In a lawsuit that turns on allegations of an ugly feud, a former women’s basketball coach at Palm Beach State College claims she was fired after voicing concerns that the men’s predominantly white baseball team was harassing her players because most were black or biracial and gay.
Despite racking up one of the best records in the school’s history, basketball coach Kris Ruffo claims she was fired from her eight-year post in June after asking top administrators to intervene in the dispute, which had drawn the attention of Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputies.
School officials declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit against PBSC, which was filed in December in Palm Beach County Circuit Court. “We take seriously any claims of violations of laws or college policies, and we have systems in place to address them,” spokeswoman Tabatha McDonald said in a statement. “We regret that this case has been filed, and we will defend it in court.”
Attorney Suzanne Singer, who represents the college, added that Ruffo’s allegations are unfounded. “We can assure our community that a thorough investigation was conducted by the College, which found Ms. Ruffo’s allegations to be untrue,” she said in a separate statement.
PBSC men’s baseball coach Kyle Forbes also paints a different picture than Ruffo in a sheriff’s office investigation report.
“The women’s basketball team is out of control,” Forbes says in a letter that is quoted in the report.
Forbes wrote the letter after members of the women’s basketball team accused his players of repeatedly breaking into their townhouse in Emerald Lake just blocks from the college’s Lake Worth campus. He claims the allegations were false, but Ruffo in her lawsuit blames baseball players for the break-ins. In one, a basketball player said $3,500 in scholarship money was stolen, Ruffo says in the lawsuit.
Forbes’ letter said the women’s basketball players launched an intimidation campaign, according to the sheriff’s investigation report. Forbes wrote that the basketball players cheered when his players struck out at a baseball game; stood by the dugout and challenged his players to fight afterwards; and sent members of his team threatening text messages on their cell phones.
Two days later, after another baseball game, the hostility escalated, Forbes’ letter said. He wrote that two men came to the baseball team’s townhouse in the Emerald Lake complex at about 9 p.m. on Feb. 25, 2017 and threatened to kill him and his players. He wrote that he shut the door, called the police and then called Russo, according to the report.
PBSC Security Sgt. John Miller said Forbes and baseball team members believed that the threat was related to the women’s belief that baseball players were breaking into their townhouse and that one of the men making the threat knew or was related to one of the female basketball players, according to the sheriff’s report.
After interviewing members of both teams, a sheriff’s deputy cleared baseball players in connection with the burglary at the women’s townhouse. He concluded each of the baseball players could account for their whereabouts when the break-in occurred. Further, the veracity of a woman who identified them as baseball players was shaky at best, he said.
“I don’t believe that any of the Palm Beach State College baseball team members were involved,” sheriff’s Detective Andrew Belcher wrote. With no other leads, he declared the case inactive.
In her lawsuit, Ruffo said she is convinced Interim Athletic Director John Scarpino improperly influenced Belcher’s investigation.
“Scarpino was biased in favor of the all white men’s baseball team and against the women’s basketball team because of his bias against African Americans and gay women,” wrote attorney Sid Garcia, who represents Ruffo. “Scarpino protected the white men despite the fact that there was evidence some of them stole property belonging to the basketball team women.”
While Forbes declined comment to The Palm Beach Post because of the pending lawsuit, a look at the team’s roster on its website shows that while many of the 25 current players are white there is some diversity. Four players grew up on the Caribbean island of Curacao and are black. Seven other players have Hispanic surnames.
The basketball team’s 11-women roster includes at least six players who appear to be black or of mixed raced.
The basketball team had problems in 2011, when the school abruptly shut down the program without explanation. Ruffo dismissed all the players, fired her assistant coaches and rebuilt the team.
Her firing came when, from all appearances, she was at the top of her game. In August 2016, the school put out a press release announcing she would serve both as women’s basketball coach and interim athletic director — a dual role she played for three months until Scarpino took over the interim duties.
In February 2017, her team won its conference title. Ruffo, for the fourth time, was named Southern Conference Coach of the Year by the Florida College System Activities Association.
In the lawsuit, she claims her undoing was speaking out. Convinced Scarpino was biased against her team, she shared her concerns with Peter Barbatis, the school’s vice president of student services and enrollment management.
She says administrators fired her, claiming she was uncooperative during a meeting with Barbatis, condoned the use of alcohol by her players and refused to travel to Emerald Lake when Forbes called to say the two men had threatened him and his players, according to the lawsuit.
Forbes said her response during the Emerald Lake phone call was “Kyle, I’m done,” according to the sheriff’s investigation report.
Ruffo acknowledges she didn’t go to the apartment complex when Forbes asked. “(She) told Mr. Forbes she had no authority or power to intervene in that situation and to call 911 for police assistance if he felt threatened by said person,” Garcia wrote in the lawsuit.
But Ruffo insists she wasn’t insubordinate when meeting with Barbatis. She also contends she regularly tested her players for alcohol and all tested negative. In contrast, she alleges in the lawsuit, baseball players were given advance notice of tests so they could purge any alcohol out of their systems.
While Ruffo’s suit is wending its way through court system, the school and Ruffo have moved on. Maureen Smith, an assistant women’s basketball coach at Seminole State College, was hired to replace Ruffo. While Ruffo posted a 160-80 winning record during her tenure, Smith’s team has struggled this year, posting a 4-16 losing record with one month left to go.
Scarpino moved into a job in the registrar’s office in January after Tom Seitz, who was working in Indianapolis, became the school’s athletic director.
Ruffo is now director of athletics at Archbishop Coleman Carroll High School in Miami. In the lawsuit, she is seeking an unspecified amount for lost wages along with damages for loss of reputation, mental anguish and other intangibles.