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Parents of college runner with disabilities sue school after her suicide: ‘Monster’ coach ‘fat shamed’ students, bullied our daughter

JU student Julia Pernsteiner shown running

Julia Pernsteiner (image via court documents)

The parents of a disabled Division I runner say their daughter’s school drove her to suicide by allegedly subjecting her to a “toxic” athletic coach and depriving her of the academic accommodations the school initially promised.

Julia Pernsteiner, a 23-year-old student at Jacksonville University (JU) in Florida, died by suicide in 2021 after being cut from the school’s cross-country team. Julia’s parents, Ray and Lynne Pernsteiner, who sued JU in Florida state court on Feb. 3, 2023, allege that the school not only allowed the team’s coach to berate and bully the young women on the team, but that it failed to implement key accommodations critical to their child’s success.

Julia was a student with special learning needs. According to the Pernsteiners’ lawsuit, Julia had ADHD, severe dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia. She also had an IQ of 84, was “emotionally young for her chronological age,” and had “limited coping skills.” Prior to college, Julia was classified as a disabled student under federal law, and had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to address deficits with processing, comprehension, and memory.

Julia’s parents say their daughter’s verbal skills were “excellent,” but that Julia relied on software programs and a reader and scribe to assist her for note-taking and completion of assignments.

Julia Pernsteiner

Julia Pernsteiner (Image via court documents)

Julia was also a competitive runner who was recruited by JU’s coach, Ronald E. Grigg, Jr., to attend JU as a transfer student and run for the school’s cross-country team, the suit says. Upon transferring, Julia received academic accommodations known as a “504 plan” via JU’s Department of Disability Support Services, named for  Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and recognized under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The Pernsteiners’ complaint, however, portrays Grigg as a habitually abusive coach, and blames JU for allegedly refusing to stand by its obligations to support and protect a student to whom it should have been especially attentive.

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According to the Pernsteiners, despite agreeing to do so in Julia’s 504 plan, JU did not provide a scribe, reader, professors’ notes, or assistive technology, and never contacted them with updates on Julia’s progress.

Further, according to the complaint, Grigg was “oppressive, threatening, bullying, condescending and demeaning to many of the young women on the team,” and “created a toxic atmosphere of humiliation and intimidation by belittling, disparaging and ridiculing runners who did not meet his standards.” For example, they say, Grigg regularly “fat shamed” women runners and publicly demanded that they keep their body mass index under 10-percent—an unhealthy standard “which prompted eating disorders in certain young, impressionable women on the team,” according to the court filing.

“Investigators learned that Grigg has erased all text messages regarding Julia,” the lawsuit added in a footnote.

The Pernsteiners say teammates said Grigg took “special satisfaction in humiliating Julia” and referred to her as “retarded,” called her “the slowest f…ing runner on the team,” and told Julia, “[you are unable to] wipe your own a…”. Griggs’ behavior, the parents allege, was typical, as he had “an affinity for picking one or two people out each year to bully.”

One graduate student quoted in the complaint said Grigg’s alleged misconduct went beyond ridiculing students, and that he once told her, “you should come over to my place for drinks, but don’t accuse me of that Me Too S..t.” The same student called Grigg “a monster,” and said that despite her twice reporting him to JU, the school did nothing in response.

The plaintiffs say that Julia struggled academically after being subjected to ridicule and abuse. Then, in September 2021, Grigg threw Julia off the cross-country team. Julia reached out via email to JU’s athletic director, but did not receive a response, the suit says. According to the complaint, “Julia’s frustration spiraled into desperation and depression,” and two months later, Julia died by suicide in her dorm room.

The following July, after the school completed an investigation into Julia’s death, Grigg resigned from his post.

Julia’s parents say that JU is responsible both for Grigg’s actions and for its own failure to meet expectations. They raised claims for wrongful death and intentional infliction of emotional distress tied to Griggs’ alleged misconduct. Separately, they also brought claims for gender-based discrimination under Title IX, disability-based discrimination under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and breach of contract for the school’s failure to live up to its promised 504 plan.

The plaintiffs seek unspecified damages.

Law&Crime requested comment from JU on Monday, and a representative said the following via email:

The students, faculty, and staff of Jacksonville University continue to mourn Julia’s tragic death and we sympathize with the Pernsteiner family for their loss. Per University policy, we do not comment on pending litigation.

Plaintiffs’ counsel did not immediately respond to request for comment.

You can read the full complaint here.

[image via court documents]

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Elura is a columnist and trial analyst for Law & Crime. Elura is also a former civil prosecutor for NYC's Administration for Children's Services, the CEO of Lawyer Up, and the author of How To Talk To Your Lawyer and the Legalese-to-English series. Follow Elura on Twitter @elurananos