Education

Harmony 175 school board names coaches to replace ousted teacher

Citizens protest Harmony 175

Students, parents and other residents in Harmony District 175 protest the termination of 30-year veteran teacher and coach James Watkins ahead of Monday evening's school board meeting. Watkins, who is accused of sexual harassment against a female
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Students, parents and other residents in Harmony District 175 protest the termination of 30-year veteran teacher and coach James Watkins ahead of Monday evening's school board meeting. Watkins, who is accused of sexual harassment against a female

The Harmony School District 175 Board on Monday named the coaches who will replace James Watkins, a 30-year veteran teacher and coach who was fired Nov. 30 and who is accused of sexually harassing a female teacher.

The board on Nov. 30 voted 5-2 to fire Watkins and is still searching for his permanent replacement in the classroom. In a letter sent to district parents and guardians, the district said it planned to have that teacher in place by Jan. 4.

Watkins coached 7th and 8th grade girls basketball. Chris Billingsley was hired to take on coaching duties for the 7th grade girls and Mark Bauer, who previously coached the 5th and 6th grade girls, will now coach the 8th grade girls. Melissa Trame was chosen as the new 5th and 6th grade coach.

Parents, students and community members overwhelmingly support Watkins. They filled the school’s gym Nov. 30 to protest the board’s decision to terminate him and came in droves again Monday to rally before the board meeting. As attendees filed inside, they passed two private security officers hired by the district.

During the meeting, the sometimes-rowdy crowd rose and held orange signs that read “Our Community, Our Schools, Our Voice” every time district Superintendent Pam Leonard spoke. During the meeting’s public comment portion, a man carrying a copy of a petition calling for Leonard’s removal said, “I have 1,015 reasons why you need to go away.”

Ray Roskos, an Illinois Federation of Teachers representative, said Monday that Watkins is appealing his termination.

“We’ve sent notice that we want to go through the hearing officer process,” Roskos said.

Roskos said the Illinois State Board of Education will generate a list of five hearing officers. Watkins’ attorney and the school board will then pare that list down to a single hearing officer. The hearing must take place within 75 days of the selection of the hearing officer.

Roskos said it could be several weeks before the officer is selected.

“The hearing officer will make a recommendation to the board whether to uphold the termination or bring (Watkins) back. The decision goes to the board to either take the recommendation or not take the recommendation,” Roskos said. He said “we fully believe” the hearing officer will recommend Watkins be reinstated based on the facts of the case.

Those facts have not been publicly released. School board members and district Superintendent Pam Leonard have refused to comment on the decision to terminate Watkins.

If the hearing officer recommends Watkins be rehired but the school board refuses to follow the recommendation, Roskos said Watkins then can take the matter to St. Clair County court.

Watkins’ attorney Tom Keefe said Monday he’s looking forward to the chance “to confront (Watkins’) accusers.”. He agreed with Roskos’ assessment that the hearing officer will recommend the school board reverse Watkins’ termination.

“Based on the evidence that I’ve seen, I feel pretty strongly that this is not even close,” Keefe said.

Watkins did not attend Monday’s meeting. According to his daughter, Lauren Watkins, she and her father’s supporters plan to continue attending meetings.

“Our goal is to put pressure on them until we see change,” Lauren Watkins said. “Our goal is to make sure that the board is understanding it wasn’t just one meeting and we’re not going away.”

In other business, approved a motion to post on the district’s website a proposed lease contract between the board and Sequel Youth and Family Services. Sequel, which provides special education services to students with the profound behavioral and developmental disorders, is in talks with the district to rent unused classrooms to provide those services to a handful of district students as well as students from throughout the metro-east.

The proposed contract will be posted within 30 days of Monday’s meeting and will include a portal for citizens to offer their comments.

Tobias Wall: 618-239-2501, @Wall_BND

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