Metro Weekly

Fired cheer coach files lawsuit against California school district for anti-gay discrimination

Michael Henderson claims school and district officials never gave him the chance to respond to criticisms of his job performance.

cheer coach, fired, gay, discrimination, california, murrieta
Cheer coach Michael Henderson – Photo; Murrieta Valley Cheer and Stunt, via Facebook.

A cheer and stunt team coach who was fired from his position earlier this year has sued the Murrieta Valley Unified School District, alleging he was unlawfully terminated because he’s a gay man.

Michael Henderson served as the cheer and stunt coach at Murrieta Valley High School, in Murrieta, California, for more than three years from early 2017 to June 2020. Under his leadership, the cheer and stunt program finished sixth at the 2020 National High School Cheerleading Championship and fourth place in 2021.

However, Henderson was fired in June after school officials received an anonymous letter from a parent claiming that the popular cheer coach was “incompetent in his position, had a poor work ethic/attitude, was abusive to children, was homosexual.”

On June 11, Murrieta Valley High Athletic Director Darin Mott and Principal Ryan Tukua informed Henderson about the letter and suspended him. Mott and Tukua then partnered with School Board Member Paul Diffley to conduct an investigation into Henderson’s conduct and communication with a gay male athlete who had been suicidal back in October 2019, which took place while Henderson was teaching at Cartwheels, a private gymnastics facility.

The lawsuit claims the school officials never allowed Henderson the chance to respond to the allegations against him, and fired him on June 16, five days after he had been placed on suspension. 

Terry Davis, an attorney for Henderson, told The Press-Enterprise that the district never explained what it discovered during its investigation that merited firing Henderson. 

Davis had previously claimed that Diffley, a devout Mormon, had made calls to several unnamed sources — listed in the complaint as Does 1-100 — that resulted in the dissemination of “false and unreasonable statements” that damaged Henderson’s reputation and were likely to influence the decision to terminate him.

Henderson told the newspaper that Mott and Tukua told him his dismissal was “based on a personnel issue.” But ironically, just eight days earlier, the two had given Henderson an enthusiastic end-of-the-year job review, although during the review, they warned him to “be careful, because when you’re on top, people will find ways to bring you down.”

A month after Henderson’s termination, about two dozen of Henderson’s students rallied in support of him, waving signs reading; “Bring Back Coach Mike,” “Save Coach Mike,” and “We Love Coach Mike.” 

See also: Catholic school reinstates lesbian lacrosse coach who had her job offer yanked because she’s married to a woman

Last week, Henderson sued the school district in Riverside Superior Court, alleging discrimination based on sexual harassment, failure to create an environment free from harassment, failure to take preventative action, and negligence, both in the infliction of emotional distress and the damage that the rumors about Henderson’s behavior could do to his reputation, thereby affecting future economic opportunities and his earning potential.

The lawsuit also names Jaci Clawson, a parent of a cheerleader whom Henderson and his lawyers allege wrote the anonymous letter.

“She’s made comments to other coaches … ‘I’m going to take Mike down’ was a common theme,” Henderson told The Press-Enterprise. “She didn’t like the decisions that I was making. I think a lot of it was fueled by me not favoring her daughter.”

School district officials and Clawson have declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Henderson has asked for a jury trial. He has requested to be reinstated as the school’s cheerleading coach and compensated for economic damages, and is demanding that the district amend its personnel policies and institute training in order to avoid future instances of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

“I want my job back. I worked really, really hard to get the program to the standing that it’s in,” Henderson said. “I’ve been through hell and back after the firing … It’s like someone taking your child away from you, and that’s the best way I can describe it.”

See also:

Casa Ruby loses over $800,000 in LGBTQ youth shelter funding after DHS refuses to renew its contract

Three Polish regions scrap ‘LGBT-free zones’ after EU threatens to pull funding

Thousands of trans youth contact suicide hotline while Texas GOP pushes anti-trans bills

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