A corn dog and a few drag queens were never meant to wreak such havoc.
But there they were, captured in photos deemed inappropriate because of their “sexual content.”
It was an August afternoon and Mitch Stein was asked to see the principal of Covina’s Charter Oak High School, where he worked as an assistant water polo coach. Someone had anonymously dropped off printouts of Stein’s Facebook and Myspace pages. The envelope included a photo of Stein wearing eyeliner and surrounded by men decked out in bustiers, wigs and makeup. Another showed him at the L.A. County Fair, pretending to take a large bite of a batter-dipped hot dog.
Harmless photos taken in good fun, Stein insisted. But administrators weren’t amused. Stein was fired.
The 36-year-old has since filed a wrongful termination suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court, accusing Charter Oak Unified School District of “animus toward gay and lesbian employees” and of holding him to a different standard because he is gay. He seeks an unspecified amount of money in damages and wants the incident expunged from his personnel record. Stein also wants his coaching job back.
In the wake of Stein’s dismissal, parents and students have rallied around the former assistant coach, who still helps raise funds for the team. At the same time, the case has revived old accusations of anti-gay sentiments within the school district’s administration.
Taking the position seemed a no-brainer to Stein when he began in May 2011. Charter Oak was his alma mater, he knew the head coach, and his daughter would be attending as a freshman. He had a lucrative and flexible job as a producer in the TV industry and years of experience coaching water polo.
He led the boys junior varsity team through an undefeated summer season and was preparing to continue his role in the fall when he was summoned by the school’s principal, Kathleen Wiard. In her possession was the corn dog photo and one of Stein among drag queens. Stein said Wiard called the photo “obscene” and asked whether he would approve of a male teacher posing with his daughter in a swimsuit.
“I was like, ‘Now you’re calling me a pedophile?’ ” Stein said. “How does one have anything to do with the other?”
Wiard declined to comment for this article, saying it was a personnel matter.
Stein had posted the photos online several years earlier and never worried that they might cause problems. The corn dog photo had been a joke. The drag queens had an act in a weekly variety show he used to produce at a gay bar in Long Beach. One night they gathered around Stein, who made the devil horns sign with one hand and grinned as the camera flashed.
“I just didn’t feel there was anything to hide,” said Stein, who made his pages private only in the hopes of being reinstated. The photos in question merely represented gay culture, he argued.
Terry Stanfill, an assistant superintendent of Charter Oak Unified, said that the district follows a non-discrimination policy and that teachers and coaches are held to a “higher standard.” He said there were no specific policies about social media and declined to discuss the matter further.
It’s not the first time the district, which serves a dozen schools in Covina and Glendora, has faced accusations that it harbors an anti-gay sentiment. In 2003, a gay male teacher filed a sexual orientation discrimination complaint saying he was harassed by an administrator. Stanfill said a thorough investigation was conducted and there was nothing to substantiate the claim.
That teacher, who has left the district, wrote a letter to Stein recently saying he believed administrators expected him to conceal his sexual orientation. The teacher wrote that he has since worked in other districts and that the social climate was more welcoming than at Charter Oak.
According to Stein, other gay employees at Charter Oak Unified have also reached out. Stein said one had told him that he, Stein, had not been “the right type of gay” because he spoke openly about his fiance, Hugo, and never hid his sexual orientation. Another described the climate as toxic, Stein said.
Stein grew up in Covina and graduated from Charter Oak in 1993. Back then, he kept his relationships quiet. Upon his return to the school last year, he was impressed that there was a gay student association on campus. But he said he learned quickly that the administration was a different matter.
“It was a lot like the military, very ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ ” Stein said. “You don’t feel welcomed.”
Since his termination, Stein has been offered coaching jobs from three other districts. But he wants to stay near his daughter Devynn, a swimmer and ranked water polo player.
He has remained a fixture at the school despite being stripped of his title. Still referred to as “coach” by students, he coordinated a beach clean-up that netted $3,500 in corporate donations, shopped for items for the snack bar, hauled tubs of nacho cheese to the matches and manned the refreshments station. The $900 he made as a summer coach was donated back to the team.
Parents voted him in unanimously as president-elect of the aquatics booster board.
“I’ve seen the photos and I don’t think they’re inappropriate at all,” said Raymond Adams, 43, who has two sons on the water polo team.
“I don’t agree with homosexuality, but at the same time we shouldn’t be judging anybody,” Adams said. “His private life has nothing to do with coaching the water polo team. I believe the school made a huge mistake, and they should just come forward and admit it and stop wasting the school district’s money. I see Mr. Stein as a servant to the community and the kids more than people that I go to church with, including myself.”
Stein said he is pursuing the lawsuit for current and past employees who are afraid that making waves would jeopardize their livelihoods.
“I don’t have to worry about it affecting my profession,” Stein said. “I’ll take this all the way. There’s only one outcome and that is that I get put back on the pool deck.”