RYE, N.Y. — With a $125,000 settlement and, more importantly, a written apology, a girls basketball coach fired from the Rye City School District three years ago is now hoping to get his coaching career back on track.
The payment to Brian Lavelle, 52, follows a district apology issued as part of the Nov. 7 settlement of his defamation suit against the district, which had falsely asserted surveillance video showed him stealing two credit cards and $30 from a student’s backpack.
“Brian Lavelle should not have been terminated. The school district apologizes to Mr. Lavelle,” the statement says, adding it would “welcome the opportunity to consider Mr. Lavelle for another coaching position.”
But Lavelle, who said he has been unable to get a local coaching job since his termination and that he’d been ostracized by former coaching friends and even some family members, said it “would be very difficult” to work there again.
“It actually destroyed my career,” the Yonkers resident said.
Lavelle had just begun his job at Rye when fired in December 2010. But players on an AAU team he’d coached believed him innocent, said Grace Leishman, who was on both squads.
“We didn’t have to read any stories. He didn’t have to say anything. It was always clear,” said Leishman, now a sophomore on the California Institute of Technology team.
The backpack was owned by the son of Michael C. Ice, a former school board trustee and president who declined to press charges after the allegations against Lavelle surfaced.
Lavelle, whose resume includes 22 years coaching the AAU Westchester Lady Knicks; stints as an assistant coach at Iona and Manhattan colleges; time as head girls coach at Preston High School in the Bronx; and a few years as Scarsdale’s junior varsity girls coach, said he unsuccessfully applied for three coaching jobs after Rye fired him.
His full-time job is in hospital purchasing, but this season he’s also working as an unpaid assistant women’s basketball coach at Dowling College on Long Island under former Iona colleague and friend Bill Carpenter.
“I’d put my soul on the fact Brian Lavelle is not trying to take a kid’s credit cards and $30,” Carpenter said. “This guy has volunteered most of his life. He has probably forsaked more money than he has gotten (from coaching).”
The settlement of Lavelle’s defamation suit doesn’t permit him to discuss the district’s actions. But court papers raise multiple questions.
They reveal that the district reported to Rye police that surveillance video of the high school gymnasium showed only Lavelle going into the backpack on Nov. 23, 2010. In fact, the video, which the district refused to show Lavelle until under court order five months later, shows three people, including Lavelle, going into it that night. Lavelle said he went into it to determine its owner.
Court records also reveal that the district erased additional gym video.
Lavelle was suspended on Dec. 2, 2010, and fired by the school board five days later. He was questioned by police but never charged.
In response to Lavelle’s defamation lawsuit, in January 2011, athletic director Robert Castagna said in an affidavit that he had reviewed surveillance tapes and they showed Lavelle removing something from the bag. According to court papers submitted by Lavelle’s attorney, Gerald DiEdwards, Castagna reviewed only about five minutes of video, although the knapsack was left unattended from the afternoon until the next morning.
Court records indicate the alleged theft was investigated by school security officer Ed DiNunzio, who told Rye police that surveillance video didn’t show anyone other than Lavelle handling the knapsack. DiNunzio, who no longer works for the district, could not be reached for comment.
Contacted this week, Rye City Assistant Superintendent Gabriella O’Connor maintained that the district’s insurance carrier handled and resolved the matter, and that the district had no copy of the settlement agreement, nor any other documentation relating to the case. But Robert Freeman, chairman of the state’s Committee on Open Government, said that even if those records are not being kept on school property, they are subject to FOIL if maintained for the district.
Among the materials not supplied to The Journal News is a “written document” cited in court documents from then-Superintendent of Schools Edward J. Shine to the Board of Education on Dec. 7, 2010. In it, Shine says that while video shows a coach besides Lavelle opening the knapsack in front of two people, “There is only one person who could have taken those items: varsity basketball coach Brian Lavelle.”
Shine, now superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich, Conn., declined comment.
In its apology statement, the district, which has declined any other comment on the case, characterized its 2010 investigation as “incomplete.”
Lavelle said the settlement and apology had lifted a heavy weight.
“As soon as the season ends, I promise you my resume will be upgraded and I’ll be looking for any opportunity,” he said. “I hope it opens doors again to coach in the Westchester/Rockland/Putnam area. … That’s probably more what I’d love than anything in the world — the opportunity to coach. That’s something that was taken away from me.”
Nancy Haggerty also writes for the (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News.