WEST FARGO -- Six West Fargo Sheyenne High School girls volleyball players have walked off the team due to complaints about the team’s coaching staff.

Those who quit were three varsity and three junior varsity players, including Kalli Hegerle, a junior outside hitter and setter who has already committed to North Dakota State University, according to a player’s parent.

A parent filed a complaint in July against Mustangs head coach Leah Newton, alleging that she and some members of the coaching staff bullied some players.

West Fargo School District officials investigated the matter and met with players and parents of players and former players at that time.

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“Although our investigation did not substantiate the complaints and concerns to the level of bullying, a common theme surfaced surrounding feedback and communication,” district officials said in a memo summarizing the investigation.

The district asked team members to schedule meetings with the coaching staff to discuss moving forward and recommended Newton study the book “Growth Mindset,” by Carol Dweck, which examines how positive feedback can affect students.

Then, on Friday, Oct. 28, a player’s parent said new complaints have been made against the coaching staff. District spokeswoman Heather Konschak confirmed the complaints against the Mustangs coaching staff were related to the district’s earlier investigation, but could not comment further.

The district released the following statement on Friday, Oct. 28:  

"West Fargo Public Schools has been aware of concerns expressed regarding the coaching staff from the Sheyenne High School volleyball program. As this is a personnel matter currently being investigated and receiving good faith attention, it would not be appropriate for the district to comment on specific allegations or concerns at this time."

Newton, who has coached volleyball for more than a decade, has been Sheyenne’s head coach since the varsity team was formed in 2014.

In an incident report obtained by The Forum filed earlier this year, a parent said girls were being “mocked and laughed at” for things they did or said. The report claimed several parents went to Sheyenne Athletic Director Ross Richards to report the “mental abuse” by the coaches and nothing changed.

“In all my years of either being coached or watching my 4 children be coached, I have never seen such a dysfunctional atmosphere led by intimidation, mind games and confusion,” the report said. “... This type of coach bullying needs to end now. … I am leary to continue to send my daughter to this toxic environment. … There is a difference between mental toughness and mental abuse. … However, every story I hear I become more and more confident that this program has not made my daughter more mentally tough, however the complete opposite, it has broken her down, made her feel worthless at times, and made her want to quit.”

In another complaint, a parent said the program culture under Newton is “unhealthy, unsafe and toxic.”

In another complaint, a former volleyball player and Sheyenne alum brought up multiple examples of problems with the coaching, including choosing people to demonstrate how not to do a skill, lack of honesty and transparency, and replying to attempts at communication with punishment. The former player organized these examples into categories including public embarrassment, uses head games, demeaning, untrustworthy, basis of fear, controlling, ignores players, only cares about performers and master of denial. The player claimed to have suffered from a stress-induced sickness from playing volleyball.

“I started feeling anxious to go to practice every day and even months after graduating from the program, I experience deep pain thinking about the taunting I went through and will shake almost uncontrollably if I have to approach (an unnamed coach) for any reason, out of fear for what she might say to me,” the complaint stated. “This newly acquired anxiety and extreme level of stress had a harsh effect on my physical, emotional, and social wellness and no child, adolescent, or adult should ever have to suffer an experience like one that I have.”

In an email, a student claimed to have transferred from Sheyenne because the student felt underappreciated and ignored, but still wanted to play volleyball. The player claimed to have lost any confidence in the sport because of a coach.

“I often felt bullied by (a coach) and that she would treat me less than the girls she favored most,” the email stated. “... I would often drive home from practices crying or I would cry when I would try to explain things to my mom about how she treated me."

In an incident report to West Fargo Public Schools, a player’s parent said the player suffered humiliation during practice after the coaches mocked and laughed at her for doing a push up incorrectly. Other reports and complaints included the same worry about humiliation.

The report said six families talked to Richards over the previous three years about Sheyenne’s coaching and Newton’s methods did not change. At the end of the report, the parent called for the removal of Newton and an assistant coach. The parent also voiced concern that there would be retaliation for the parent’s complaint toward the parent’s son, who was going to be taught and coached by Mustangs head football coach Jeremy Newton, Leah Newton’s husband.

According to her personnel file, Newton has received above satisfactory ratings in performance reviews as a coach, all of which were signed by Richards.

“Without question Coach Newton is an intense, no non-sense (sic) coach but she maintains a level-headed demeanor at all times,” Newton’s latest review stated after the 2015-16 season. “This proves to be effective in helping players deal with the highs and lows of competition. Coach Newton’s passion and competitiveness have forged a coaching style that is different than what many players/parents grow accustomed to in the local junior/summer programs.”

Newton wrote on the coaching evaluation after her first season in 2013-14 that she felt “very comfortable and supported by administration and staff at Sheyenne” and “it was great getting to know the parents and supporters” of the program.

In another document, a member of the Sheyenne coaching staff said the opportunity to work with the staff was tremendous and there was a high level of positivity and inspiration. The coaching staff member said the accusations of a negative culture against the coaches by parents and players “broke my heart.” The document added that constructive feedback was “met with eye rolls, poor body language, and unchanged behavior.”

“Watching (the coaches) work with each of the players has taught me how to hold high expectations, how to create meaningful relationships, and how to create a community of athletes,” the coaching staff member stated. “The energy in the gym throughout this past summer has been one of growth and progress. Due to the exciting developments that appeared to have been made amongst teammates, players, and coaches this summer, it was devastating to hear that not all players felt the same way.”

Richards declined to comment on Friday.  

The Mustangs are third in the Eastern Dakota Conference with a 22-7 overall record.