An Illinois State Board of Education special hearing officer will begin hearing arguments Wednesday in the case of a Harmony School District 175 teacher fired late last year after he was accused of sexually harassing a female colleague.
Jim Watkins, a 30-year veteran Emge Junior High School teacher and basketball coach, hasn’t commented publicly about the alleged harassment, but his attorney on Monday expressed confidence that the officer will rule in Watkins’ favor.
The Belleville school board voted 5-2 to terminate Watkins Dec. 1.
Two weeks later, coaches were named to assume Watkins’ duties as junior high girls basketball coach. A teacher was hired to replace Watkins in the classroom Dec. 28.
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They got nothing. It’s almost surreal, in my opinion. It would be one thing if there’s something there, but there’s nothing.
Tom Keefe Jr., attorney for fired Harmony District 175 teacher Jim Watkins
Watkins’ attorney, Tom Keefe Jr., said Monday that Watkins was “so beloved by his students and fellow teachers” and that the school district has no evidence to support the claim that Watkins harassed his colleague.
“They got nothing. It’s almost surreal, in my opinion. It would be one thing if there’s something there, but there’s nothing,” he said. He added that, having seen the evidence the district plans to show during the hearing, “it’s not even in the ballpark, at least from what I can see.”
Neither Keefe, Watkins nor district officials have commented on the specifics of the allegations.
Watkins’ Illinois Federation of Teachers representative Ray Roskos said Monday that once each side submits its closing arguments, the hearing officer has 30 days to rule.
That ruling is not binding. The officer will urge the school board to either uphold Watkins’ termination or overturn it, but it’s up to the board to accept or reject the ruling.
At the district’s regular board meeting Monday evening, district attorney Barney Mundorf confirmed he would be at the hearing on behalf of the school. He would not say whether he would advise the board to follow the hearing officer’s ruling or ignore it.
“I guess it depends on what the ruling is,” Mundorf said.
The makeup of the board is different now than it was when members emerged from an hours-long closed session and voted to fire Watkins shortly after 1 a.m. on Dec. 1. Bob Peyman, who voted in favor of termination, and Scott Loeffler, who voted against it, both resigned from their seats in separate letters dated Dec. 9.
Board member Lisa Zamfir also voted against termination while members Shannon Perschbacher, Rob Phillips, Todd Rick and Chuck Evans voted in favor.
I don’t have enough information. I’ve got some. I haven’t heard anything on (Watkins’) side.
New Harmony School District 175 board member Nate Anderson
New board members Thomas Johnson and Nate Anderson were sworn in Jan. 25.
Johnson would not say whether he intended to vote on the hearing officer’s ruling or whether he would abstain.
Anderson said he didn’t know.
“I don’t have enough information. I’ve got some,” Anderson said. “I haven’t heard anything on (Watkins’) side.”
The special hearing will be closed to the public.