Softball players, assistant coach say they were bullied at URI - News, Weather and Classifieds for Southern New England

Softball players, assistant coach say they were bullied at URI

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URI softball coach Erin Layton URI softball coach Erin Layton
Former URI softball player Jasmine Clarke Former URI softball player Jasmine Clarke
Former URI softball player Nicole Massoni Former URI softball player Nicole Massoni
Former URI softball assistant coach Richele Hall Former URI softball assistant coach Richele Hall
SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. - Six former players, two active players, and a former assistant coach say they were bullied by current University of Rhode Island head softball coach Erin Layton. The women say the abuse was overlooked by administrators for years, resulted in a brief administrative leave, and left some players with serious medical issues.

"My experience at URI...it was just, awful, I hated it," said former player Jasmine Clarke.

"Your anxiety levels are so high. I was physically scared for my well being when I would go in (to work)," said former assistant coach Richele Hall.

"I don't want the school to be able to cover it up and push it under the rug anymore...we're ready to step out and tell everyone," said Nicole Massoni, a former player who is the school's all-time leader in home runs.

NBC 10 spoke exclusively to more than half a dozen players, who all claim Layton was verbally abusive. The players say the abuse included threats, mind games, and demeaning language. They claim the treatment led some players to seek therapy, medication, and forfeit scholarships worth tens of thousands of dollars.

"It was painful, and it was very emotional to go through it all. If I could go back and do it all over again, there's no way I would come and play for her ever again. I don't wish on it anyone," Massoni said.

Both current players, and three of the former players, wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from Layton, university administrators, and teammates.

The Allegations

In one incident in December 2011, Hall claims she was threatened following a disagreement over tickets to a coach's convention. Hall says Layton told her, "You need to stay away from me before I do or say something I will regret." She says a similar threat took place two months later and that Layton was "paranoid." Hall claims Layton threatened to read her email, and scolded her for not returning phone calls, leading Hall to suspect Layton was also listening to her voicemail.

"I just mentally and emotionally could not be in the same environment as someone that was going to treat another human being the way I was treated - and the way she treated others," Hall said.

In another incident, a former player claims Layton was enraged when she fell ill and told the player "don't ever get sick again, or I'm going to kill you." Multiple players say they feared injury or illness, because Layton was particularly abusive to athletes who were unable to compete.

"We had a couple rules. Don't ask questions, don't talk, and don't get hurt. Those are the three things you don't want to do," said former player Sam Marks. "Once you get hurt, you're dismissed from her."

Athletic Director Thorr Bjorn refused to address any specific allegations to NBC 10, but did acknowledge that concerns were raised to him regarding Layton's use of similar language.

"There's things that were brought up where terminology is used: 'I'm going to kill you….hey if you do that again, I'm going to kill you'... I think we all have to be careful with words. Was she truly ever going to try to intimidate or, 'kill' somebody? No. That was just maybe a bad choice of words. I mean I've used those words," Bjorn said.

Massoni said during her senior season, Layton threatened a teammate for playing catch with her while she was injured.

"[Layton]... storms into the gym, pointing at our face and is literally in our face, like spitting distance. I could feel the spit coming from her mouth. And she's like, 'If she gets hurt, and she can't play in the spring, then I'm coming after you,'" Massoni said.

Multiple players also said Layton would play psychological games, pitting teammates against each other and concocting odd stories that were untrue.

Clarke says she was hazed on a road trip to her first tournament as a collegian, with Layton screaming at her via phone, claiming she was late to a team bus. When Clarke arrived, the yelling continued.

"She is just staring at us, and starts screaming at us, and we were scared out of our minds. This is our first tournament we didn't know what was going on, because we weren't late," Clarke said.

Clarke says Layton, and the team, eventually began to laugh. She says the stunt was billed as a joke.

"We are crying, and we sit in the back and everyone starts to laugh...It was awful. It was my first college trip and she wanted to play a joke on us," she added.

In a 2013 email obtained by NBC 10, Bjorn said an apology from Layton was in order after she made a statement regarding the character of a player. In the email, Bjorn said he notified Layton to no longer make the statement. NBC 10 withheld the actual statement, and the name of the player involved, to protect her anonymity.

"The psychological abuse that we had to go through, no one should ever have to go through it," Clarke said.

The Effect

NBC 10 spoke with players who say Layton's abuse led them to take anti-depressants, lose weight, and in at least one case, intentionally hurt themselves.

"Girls were sick with ulcers, headaches, from stress. Losing weight they were so stressed. Insomnia, bad grades, all of that. That goes along with being so stressed. It's just so much stress," Clarke said.

"One of my friends definitely had an eating disorder because of [Layton]. She couldn't eat food, and she was just too stressed, and anxious, and nervous about it. And she actually still has an eating disorder. She admits that to me," Marks said.

The players say many of their teammates sought help from the school's sports psychologist. A former player, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed that she was prescribed medication from one of the school's doctors. Dr. John P. Sullivan, the Newport-based sports psychologist for URI, did not return requests for comment.

"I know a lot of the girls are seeing the team psychologist, sports-psychologist. And they‘re individually put on medication, some are anti-anxiety medication, some are sleeping medication," Massoni said.

Others say they the team's grades suffered, and some players self-medicated.

"My grades suffered after I left the team, because I was so, stressed and overwhelmed with the whole situation. I drank a lot after I left the team," Marks said.

One active player, who wished to remain anonymous, told NBC 10 that the stress was so bad, that she would intentionally cut herself.

"I wouldn't feel anything," she said.

"There's definitely people who you know have thought about hurting themselves or doing other damaging things to themselves like drinking too much or doing drugs or stuff like that. That's not good for them and was direct result of all the stress that they felt because of the program," Marks said.

"One of my friends... she would text other people, but I would be sitting in the room, saying she doesn't know what she's going to do to herself, she doesn't know if she's going to hurt herself," Massoni said.

The Complaints

Hall, players, and their parents say they reached out to administrators consistently, but claim their complaints were never taken seriously, handled improperly, or flat out ignored.

"I think that that's the biggest thing. I don't know how any part of that administration can physically step away from the situation and look at it and say we're doing the right thing," Hall said.

The families of two active players, and two former players, provided NBC 10 with emails, meeting outlines, and other correspondence from adults which they say shows that complaints were prevalent, and that school officials were well aware of their concerns. The emails mostly feature exchanges with Bjorn and Assistant Athletic Director Sue Bergen, but also include emails to URI president David Dooley.

"We've went to the administration multiple times and nothing has gotten done. It just got brushed under the rug," Massoni said.

Massoni said in her four years at URI, she attended four meetings in which the main topic of conversation was Layton's behavior. In a nearly three-hour meeting following her freshman season in 2009, Massoni said she and her teammates were adamant to Bergen that Layton continued to cross the line.

"Our entire team was there and she just asked us questions, 'Do you have any comments about how the season went?' And just one after another (it was players) bashing how coach was just disrespecting us...and how she like kind of ruined the Senior Day game by kicking off a player in the middle of game because she shook off a pitch," Massoni said.

Massoni said Bergen didn't take notes during that meeting, or in a subsequent meeting the following season – an observation noted by numerous other players in meetings of their own.

"She didn't have paper, didn't have a pen, nothing. It was all by memory. You just memorized three hours worth of stuff and you didn't write anything down?" Massoni said.

"I just feel like administration throws the softball team on the back burner and says, 'Well, we don't make money off their games, so just throw em' on the back burner,'" Clarke said.

But Bjorn claims quite the opposite. He says complaints, specifically an investigation in the spring of 2013, were comprehensively reviewed.

"It was not brushed under the rug. It was not something that sat just in my desk and pretended to let it go away. We spent a lot of time on it and took it very seriously as a university," he said. "It was a very long process, very in depth process, and a process that was across campus."

NBC 10 obtained, and listened to, the recordings of multiple meetings between players and administrators. The players secretly recorded the conversations, which is legal in Rhode Island, because they say they didn't trust school officials.

"I didn't really trust anybody there and I knew, from previous players telling me, that nothing's going to happen if you complain," Clarke said.

"Multiple times, I went into the meeting and I told them I would take a lie detector test to prove that I am not lying to you…they're like 'We don't have to take it that far'. And I'm like, 'Obviously you're not believing what I'm saying, so maybe you do need to give me lie detector test,'" Massoni said.

"I just have a severe trust issue with any of the administration and adults. I guess you could say that...because of their lack of action and them ignoring the situation and putting it to the back burner," said Marks, who acknowledged she never spoke to administrators, but said it was out of fear of Layton.

Massoni and another former player said Bergen told them that meetings with her were confidential, but that Layton would later learn the details of the conversations.

"I came back my junior year...she pulled me off to the side and said that there were three reasons why I wasn't playing in the fall. It was because I questioned her authority, asked questions during practice, and was in the meeting with Thorr and Sue at the end of the year, trying to go over her head," said Massoni, whose career average of .305 is tied for fifth best in school history among players with at least 100 at-bats.

Some players and their families were so desperate for a resolution that they reached out to Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee. A spokesman for Chafee says the governor's office has "received a handful of complaints" and that "Some of these complaints request that we not disclose the name of the complainant." However, the office wouldn't comment further, citing laws that exempt them from revealing personnel files and "correspondence to, or from, an elected official".

Hall says she gave an eight-page letter filled with specific, dated complaints to Bergen in June of 2012. She said Bergen admitted to her that Layton had an anger issue, but refused to provide a plan to fix the alleged problems, until Hall committed to returning for the following season. Hall said, without an outlined plan from the university, she felt forced to resign.

"It was the hardest time I've ever had in my life. And the thing is I felt so bad and it was the hardest decision to put my resignation in, because I felt so bad for the student-athletes," Hall said.

"I just don't know how [Bergen] could go to sleep at night knowing the accusations that the student athletes put forth, and everything I said, and everything I documented. I just don't know how she can physically go to sleep at night and think that this is the correct decision," she said.

Hall says Layton found out about her meeting with Bergen and issued her a warning.

"She said to me, 'Make sure you have everything documented, because they're not going to believe you if you don't have proper documentation. Because I have administration in my back pocket,'" Hall said.

"When she's with someone of authority like Thorr, or Sue, she's perfect. She doesn't act how she acts with us. And on pen and paper, she is completely organized to a T," Clarke said.

Hall claims after she left the university, the school's human resources department told her that they had instructed Bergen to give Hall a university plan to remedy the situation, after receiving her complaint. She says human resorces apologized and even approved unemployment benefits, despite her resignation. Hall said she's come forward, because she wants to protect future athletes.

"I can't sit back and see student athletes suffer. Kids have dreamed since they were young and think that they've accomplished their dream by getting to play collegiate athletics. And then having that shattered - that is wrong," she said.

Hall played under Layton for two seasons in 2005 and 2006, when Layton was the head coach at St. Francis University in Loretto, Penn. However, Hall says never felt bullied by Layton until she came to URI.

One administrator, who the players say was sensitive to their plight, was the school's Vice President for Student Affairs, Dr. Thomas Dougan. An active player says he apologized to her on behalf of the university and other players say he was particularly attentive in meetings.

"He was taking notes, underlining key words. He said that it was going to get investigated and he was going to look into it himself," Massoni said.

"He thought it was disgusting, how she acted, and how the team was. He had all of these girls come to his office, and he knew that they were seeing Dr. Sullivan. And he just couldn't believe that this was happening on a team at URI," Clarke said.

"He said that he really wanted to do his best to get her out of URI, but it was ultimately up to Thorr and Sue," she said.

Reached by phone at his home, Dougan declined comment for this story.

The Response

In the spring of 2013, multiple players told NBC 10, they thought the university had finally decided to remove Layton.

In mid-March, Bjorn arrived at practice and notified players that Layton would not be joining them on an upcoming trip to Florida.

In a letter to a player's parent, the university acknowledged a complaint against Layton for "physical, emotional, and mental abuse against your daughter."

The letter which appears on university letterhead and features the signatures of Bjorn and Dougan states that Layton was placed on administrative leave for three weeks.

An analysis of the team's 2013 statistics shows that they performed much better during Layton's leave. From March 14 to April 4, the length of the leave according to multiple players, the team hit .293 over 12 games. It was a batting average far better than the .207 compiled prior to the leave (in 10 games) and the .238 the team hit afterward (in the following 12 games). The team hit .237 in 2013 as a whole.

In the letter, the university said the leave was a direct result of alleged physical abuse. Multiple sources say the accusation was that Layton shoved a player.

In a statement to NBC 10, the university acknowledged an investigation in the spring of 2013, but claims no wrongdoing was found.

"The head softball coach was ultimately found not to have engaged in physical or emotional abuse nor to have violated the law or University policy. The University has reviewed and addressed all concerns that have been raised regarding the head softball coach," the statement said.

The letter makes no mention of an investigation into the alleged emotional and mental abuse, although Bjorn says those accusations were a part of the probe. Hall and the players claim that since the abuse wasn't physical, it wasn't taken as seriously.

"I'd rather she threw softballs at me," said a former player who wished to remain anonymous.

"It's awful because there's no proof. There's no hard evidence. It's just a he-said, she-said thing. But you know what happened to you. And when people don't take that seriously, or brush it off like nothing happened, it's worse than physical abuse," Hall said.

The players say the abuse from Layton was not physical or sexual in nature.

"It wasn't just one incident and one person. This is something that many people – and not just one year – throughout the years. I'm a senior this year. Nicole graduated already. Jasmine is a junior. We've all had these experiences before and it's not just one person or one grade. We've all had multiple instances, and issues, and occurrences with this individual," Marks said.

"Maybe what she does, how she conducts herself, she feels is OK, because there's no repercussions for it. There are no repercussions for it. Administration lets her get away with it," said Hall.

The Inquiry

NBC 10 asked to interview a number of URI administrators - including Layton, Bergen, and Dooley - but our request was declined. Only Bjorn agreed to be interviewed, and he acknowledged that dealing with the allegations against Layton, has been unlike anything else he's experienced in his career.

"I can't emphasize enough that we really take these types of complaints extremely seriously. And obviously this one elevated to a level that we hadn't experienced before in my time here, in any sport," Bjorn said.

The athletic director refused to answer questions about specific incidents, allegations, or people – citing personnel laws. Bjorn also wouldn't say whether Layton ever crossed the line, or if players ever came to him with allegations that Layton caused them physical distress. When asked if he would answer all of NBC 10's questions if he could, Bjorn said it's not up to him.

"It's important. It's an important story. It's an important conversation. But there are matters we just can't get into for legal reasons," he said. "There's things that we're able to share and things we're not able to share. Things we're able to comment on and things we're not, based on personnel matters, legal issues, and that sort of thing."

However, the athletic director said the complaint that led to Layton's administrative leave, "was the only one, in my opinion, that was outside the norm." And Bjorn was adamant that his department followed thorough procedures.

"There's always two sides to every story and one of the things that I have to do, is be able to evaluate both sides. I have a responsibility to be open minded, to be visible, to be aware and that's what I do. I don't expect everybody to agree with the decisions that I always make, but again I think they're very fair, and I think they aren't decisions that are made in a vacuum," he said. "An important point in all this, is the number of student-athletes who were supportive of Coach Layton and I think that that was an interesting dynamic during our investigation."

Bjorn was also steadfast in his own support of Layton.

"Coach Layton cares a lot about our players. I also believe quite strongly that if one of her players was stuck in some other part of the country, she would be the first one to drive out and pick them up," he said. "Sometimes there's challenges with how we communicate what we are trying to do, but I think she absolutely cares about the kids as much as any other coach that we have in our program."

Bjorn strongly denied any allegations of wrongdoing on his part – reiterating that he took every complaint seriously, and that allegations of inappropriate behavior were investigated thoroughly. He also highlighted the fact that numerous departments were involved in the 2013 investigation – ranging from affirmative action, to human resources, to the department of student affairs.

"When you have a serious allegation, there's nothing wrong with bringing in more people that are experts in different areas on campus. What would be problematic is if it was an athletic department only investigation," Bjorn said.

Bjorn said criticisms that he didn't take notes during meetings are unfair. He claims that doesn't show a lack of respect for the complaint, but rather his own personal style. Bjorn also said allegations that he revealed confidential information, are misguided.

"[Meetings are] as confidential as they can be. One of the terms I learned is it's confidential until it can't be confidential. That's something I did not say to the kids, because you do want to try to protect that relationship. But at the same time, when things are brought to you at a level that they were brought to us last spring when we conducted our investigation, then you have to share that information with folks that are ultimately going to help guide the decision. Let me be very clear, was any of the information ultimately used as retribution against any of our student-athletes? Absolutely not. Absolutely not by coach, by me, or by anybody else," he said.

Bjorn acknowledged the possibility that he made mistakes, but insisted that he operated in good faith to all parties involved.

"We're far from perfect. I think whenever you go through a certain experience, are there some things maybe you'd do differently? Maybe. I think with experiences you learn how to do different things," Bjorn said.

He also admitted that it was one of the toughest issues he's had to deal with as an athletic director, "because you want to provide a good student-athlete experience."

"It was very difficult. It was very hard on our players. It was very hard on our coaches. There was a lot of mixed messages within the team in terms of feeling about what was going on. It was the first time that I had gone through something like this and so you do learn," he said.

"...People don't like sometimes the ultimate decisions you come by and make, but I have to live with them," he said.

NBC 10 filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests, requesting documents related to this story. NBC 10 asked URI for numerous of records ranging from complaints, to disciplinary action, to job evaluations. Lawyers for the university asked for two, 10-day extensions following our initial request in September of 2013. NBC 10 anticipated perhaps hundreds of documents, but URI provided the station with only three resignation letters.

In a six-page response, the university cited 18 different legal cases as reasoning for denying access to the records. They claim a major portion of NBC 10's request is exempt from disclosure, because the records can be considered "personnel" files, and Rhode Island laws protect individuals from "a broad range of embarrassing disclosures", among other reasons.

Lawyers for NBC 10 appealed the response, by URI's Office of the General Counsel, to Dooley. NBC 10 asked for either redacted copies of the documents, or simply a list of them, but the appeal was denied. NBC 10 also requested the sum of money it cost the university to compile the six-page response, but the university said they had no records that would reflect a dollar amount.

A university spokesman also said URI would not confirm or deny the authenticity of any emails, letters, or other documents used in this story.

When NBC 10 informed the university that a story was close to airing in January, Bjorn met with the entire team and instructed them not to speak with the media.

"I think it should be coming through me, it's not fair to them. I'm not going to put them in that position. You've got to protect the students too and a lot of them aren't comfortable with this," he said.

The Fallout

The allegations against Layton come amidst other recent, high-profile allegations of bullying in sports.

Last month, a front page article in the Boston Globe detailed alleged bullying by Boston University women's basketball coach Kelly Greenberg. At least eight players have claimed that Greenberg's treatment led them to forfeit their scholarships, seek mental health care, and at least one player said she considered suicide. Greenberg denies the allegations and the university is currently investigating.

In April of 2013, Rutgers University fired men's basketball coach Mike Rice after a video surfaced of him throwing basketballs and cursing at his players. Athletic Director Tim Pernetti, who had previously viewed the video in December 2012, was also forced to resign.

And in November, the Miami Dolphins suspended offensive lineman Richie Incognito indefinitely, after he allegedly bullied teammate Jonathan Martin. ESPN reported that the treatment led Martin to check himself into a hospital for emotional distress. Incognito did not play at all in the second half of the 2013 NFL season and is currently a free agent.

Meanwhile, Hall and the players reject any insinuations that they were simply too sensitive under the tutelage of a tougher-than-average coach.

"She is a tough coach, but I like that in coaches. But there's a difference I think." Hall said. "I was just destroyed and just so hurt, because I was going in to work with someone I trusted and respected, and thought was one of my mentors, and...this nightmare happened to me."

"Coach Layton likes to personally attack people's character. You can be really confident in yourself, and who you are as person and a player, and then completely like bring that into question once you're in her presence," Marks said.

"I can take yelling at me in practice and trying to make me better and push me, but that's not how I felt with her. It was psychological," Clarke said.

"There's a difference [between] being tough and being threatened," Massoni said.

There's also been significant turnover in the program during Layton's tenure. The head coach has had five different assistants in her first five seasons. And according to an analysis of rosters posted on the school's official athletic website, as well as archived rosters posted on fanbase.com, the Rams have had 20 players leave their softball program, prior to the end of their eligibility (non-seniors), during Layton's tenure. That's virtually the same number of non-senior softball players that left Providence College and Bryant University combined during that same time period (21 total), two local programs that are also NCAA Division-I.

"I know at least 20 people that have left the team since she's gotten there," Massoni said.

Clarke said she's one of many players to forfeit massive scholarships, because they were unable to deal with playing under Layton.

"I was getting $15,000 and I was really conflicted about it. I didn't want to give up the sport I love," she said. "I gave up a lot of money, and now my family has to pay for that. You don't just give up $15,000 for no reason, unless it's really bad."

"Money is an important thing...but one of my friends, she was not the same person anymore," Marks said. "She lost a lot of weight, she got on medication, she was depressed. We were like seriously concerned for this girl's health and safety. You have to draw the line somewhere."

Additional former players acknowledged mistreatment from Layton, but declined to be involved in this story. An email from one read : "I would love to give my opinion about my awful experience playing for Erin Layton. However, I have finally reached a place where I have moved past her abusive behavior. …It was one of the worst experiences of my life. I would never recommend that any athlete play for her."

NBC 10 also asked to speak with active players who are "supporters" of Layton, but a spokesman declined that request.

"The University strives to provide all students, including student athletes, with a safe and healthy environment where they can develop and grow physically, emotionally and socially," the school's statement said.

"We take any complaint we receive seriously, as was done in this case. We continue to evaluate all of our programs to ensure that our coaches and support staff conduct themselves in the highest professional manner."

"The University cannot comment further on a personnel matter," it concluded.

Massoni said despite an illustrious playing career, she told Bergen in an exit interview that she regrets attending URI.

"It was painful, and it was very emotional to go through it all. If I could go back and do it all over again, there's no way I would come and play for her ever again. I don't wish on it anyone," she said.

NBC 10 did obtain a copy of Layton's current employment contract, which calls for the head coach to be paid $46,350 annually and expires on June 30. Bjorn said a decision on her future won't be decided until the end of the season.

The Rams are 9-23 so far this year, and have never had a winning season under Layton. Her career record in six seasons at URI is 80-210-1.

Clarke and Marks say, despite their alleged treatment by Layton, that they've slowly regained their passion for the game of softball.

"It's a sport that we love, and that we been doing since we were really young, but it took me a really long time to find my love of the game again," Marks said.

"I loved it, and I almost hated it because of my experience at URI. It was that bad," Clarke said.

The players say they have nothing to gain by coming forward and simply want to help current and future players by exposing wrongdoing.

"I just want it to be shown the negative effect that this one individual is having on so many people and the bad representation of the University of Rhode Island that she is," Marks said.

"I don't want a 19-year-old girl, going into college, to have to ever experience what we had to experience from one person. We are just trying to save these young softball players from ever going through that," Clarke said.
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