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Stony Brook reaches settlement with former swim coach in discrimination lawsuit

A sign for Stony Brook University is pictured

A sign for Stony Brook University is pictured on March 1, 2018. Credit: Barry Sloan

The former coach of the Stony Brook women’s swim team reached an out-of-court $385,000 settlement of a gender and race discrimination lawsuit she brought against the university two years ago over their decision to terminate her employment.

The settlement agreement, obtained by Newsday, was filed in federal court in Central Islip on Monday and approved by U.S. District judge Gary Brown.

Former coach Janelle Atkinson, 39, had accused the university in the November 2019 lawsuit of holding her to "higher standards" than coaches who are white men because her coaching tactics were no different than theirs. As part of the settlement agreement, Stony Brook "expressly denies any wrongful conduct."

A spokeswoman for Stony Brook declined to comment. A spokesman for the state Attorney General Letitia James, whose office represented the state university in court, declined to comment.

Thomas Newkirk, an attorney for Atkinson, called the settlement "an important step to free women in college athletics from the burden of gender bias."

"Janelle is one of 150 female coaches and counting that our firm has identified who have been investigated, suspended or fired for bias-driven complaints about their coaching, when they are all coaching the same as men do every day," he said in an email. "We appreciate SUNY recognizing the challenges facing both Janelle and other women in reaching this settlement and we hope that other universities will heed this call to action."

Atkinson declined to comment about the settlement, Newkirk said.

Atkinson, a two-time Olympian, is a black woman of Jamaican descent. She was hired in March 2017 to lead a swimming program that had been dormant for five years while the university's pool was being renovated. In January 2018, before the end of her first season, Atkinson was told by Stony Brook athletic officials that her year-to-year employment was not being renewed.

That same month, the school launched an investigation into accusations against Atkinson made by members of the swimming team. In a letter sent to the university president, which was obtained by Newsday, a student-athlete accused Atkinson of cursing and degrading players, threatening to take scholarships away, forcing them to practice when ill and ignoring their injuries.

Atkinson told Newsday in an interview after the lawsuit was filed that the allegations made in the student's letter are false and the acceptable standard of behavior for coaches is different for women compared to men.

"When everything went down, I was shocked," Atkinson said. "I didn’t do any of the things that were claimed about me. Would this have happened if I was male? Would it have happened if I was white?"

Stony Brook athletic director Shawn Heilbron said at the time that the decision to not bring back Atkinson was not related to the investigation. The school never revealed the findings of the investigation into Atkinson.

Heilbron did not respond to a message seeking comment about the settlement.

New York Sports