It has not been the finest hour for Norton City Schools amid recent turmoil over Burton head football coach Jim Adams.
Norton School Board on Monday, even though poised to do just the opposite, ultimately delivered — after midnight and without comment — a unanimous vote to renew Adams' contract. The news sent the Adams family into a group hug and thrilled gratified supporters who remained but ignited outrage among detractors.
Former female Burton students who spoke that night and accuse the coach and high school history teacher of sexual harassment believe the board should have followed the recommendation of its leadership team and non-renewed Adams' contract. Some thought it should cost him his job.
How they were treated compelled comment from the head of Family Crisis Support Services, who said, "We should be ashamed."
Just before the pivotal Adams vote, in a batch of personnel actions, the board routinely approved, without comment, 2019-20 personnel recommendations that move the football coach to Norton Elementary and Middle School as a teacher. He had been teaching history, physical education and weightlifting and conditioning at the high school.
Asked later about the move, Superintendent Gina Wohlford characterized the change as a personnel matter that she could not discuss.
"The reasons for the assignment were discussed in closed session," she said in an email, "and are not disclosed publicly."
Wohlford strenuously objected to any suggestion the move was punishment or retaliation. "Any allegation or suggestion that any personnel action by the board is retaliatory or motivated by anything other than employee and student success is untrue and completely rejected," Wohlford said.
Wednesday dawned with news that, amid all the turmoil, the division will lose its high school principal, who was part of the leadership team that recommended, along with the superintendent, "going in a different direction" with a football coach.
Also on Wednesday — with outcry of support for the two young women building rapidly online as criticism mounted — the school division issued a formal response online, saying it is aware concerns remain over the decision and " various comments made during the public comment portion of the board meeting."
"The Board and school administration remain fully committed to providing our students with a safe and nurturing learning environment," the statement said, stressing "that complaints involving any employee of the school division, whenever made and when detailed to school administrators, are taken seriously and will be investigated thoroughly."
It also reminds citizens they can't talk about students and personnel matters for privacy reasons as well as "other legal constraints."
The Norton board had summoned its own attorney for Monday's important meeting and he remained with them throughout the evening.
An overflow crowd forced relocation of the meeting to Burton, where two powerful forces showed up to have their say. The board heard from Adams himself as well as his family, former players, friends and supporters. The board also watched critics stand in quiet support of the two former students who claim Adams sexually harassed them and that they are not alone. Others are afraid, they said. Two board members quizzed the girls after the spoke and fueled the fires of criticism for that approach.
The family and some board members have responded that the claims were investigated and determined unfounded. School board member Mark Leonard asked the two girls directly if they had been contacted by any school officials to speak and they said no.
Coach Adams told the board his personality may seem overbearing but that he has always tried to be respectful of all students. If he's guilty of anything, Adams said, it's trying to lift them up when he sees them down. He said he's been told some of his approaches aren't in keeping with this society today. He said he's not done anything intentionally.
The first to address the board that night was Adams' son Tra, who works as Raiders' offensive coordinator, and set the tone of support. He and his twin sister, Jazlyn, along with their mother Stephanie, talked about the man they know as the father, husband and coach.
His son said he had never seen someone show so much commitment and love and make such a positive impact on so many men.
Having been voted as coach of the year in conference and best coach in Southwest Virginia just last year, he asked, "Why do we need to go in a different direction?"
Considering those accomplishments, what other direction is there to go but down? Adams asked. That became a recurring theme among speakers.
Jazlyn presented petitions and said she spoke on behalf of the 447 who signed them. She talked about her father's legacy and how he helped shape her life and the lives of players.
She said the sexual harassment allegations have been determined unfounded.
Wife Stephanie delivered a string of adjectives to praise her husband, from honest and dependable to loyal and accountable. She called him a great father, mentor, shoulder to cry on and friend, a man who loved his players like his own children. They have provided taxi, laundry and meal service so players don't feel like there is a reason they can't play.
He believes football and coaching are more than Xs and Os and wins and losses.
Stan Wilson said he had recommended Adams to become head coach to then-Principal Bill Passan about 22 to 23 years ago. After first being skeptical, Passan ultimately agreed and said it was one of the best decisions he had ever made.
"This football coach is destined for the Hall of Fame," Wilson said of Adams. "Let's not be a laughing stock and become the one who fired him!"
Ray Thacker, an assistant coach since 2003, said Adams gave his life to the school and built a football program where students transferred in to play. "How can you go in a different direction? There is no other way."
Adams had two rules, he told the board — 1. Do what's right. 2. See rule Number One. That was a recurring theme as well, with speakers challenging the board to do what was right.
Several former players rose to speak of Adams' character and mentorship, including Peyton Stallard, Houston Thacker and Steven Fletcher.
"If it wasn't for him I wouldn't be the man I am today," Thacker said.
Stallard said Adams was a second father to him. Joe Stallard, Peyton's father, agreed.
Fletcher said Adams taught them discipline, character and respect.
Burton graduates Taylor Collins and Makenna Kennedy told entirely different stories.
In a passionate statement, Collins accused Adams of making sexual remarks, using words like sweetheart, sexy and kinky, asking her to twirl in her skirt, delivering sexual looks and making them feel uncomfortable. Collins said he touched her bottom one day when she was leaving class.
She said she had talked to police in her senior year when the principal had caught wind of the situation and reached out to her. She thought something was going to be done then, but it wasn't.
Sherry Adams quizzed her about whether she had spoken to investigators of social services and police regarding the allegations. She said she had.
Kennedy spoke with no notes and said God had placed it on her heart to speak that night on behalf of the many young girls who have come to her to speak about their fears in the classroom setting with this teacher. She said she had experienced verbal harassment and was looked at in ways "that made me feel gross and afraid to be in a classroom" with him. She thanked the board and the city for allowing her to speak, her voice breaking as she closed.
Sherry Adams quizzed her about whether she had spoken to investigators of social services and police regarding the allegations. Kennedy said she had been afraid to.
Leonard wanted to know if either of them had been contacted in regard to their speaking that night. They said they had not.
Gina Porter, a Burton graduate and Adams’ sister, vouched for his character but also said of any accusation, "I don't think they should be dismissed lightly, not in this day and time." They have been addressed, Porter added, and officially dismissed as unfounded.