Freshman has been barred from participating in the event by North Canton City Schools.
Hoover High School freshman Max Stokey earned a partial victory Friday, but there’s no guarantee he will be able to compete in the pole vault again this season.
Federal Magistrate Kathleen B. Burke recommended the U.S. District Court grant Stokey a temporary restraining order to participate in the school’s pole vault program.
Stokey, a middle school state champion last year, has been “restricted from participating” in the event by North Canton Superintendent Jeff Wendorf following concerns by the athlete’s family over the safety of vaulting in the rain. The decision ultimately rests with Judge Sarah Lioi, who would need to rule in Stokey’s favor before the Division I district meet May 16.
"When I told my son about the recommendation, he said, 'That just made my day,'" Mike Stokey said. "All he wants to do is get back to pole vaulting. That's all he ever wanted to do."
Burke also recommended the court deny a motion allowing Stokey to participate in the pole vault “without complying with the directives and decisions of his coach, including directives with regard to practices.”
Mike Stokey said the family is OK with the coach retaining that authority.
"That was our offer when we met with the magistrate (on Thursday), when we tried to resolve this matter and not send it to court," he said. "Max is willing to take the consequences if it's raining and he doesn't want to practice. We just want him to be able to make those choices."
Stokey's lawyer, Warner Mendenhall, said they will ask for an accelerated ruling so Stokey can be reinstated before district competition.
“Otherwise, it destroys the purpose of the restraining order,” said Mendenhall, who expects North Canton City Schools to file an objection to the magistrate’s ruling.
Mike Stokey filed the lawsuit Wednesday, arguing that his First Amendment rights to free speech have been violated after he expressed safety concerns to school administrators and board members on behalf of his son over practicing in rainy conditions.
Wendorf did not respond to an interview request Friday.
Burke wrote that while Stokey has demonstrated “a strong likelihood of success on the merits of his First Amendment retaliation claim and there is irreparable harm sufficient to warrant the award of injunctive relief, school officials, including coaches, have discretion to make and enforce decisions with respect to the administration of athletic programs.”
Max Stokey’s ban from pole vault activity stems from a practice April 3, when he declined to practice the pole vault in wet conditions for safety reasons, and he instead finished his sprint workout. He said he had been injured twice in preseason because of practicing the pole vault in wet conditions.
Hoover head track coach Nick Stroemple told Max Stokey at the next practice he would not be allowed to compete in the pole vault at the team’s next meet because he had not practiced April 3. Mike Stokey communicated his displeasure to Stroemple, Hoover administrators and at least two board members in the ensuing days.
Mike Stokey eventually spoke at a Board of Education meeting April 18, expressing his concerns and hoped to create a policy for vaulting in poor weather. The next day, he received an email from Wendorf with a letter detailing Max’s ban from the pole vault at Hoover. He is still free to practice and participate in other events. Max has not missed a track practice this season, Mike Stokey said.
Mendenhall said he was disappointed the situation got to this point.
“I think the school should be kind,” he said. “That should be the first rule of administrators and teachers and coaches. It’s something we should get back to in this country.”
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