A beloved Rapid City wresting coach, COVID-19 regulations, a contested suspension and alleged constitutional violations have coalesced into a lawsuit against the school district, which has decided not to renew the entire coaching staff’s contracts.
“We just want to get these guys back in the wrestling room training wrestlers,” said attorney Conor Duffy.
Duffy is representing David Gorsuch, the assistant wrestling coach at Central High School who was put on paid suspension Feb. 15 through the remainder of the season after the Rapid City Area School District found he violated COVID-19 safety protocols.
His attorney successfully obtained a temporary court order that allowed Gorsuch to coach through the state wrestling tournament and has a pending lawsuit asking for Gorsuch's “unjust and incorrect suspension” to be lifted.
Duffy is also representing head coach Lance Pearson in the school administrative process after being coached by him 22 years ago.
Court documents filed in the temporary order and lawsuit include affidavits from Gorsuch and Pearson, and RCAS documents detailing the timeline and reasons behind Gorsuch’s suspension.
The suspension and court filings happened in February before Gorsuch, Pearson and the two other coaches learned in early April that their contracts would not be renewed. Gorsuch has been a coach for 15 years while Pearson has coached for at least 22 years.
Parents of past, present and future wrestlers have been asking the RCAS administration and school board to explain this decision but have not received any clear answers, the Journal previously reported.
The future of Pearson’s position as a wrestling coach is expected to be discussed during a closed-door executive session at the May 3 school board meeting, according to multiple sources.
Pearson, who also teaches business and computer skills at the high school, expressed concerns about the school district’s COVID-19 policies during a November 2020 school board meeting.
Pearson said he was struggling with distance learning and that teachers are seeing an increase in failing grades and missing assignments. He also said some students may be safer in the classroom since some were getting COVID-19 from family members.
What follows is from RCAS documents filed at the Pennington County Court.
Gorsuch was wearing his mask around his chin and neck for the majority of the time, not over his mouth and nose, during a Feb. 10 COVID-19 testing of the wrestling team, a nurse and nursing assistant wrote in documents. He was in close proximity to the nursing staff and his wrestlers during this time.
When it was his turn to be tested, the nursing staff wrote, he told them that he was experiencing loss of taste and smell that day after having flu or cold-like symptoms since Feb. 5. Gorsuch continued to be around the students that day before his test came back positive and he was told to quarantine.
After Activities Director Jordan Bauer learned about the Feb. 10 incident, he found out that Gorsuch attended two wrestling events after becoming symptomatic on Feb. 5 and had told Pearson about his loss of sense and smell on Feb. 10. Neither of the coaches reported the symptoms to Bauer, according to a Feb. 15 conference review that took place with Gorsuch and Central High administration.
“While knowingly experiencing potential COVID-19 symptoms, Mr. Gorsuch put student and staff health and safety at risk by attending events and functions that our coaching staff and students were present at without getting tested for COVID-19,” the review says. “This is a violation of the protocol for coaches” that is outlined in writing and has been communicated to coaches multiple times.
“We believe that Mr. Gorsuch truly cares about his students in the wrestling program as evidenced by the many years he has served in his coaching capacity,” but “the district will not accept intended or unintended violations of health and safety protocols,” the review says.
The review says that Central High administration recommended to Synova Nicolaisen, director of human resources, that Gorsuch be suspended for the remainder of the wrestling season.
Nicolaisen sent Gorsuch a letter the same day as the conference telling him that he was on paid suspension for violating COVID-19 protocol between Feb. 5 and 10. The letter says Gorsuch must write an apology letter to Bauer and that he’s not allowed to be on school property, attend school activities, contact district employees or use his school email during his suspension.
Gorsuch and Duffy filed a Feb. 19 petition asking a judge to temporarily prevent the school district from imposing Gorsuch’s suspension so he can coach his team before and during the state wrestling tournament from Feb. 25-27.
Gorsuch denies violating COVID-19 policies, only had a stuffy nose the days before his test, and noticed a loss of smell just 90 minutes before the test, the petition says. He learned about his suspension through a Zoom meeting with Bauer, which he claims violated his due process rights.
“If I am not available to coach, the teams’ prospects, and my reputation as a coach, will suffer irreparable and irreversible harm,” Gorsuch wrote in an affidavit.
“I understand the concern of the situation” on Feb. 10, Pearson wrote in an affidavit in support of Gorsuch’s petition and his coaching contributions. “I just feel that during these extremely trying times, we all need to rely on each other and help each other as much as possible. This would be an amazing opportunity to show grace and compassion for another human being along with the student athletes.”
Judge Robert Gusinsky granted Gorsuch a temporary order on Feb. 22 allowing him to coach through the tournament. Not allowing him to coach during this time will cause “irreparable harm” to his “reputation and professional status," Gusinsky wrote.
The school district, though attorney Kelsey Parker, later filed a motion to quash the order. Among other arguments, Parker said that Gorsuch had not exhausted RCAS administrative remedies to address his suspension.
Gusinsky rejected Parker’s arguments and Gorsuch was able to attend the state tournament after missing the regionals because of his suspension.
Gorsuch and Duffy filed a Feb. 24 lawsuit against the school district, saying the district's "wrongful suspension" violated his constitutional rights to due process, the ability to petition the government, and his life, and liberty and property.
Gorsuch repeats his arguments from his emergency petition, says he was not properly told about the allegations against him so he couldn’t defend himself, called the Feb. 15 meeting “egregiously biased and unfair,” and says the district is incorrectly classifying his employment and therefore the grievance policy he has to follow. He also argues that one of the district’s complaint procedures violates the Constitution.
The lawsuit asks Gusinsky to order the school district to rescind Gorsuch’s suspension and pay him monetary damages.
It’s unclear if the complaint will be amended to ask the judge to order RCAS to renew Gorsuch’s contract.
The school board rejected the arguments in the complaint in Parker’s March 31 response. Parker said Gorsuch was notified about the conference review and had time to arrange for legal representation. She also said the suspension decision was only made after Gorsuch shared his side of the story.
Parker asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed, saying Gorsuch has administrative options to appeal his suspension and that he can’t sue the district due to government immunity.
No future court dates have been scheduled in the lawsuit.
— Contact Arielle Zionts at firstname.lastname@example.org.