An Illinois appeals court sided with a Belleville school board in its decision to fire a teacher accused of sexual harassment.
In the past three years, the decision has also been reviewed by a special hearing officer from the state and a St. Clair County judge. Each time, the Harmony-Emge District 175 School Board’s vote to let go of James “Jim” Watkins was affirmed.
Watkins had been a teacher for about 29 years. He taught history at Emge Junior High School and coached girls basketball until his dismissal in November 2015.
He is accused of making sexually-charged comments to a teacher at the school and pulling her top down so he could see her breasts.
The school board cited those allegations, along with claims that Watkins retaliated against the teacher for her reaction and that he was dishonest with the district about his conduct, as the reasons for Watkins’ firing.
Since 2015, Watkins has denied the allegations and sought reviews of the board’s decision.
Most recently, Fifth District Appellate Court Justices Thomas Welch, John Barberis Jr. and David Overstreet considered Watkins’ appeal of the decision in his civil lawsuit against the district. They ruled on the case March 13.
According to their judgment, they agree with the school board’s decision to fire him because they say the effects of the alleged sexual harassment could not have been corrected if he had been allowed to keep his job with a warning in 2015. The judgment states that the teacher’s sense of safety at work and the trust of the students and the district had been damaged by Watkins’ alleged conduct.
Watkins’ attorneys could not be reached for comment, but they have argued in the past that the board did not have proof to support the allegations against Watkins.
Harmony-Emge District 175 Superintendent Pam Leonard and the school board faced criticism for the firing of a popular teacher. In a statement following the appeals court decision, Leonard wrote about why the board has not budged on its decision:
“The Board of Education remains committed and resolved to provide all of its employees a safe workplace free from unwelcome conduct and sexual harassment and, when necessary, will take immediate corrective action to address any employee’s violation of the District’s anti-sexual harassment policy.”
Watkins has not commented publicly on the accusations against him, but he has said that he was thankful for the community’s support.
“I am deeply moved and humbled by the outpouring of love and support,” he said in 2015. An estimated 700 Watkins supporters packed the school’s gym for the Nov. 30, 2015, meeting when the school board voted 5-2 to fire him.