Metro-East News

Harmony board upholds decision to terminate teacher

A 5-0 vote of Harmony-Emge District 175 school board members during a special meeting Thursday evening affirmed the board’s decision last year to terminate of 30-year veteran teacher and coach James Watkins.

The vote came less than a week after an Illinois State Board of Education hearing officer recommended the board uphold its termination.

Board members Chuck Evans, Shannon Perschbacher, Todd Rick, Lisa Zamfir and Thomas Johnson voted to uphold the termination. Members Rob Phillips and Nate Anderson were absent.

The board in the early morning hours of Dec. 1, 2015 voted 5-2 to let Watkins go following a lengthy meeting in the Emge gym packed with students and community members who supported Watkins. The vote kicked off what board attorney Barney Mundorf said Thursday was “a very extensive and elaborate due process.”

Following that initial vote, Watkins, his Illinois Federation of Teachers representative and his attorney requested a due process hearing, which was held in March.

Lauren Watkins, James Watkins’ daughter and a teacher in O’Fallon, told the board before it entered closed session that she hoped members considered what their votes would mean.

“I hope that you guys really take into consideration what you have done to an individual’s life, and how you have affected not only his life but his entire family’s, his friends’ and his students’,” she said. “You’ve seen the outpour, that his students love him and care about him. He is someone who deserves to be here for these kids.”

Before voting Thursday, board member Lisa Zamfir thanked Superintendent Pam Leonard for “the leadership she provided during a difficult period for our district, which is likely to be ongoing. And my fellow board members for the fortitude they exhibited in making what was clearly the right decision to uphold the dismissal of a very popular teacher.”

Zamfir was one of the two who voted against firing Watkins last year.

“I don’t regret my previous vote as I made it in good conscience at the time. I do regret any distress that vote may have caused the victim and her family,” Zamfir said. “All of our teachers and staff have a right to work in an environment free of sexual harassment.”

According to hearing officer Roger K. MacDougall’s findings in a report published online May 6, the female teacher at Emge Junior High School alleges four incidents that comprise her complaint against Watkins:

▪  That he allegedly in the spring of 2015 “while alone in his classroom, put his hand on top of her buttocks, curled his hips and squatted down. She said he squeezed really tight and then groaned, moaned, grunted and made a noise. She said that he held her really tightly and that, during the hug, she felt his erect penis up against her.”

▪  That while chaperoning an 8th grade field trip “Mr. Watkins grabbed the inside of her leg when the bus would turn. She says that he grabbed her leg approximately 20 times, constantly repositioning his hand further up her leg...stating ‘Oh, sorry. I don’t want to fall out of the seat.’”

▪  That on Oct. 30, 2015, while the female teacher was in her office, “Mr. Watkins came in and said ‘You look really sexy in your low-cut shirt.’ He stuck his finger in between (her) skin and (her) shirt and pulled it down.”

▪  That shortly after the Oct. 30 incident Watkins allegedly retaliated against the female teacher by saying “‘She is mad at me. She is not talking to me. She won’t park by me. My self esteem is low.’ in a school hallway where students were present.”

However, the district only pursued charges regarding the Oct. 30 incident and the following alleged retaliation. While the previous claims were mentioned in testimony, the hearing officer did not consider them when making his recommendation.

Watkins was terminated by the school board two weeks after a Nov. 16 investigatory interview conducted by the district. According to MacDougall’s report, in that interview “Mr. Watkins refused to answer questions and invoked his Fifth Amendment right” but “after some time did begin to answer.”

Watkins denied the allegations made by the female teacher during that interview. He also denied them during the special hearing that was conducted in early March.

In the report, Watkins’ attorneys point out inconsistencies in the female teacher’s reporting of the charges and that Superintendent Pam Leonard and Emge Principal Matt Graham did not follow school policy when investigating her claims.

School policy states sexual harassment accusations are to be investigated by Ellis Elementary School Principal Dave Deets, but Leonard investigated the matter herself.

Tom Keefe Jr., Watkins’ attorney, said Wednesday he was “shocked and disappointed” that the hearing officer sided with the district.

But he also said the case is headed to St. Clair County Court, where he would have taken it no matter what. He said it was likely the Harmony board would have sustained its termination vote even if MacDougall’s non-binding recommendation was that they rescind it.

The hearing and its recommendation, Keefe said, “is a step in the process.”

James Watkins has not commented publicly on the case.

Tobias Wall: 618-239-2501, @Wall_BND