Bad Sportsmanship

A coach says he was fired for being gay. Now his students are rallying.

A former cheer and stunt coach at Murrieta Valley High School in Murrieta, California has become an unexpected rallying point of his former students who demand the school rehire him.

Michael Henderson had coached at Murrieta Valley High for three years, leading his squad to a 4th place finish at the 2021 National Cheerleading Championship in April. It seemed all was well until an anonymous letter to the school district raised questions about his coaching style. The district ultimately fired him in June.

Henderson, for his part, claims he was fired for being gay.

Local news site The Patch reports that the dismissal blindsided Henderson, who had just received a glowing evaluation in the days prior. “There was no hint that anything was wrong,” Henderson said. “I never saw the letter. I wasn’t even given a chance to respond. I was never interviewed about any of it.”

The site further reports that an investigation conducted by MVUSD Board Member Paul Diffley contained at least one question related to Henderson’s sexuality. That question has invited scrutiny over the propriety of the investigation.

Related: Gay janitor claims he was fired for reporting homophobic abuse

“The anonymous letter was sent to MVUSD by what is believed to be a couple of disgruntled cheer parents who were angry with their child’s position or participation level in the team,” Henerson’s lawyer, Terry Davis, told The Patch. He added that the investigation “was spearheaded by devout Mormon MVUSD Board Member Paul Diffley, who made calls to several unnamed sources impeding due process of the investigation. One question related to his sexual orientation raised red flags, leading many to believe that it was a substantial factor in the district’s decision to terminate Mr. Henderson’s employment.”

That question has prompted Henderson to sue for wrongful termination. In the meantime, his former students staged a protest July 14 in hopes of pressing the district to rehire him. About 24 students dressed in school colors and carrying signs that read “Bring Back Coach Mike” stood outside the school building showing their support.

“He always wants the best for you,” Senior Kendell Winters said. “I hope we’re able to get him back.”

“Coach Mike had high expectations, but I want that for my kids. That is real life,” Kendell’s father, Rick Winters, added.

Kim Altenhofel, one of the parents of a cheer student and president of the school’s cheer booster club, admitted that school officials interviewed her as part of the investigation. For her part, she claims the questions centered around allegations of verbal abuse by Henderson–something she claims to not have been aware of. Altenhofel also continues to support Henderson and hopes for his return.

“The kids loved him. They are heartbroken,” Altenhofel said.

School officials at MVUSD have not commented on the recent student protest or the district investigation at this time, citing privacy laws.