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Petition, local agency criticism follow Norton football coach’s reinstatement

Mike Still • Jun 14, 2019 at 10:55 AM

NORTON – An agency serving victims of sexual assault and harassment is criticizing the Norton School Board for how it handled two women claiming that John I. Burton High School football coach Jim Adams made inappropriate comments to them when they were students.

On Thursday, the school board gave less than four hours’ notice that it was holding an emergency called meeting on a resolution regarding legal advice.

Family Crisis Support Services Executive Director Marybeth Adkins on Tuesday released a statement after the board’s June 10 meeting at the Burton High auditorium.

“I, nor anyone on my team, were present at the meeting, but we have watched videos of what occurred, fielded subsequent phone calls, and spoken to many in the community,” Adkins said. “I am saddened by how the situation was handled and distressed as I watch a community be divided and ripped apart. As an agency, we support and advocate for victims of sexual harassment and assault. The behavior that was allowed to occur when these two girls opened up about their story is heinous to us.”

Adkins, in her statement, criticized “the mishandling of the situation and the libel against the two girls that ensued” as allowing speakers and former students Taylor Collins and McKenna Kennedy to be “revictimized.”

Collins and Kennedy each said at the meeting that Adams made inappropriate comments to them when they were students in his class.

“He used words like hot, sexy and kinky,” Collins told the board. Kennedy said Adams made unwanted and inappropriate comments to her.

Adams, later in the meeting, denied the women’s allegations.

Adkins said she saw various Facebook postings during the meeting time Monday, including video clips from the two women’s public comment, and FCSS’s hotline received a call from someone attending the meeting.

Angel Mefford, an FCSS advocate for sexual assault victims, said Wednesday she came to the meeting at Adkins’ request. Mefford said she tried to speak during the session in support of the two women but was told she was not on the agenda.

Adkins said Wednesday that seven more people had contacted her agency with concerns regarding Adams.

School Superintendent Gina Wohlford confirmed Wednesday that she made a recommendation to board members not to reinstate Adams to his post as high school football coach after working with a “leadership team” of principals, assistant principals and central office directors.

The board voted unanimously at the meeting to keep Adams, who was hired as head football coach 21 years ago, in that position.

“I work for a board of five and accept their decision and move forward,” Wohlford said Wednesday when asked for her reaction.

Adams also was moved from a teaching slot at Burton to a teaching position at Norton Elementary and Middle School, School Board Chairman Cody McElroy confirmed Wednesday.

By Thursday night, a petition on change.org titled “Protect the Girls of John I. Burton” gathered more than 3,200 signatures calling for the school board to “reassess their decision.”

On Thursday, McElroy called an emergency school board meeting to authorize the board chairman and superintendent to seek legal advice from board attorney G. Rodney Young if the school board is not meeting. All five board members voted for the resolution.

When asked who requested the resolution, McElroy said he did as a housekeeping measure.

Board members speak

When asked about Adkins’ account of heckling of the women, McElroy said, “I did not personally hear any audience member heckle a speaker. If I had observed such conduct, I would have called such comments out of order.”

When asked if Adams’ transfer was routine, at Adams’ request or punitive, McElroy said it was a personnel matter.

Board member Wes Campbell on Wednesday said he believed the meeting audience was “emotionally charged.”

“As a board, we want people to come and speak,” Campbell said, adding that McElroy did try to quiet some audience members during the public comment period.

Campbell said it is important for people to be heard in an “open and non-threatening environment,” and that complains should be taken seriously and investigated by proper agencies.’

“I think Ms. Adkins does a terrific job,” Campbell said when asked about her statement Tuesday. “I think it took great courage for the women to speak.”

Board member Sherry Adams – related to Jim Adams by marriage as a cousin-in-law – said Thursday she did not feel she needed to abstain from a vote on a school employee who was a relative.

“I think I can be objective,” Sherry Adams said. “Everyone’s related in a small town.”

Greg Baker, one of five attorneys with Adams at the meeting, said he was “pleased” with the board’s vote.

“They rose up and did the right thing in their decision to reinstate Mr. Adams to his coaching position,” Baker said, adding that counsel and Adams had not discussed any other legal action.

Investigations of Adams

Adams was the subject of two joint investigations by the Norton Police Department and city Department of Social Services in April 2018 for two separate incidents.

In April 2018, according to a copy of an investigative report from the police department, police became aware of a video allegedly showing Adams throwing a stapler at a student.

According to the report, the student later told investigators it showed Adams and the student joking. Wise County and Norton Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp and assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Berlin Skeen told investigators that the incident would not rise to the level of a criminal charge or complaint.

A second investigation started within a day of the stapler incident probe stemmed from Social Services Director Sara Ring, who reported to police an anonymous tip alleging Adams “makes girls twirl around, looks up their skirts and makes sexual comments towards the girls.”

Ring on Thursday declined comment on the investigations.

Investigating officer J.F. McConnell, in his report, said that he had spoken to the Burton principal at the time and was told there was a 2016 incident involving Adams. McConnell said that Wohlford’s predecessor, Keith Perrigan, had spoken with Social Services officials and advised Social Services that the school system “could put him on a correction plan.”

McConnell also checked students’ claims of other statements made by Adams and of Adams allegedly hitting a female student on the rear with a rolled-up piece of paper.

Up to the time of the 2018 investigation, no other incidents involving Adams had been reported, McConnell said in his report. In a meeting with police, Social Services, Adams and his lawyer, Adams denied the allegations.

According to McConnell’s report, Slemp told Norton officers that the incident was more of a civil matter, and that the statute of limitations had expired on the alleged rolled-paper incident.

On Thursday, Slemp said the comments, stapler-throwing and alleged hitting of the student were all inappropriate. Given the student’s testimony on the stapler incident and the length of time that had passed between the alleged hitting and its reporting, Slemp said neither incident could have been prosecuted,

“We do not set policy for schools or school districts,” Slemp said. “When something is brought to us, we examine it to see if a victim has been harmed in a way that is criminal in nature. We recognize that this conduct is clearly something that the school board or administration should address. However, inappropriate action does not always rise to the level of criminal activity.”

Kingsport Times News Staff Writer Kevin Mays contributed to this report.

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