bring about change in a positive way. Even if you disagree, always be respectful. Some fights are worth fighting, and others are not. Sometimes it's OK to walk away. Mistakes are made and it's fine to forgive.

It would be a gift to our community if this lawsuit was dropped. It's not too late to move toward forgiveness and bringing about positive change.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike G
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Nov 18, 2010 at 9:22 am

Your positive outlook is always appreciated and welcomed. Thanks for bringing some positive spin to this terrible situation. However, I do find it very troubling that this guy would file suit against three of the most valuable volunteers this PTO has had over the past 5 - 6 years (of course your volunteer actions speak far louder than words Shari so thank you for what you do). What's most troubling to me is that this type of thing is exactly why people are now fearful of volunteering. Also, the few dedicated people we have to run our PTO is probably going to lose three excellent people because of this.

The worst thing is that Mr. Hecimovich hasn't lost a thing. He's coaching NJB basketball right now and he's continuing to coach. How has this really harmed him, has he really been "slandered"??? I think not, if he didn't file suit I would have never heard about it, he made is own bed.

The only thing Mr. Hecimovich has probably lost is any further support from his neighbors or community because of his selfish motives. Shame on you and your law suit Mr. Hecimovich... you are single handedly driving a stake in the heart of volunteerism.

Like this comment
Posted by A student at Hillview
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Feb 16, 2012 at 11:21 pm

Unquestionably, and knowing all the people involved with this lawsuit, Mr. Hecimovich is in the wrong. Its a credit to all volunteers that they reacted to support the students and families involved. The only person who has been "slandered" or "had his reputation damaged" is Mr. Hecimovich because of Mr. Hecimovich's ill-conceived actions. He is a horrible role model for student- athletes to look up to, and I include his son.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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