For Royalton-Hartland School Superintendent Kevin MacDonald, the suspension of longtime girls basketball coach Don Baker is all about following a new anti-bullying law enacted after the suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer.
But Baker, who has coached sports at Roy-Hart for 30 years, tells a story more closely resembling another recent Williamsville controversy: the unexpected firing of a popular coach.
MacDonald said he suspended Baker for the rest of the season after getting word of an alleged locker room incident last month that the coach knew about but did not report.
“The law says you need to report something if you suspect it,” MacDonald said Friday.
But Baker vehemently denied knowing about the incident and said he is being unfairly punished.
“There’s no way in hell I’m going to let somebody get picked on,” he said. “Everyone’s trying to compare it with the Jamey Rodemeyer thing, but it’s not. I’m not the bad guy.”
District officials refuse to go into details about the incident, which they say took place on Jan. 18 outside the girls locker room. But various accounts center around girls from the varsity basketball team, a former player and a special needs student.
“If you ran it by different people, they might say it’s bullying, it’s harassment, this, that and the other thing,” MacDonald said.
Whatever it was, Baker says he never saw it happen for one good reason: He can’t set foot in the locker room.
“I don’t know how I’m supposed to control what happens in the locker room,” Baker said. “I am not allowed in there when they change.”
Instead, he was stationed near the gym at the end of a long hallway.
Baker said there were “no problems at all” when his team filtered into the gym.
“There was no indication anything was going on,” he said.
A parent later notified Baker that something might have happened in the locker room, though he said she had “no details whatsoever.”
School Board President Patricia Riegle, who has a daughter on the team, said in initial reports she was mandated to report the incident. She did not respond to messages left to comment.
Baker, who has coached four sports at Roy-Hart in the 30 years he has been employed there, said he asked the team captain if there was any videotape of anything going on in the locker room, as he was told. She said no, according to Baker.
“And then after that, everything went crazy,” he said, starting with a full investigation by the district and interviews with players and district personnel.
Suspensions followed, both for some of the players and for Baker, who will miss the remaining three weeks of the season.
District officials declined to say how many players were suspended, and for how long, but McDonald said the district did not take the actions lightly, MacDonald said.
Quite simply, MacDonald said, recent legislation calls for such action.
He cited the Dignity for All Students Act, passed last year in the wake of Jamey Rodemeyer’s suicide, which calls for anyone who suspects the bullying of a student to report it.
Why bother having such legislation, MacDonald asks, if you’re not going to enforce it? He added that it’s all part of a necessary culture change in schools and on sports teams.
“There’s been a paradigm shift in laws and politics,” MacDonald said Friday. “What needs to happen, and it hasn’t happened yet, is our culture hasn’t caught up with it.”
“I grew up playing sports and [hearing people say] boys will be boys, or hockey players are just funny that way,” MacDonald added. “I don’t think it’s just in our nature to want to report something.”
That’s why it’s so important, MacDonald said, to take quick action to prevent the type of tragedy experienced in Williamsville, when Jamey Rodemeyer killed himself after he was bullied for being gay.
“I certainly believe this falls within the purview of [the law],” MacDonald said.
Baker said he agrees with that theory, adding that he has spent nearly his entire career encouraging special needs students to be their best. And he understands that as a coach, he “has to take a fall for something like this.” But he said the term of the suspension is a bit much.
In fact, he said, the parents of the student who was allegedly bullied are fighting for him to get his job back.
“I’m just devastated,” he said. “This is my life. I’ve done this for years and years and years, and now my name is tarnished.”
“I’ve seen a lot in 30 years,” he added. “But nothing like this.”