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Judge orders Belleville school board to review teacher’s firing

Harmony Emge board meeting

People speak out in support of junior high school teacher Jim Watkins during the Nov. 30, 2015, Harmony-Emge District 175 School Board meeting. The board later voted 5-2 to fire Watkins.
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People speak out in support of junior high school teacher Jim Watkins during the Nov. 30, 2015, Harmony-Emge District 175 School Board meeting. The board later voted 5-2 to fire Watkins.

A teacher who was fired because of allegations that he sexually harassed a coworker wants his job back.

Jim Watkins filed a complaint in St. Clair County court in 2016, less than a year after the Harmony-Emge District 175 School Board voted to dismiss him. On Friday, Circuit Judge Robert LeChien decided the board should re-evaluate his dismissal based on at least three factors, including the potential for mediation between the teacher and his accuser.

According to restorativejustice.org, which LeChien cites in his order, that would involve a meeting between the teacher and accuser, facilitated by a trained mediator.

Watkins is alleged to have made sexually-charged comments to a fellow teacher and pulled her top down so he could see her breasts.

Superintendent Pam Leonard said Wednesday the teacher who accused Watkins of sexually harassing her still works at the junior high school.

Watkins taught seventh- and eighth-grade history at Emge Junior High School and coached the girls basketball team until his termination in November 2015. He wants to be reinstated with back pay, with the condition that he undergo classes or counseling.

After the board’s 5-2 vote to fire him, Watkins’ attorneys asked for an impartial hearing, which took place in March 2016. A non-binding ruling was issued by a hearing officer in May 2016 that sided with the board.

Watkins’ attorneys then filed the complaint in court in June 2016, asking a judge to review the board’s decision and the hearing officer’s ruling. Watkins’ attorneys argue in the suit that the board didn’t have proof to support the allegations against Watkins. The board’s attorney argued, in a response to the suit, that it couldn’t trust Watkins to conduct himself in an appropriate manner at school.

5-2 School board vote to fire Jim Watkins

The court case has not yet been resolved. LeChien’s order states that Watkins and the board should work to come to a resolution on their own. He ordered that the board consider the harm caused to the accuser and the effect on the school staff and students, as well as Watkins’ “lifetime loyalty to his vocation” as a teacher for 29 years in the district.

If they’re unable to resolve the case, LeChien said the court would make a final ruling. The order doesn’t include a timeline for their mediation.

Watkins is represented by two attorneys: Tom Keefe Jr. and Jason Caraway. Keefe declined to comment on the case Wednesday. Caraway’s office stated that its policy is to not comment on pending litigation.

Leonard, the superintendent, also declined to comment on the case.

Attorney Denise Baker-Seal, who represents the Harmony-Emge Board of Education in the case, couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.

History of the alleged harassment

According to court records, the school board decided to fire Watkins based on three charges:

▪ No. 1: While at the school, he allegedly told a teacher that she “looked really sexy in (her) low-cut shirt” and attempted to pull down the shirt to look at her breasts. The teacher allegedly said “no” and covered her chest with her hand. Watkins has denied the allegation.

Watkins’ attorneys argued that there were no witnesses and no video footage related to the allegation to prove that he pulled down the teacher’s shirt. The board’s attorney argued that the teacher had nothing to gain by sharing the allegation.

The teacher testified before the hearing officer that she was ridiculed by students who blamed her for Watkins’ suspension before the board voted to fire him.

“I had students putting notes on my door, hitting my door, walking in my classroom, yelling ‘Snitch,’ yelling, ‘Save Mr. Watkins,’” she said during the hearing, according to court documents.

Watkins’ attorneys questioned the teacher about her conduct two hours after Watkins was alleged to have pulled down her shirt. According to a hearing officer’s report, the teacher was seen on surveillance video walking down the hallway with her arm around Watkins and her head on his shoulder. She stated that she was surprised and didn’t realize she had done that until she saw it on video.

Watkins testified that he found the teacher to be “needy and attention-seeking.”

I had students putting notes on my door, hitting my door, walking in my classroom, yelling ‘Snitch,’ yelling, ‘Save Mr. Watkins.’

The accuser said during a hearing, according to court documents

▪ No. 2: Watkins allegedly retaliated against the teacher for refusing his sexual advances by chastising and verbally harassing her. He is alleged to have said to her and to a student as the teacher walked by that she “was mad at him,” “wasn’t talking to him,” “wouldn’t park by him” and that she was “hurting his feelings and making his self-esteem low.”

In his order, LeChein stated that he disagreed with the board’s determination that what Watkins said could be considered retaliation.

▪ No. 3: Watkins is alleged to have made false statements during an investigatory interview when he denied the teacher’s allegations against him.

The board’s evidence included a signed account of the alleged sexual harassment from the teacher, a signed account from the student who recalled the discussion with Watkins about the teacher and interviews with other educators who stated the teacher would come into their classrooms to “escape” Watkins or to avoid “a situation.”

Video footage from hallway surveillance cameras also showed Watkins entering the teacher’s classroom or trying to get her attention on at least eight occasions in the four school days after he is alleged to have sexually harassed her.

Watkins’ attorneys argued in the suit that the board fired Watkins to save $250,000 over five years. During the hearing, Leonard testified that the employee hired to replace Watkins earns about $40,000 less than Watkins had earned each year.

The hearing officer’s report stated that Leonard recommended Watkins be fired because he didn’t provide any evidence when the board had a public forum on the allegations in November 2015, which was before the nature of the allegations had been made public.

The board moved the forum to the school’s gym to accommodate an estimated 700 Watkins supporters, some of whom addressed board members, including current and former district employees and students, as well as parents and grandparents.

Lexi Cortes: 618-239-2528, @lexicortes

What to know

Here is the timeline of events related to Jim Watkins’ firing:

  • Nov. 30, 2015: Jim Watkins is fired from Emge Junior High School
  • March 2-3, 2016: A hearing takes place to determine whether the board of education should uphold Jim Watkins’ termination or overturn it
  • May 6, 2016: An Illinois State Board of Education hearing officer affirms the board of education’s decision to fire Jim Watkins in a non-binding ruling
  • June 8, 2016: Jim Watkins’ attorneys file a complaint in St. Clair County court asking for a review of the board’s decision and the hearing officer’s ruling
  • March 17, 2017: St. Clair County Circuit Judge Robert LeChein issues an order in Jim Watkins’ civil case
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