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Southern High loyalists press for reinstatement of fired football coach

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The latest meeting of the Alamance-Burlington school board drew an unprecedented squatting-room-only crowd and more than four dozen speakers who pleaded – at times, tearfully – with the school board to reinstate the former Southern High School head football coach, Walter “Fritz” Hessenthaler.

Known widely in southern Alamance County and beyond as “Coach Fritz,” Hessenthaler was fired as the head football coach and suspended without pay from his position as a wrestling teacher at Southern High School on Friday, November 3 – two hours before the Patriots were to face the Orange High School Panthers in the first-round Class 3-A playoffs.

ABSS superintendent Dr. Dain Butler had elaborated at the time in an interview with The Alamance News, “The [coaching position] is an at-will employee; there are no appeal rights for that.”

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Numerous people who attended the meeting Monday night vocalized their frustration – not only during public comments but also during the meeting itself – with what they seemed to perceive as school board members using confidentiality provisions in state personnel laws to avoid answering their questions about the decision to fire Hessenthaler.

Multiple audience members, including Hessenthaler, who attended Monday night’s school board meeting confirmed for The Alamance News during a break that ABSS officials had notified him in writing last Friday, December 1, that he has been reassigned to the Alamance Virtual School, an online academy for ABSS based at Sellars-Gunn Education Center, the former alternative school, on Apple Street in Burlington.

Hessenthaler’s reassignment took effect Monday, based on the latest personnel report that the school board voted to approve shortly before midnight, upon reconvening the open portion of their meeting following a customary closed session to review personnel recommendations.

“There was no board action required on the reassignment,” school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves told the newspaper Tuesday morning.

The school board’s chairman reiterated for the newspaper Tuesday morning that that Hessenthaler’s coaching position at Southern was “an at-will position,” and his termination by the ABSS administration is not able to be appealed to the school board.  “Your paper reported it on November 9,” Ellington-Graves recalled this week.  “It was already public knowledge.”

The school board’s chairman informed the audience, at the conclusion of 2½ hours of emotionally-charged public comments, “The coaching duties are an at-will assignment.  Coaching decisions are final, and they are not appealable to the board.”

Responding to numerous barbed criticisms that audience members had directed at her during the meeting, Ellington-Graves told the newspaper Tuesday morning, “My intent was to offer that clarity again, in hopes of bringing closure to the coaching issue.  The at-will position is not appealable to the board of education.  I think they each deserved that three minutes at the podium to say what they felt.”

Hessenthaler is ineligible for reinstatement as a coach, ABSS public information officer Les Atkins said in a separate statement Tuesday.  Though no reason was given in the statement, the Alamance Virtual School has no athletic teams.  The school’s online directory currently lists Hessenthaler as a high school social studies teacher.

Former coach Fritz Hessenthaler (far right) was present during the crowded meeting where many people spoke on his behalf. Hessenthaler was seated on the floor first step of the dais near the podium.

Alamance Virtual School has a total enrollment of 236 students as of the end of the first month of the current school year.  Of those, 92 students are enrolled in grades nine through 12, according to the latest enrollment figures from ABSS.

Senior football player Chandler Clontz, who had been identified as the alleged victim in the incident that reportedly led to Fritz’s firing as head football coach, later came forward on November 7, during a “save Coach Fritz” rally at the ABSS Central Office.  Clontz had claimed that Hessenthaler had grabbed his jersey, scolding him over a play during a previous game against Western, but said he didn’t feel the coach’s actions had been out of line.

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A November 7 press release issued by ABSS referenced Butler’s “zero-tolerance” policy for certain types of conduct.  That press release stated: “ABSS puts the highest priority on student safety and well-being while also holding our employees to the highest possible standard in professional conduct.  Since Dr. Butler announced this strict stance against misconduct last September, we have acted on numerous reports resulting in student long-term suspensions and appropriate consequences for staff.  We will continue to uphold high standards across the District and provide a safe, nurturing environment for all students.”

The so-called zero-tolerance policy had been announced by Butler during a one-minute live video that ABSS posted on YouTube on September 16, 2022, which school officials attributed to several earlier threats by students.  “Moving forward, I will have zero tolerance for the following misbehaviors that occur on our campuses: Possession of weapons; assault on our staff and adults; gang-related fights; possession and distribution of illegal substances,” Butler said in the YouTube video.

 

Sheriff Johnson asks school board to reconsider

An audience member, Walter Webster, read a letter that sheriff Terry Johnson wrote on Hessenthaler’s behalf; Webster said the sheriff was unable to attend the meeting due to another obligation.

“While The Alamance News stated that the sheriffs’ office was made aware of all the findings, [that] is simply not true,” Johnson’s letter stated.  “I was advised that it was a personnel matter and could not be discussed with me.”  (The newspaper quoted from a November 7 press release issued by ABSS.)

In his letter, Johnson recalled, “I advised my officers that we did not find the action [an alleged assault by Hessenthaler] that was originally reported on social media.”

That allegation was unable to be substantiated, according to the sheriff’s letter.  “With our agency having no victim, we had no crime,” Johnson’s letter stated, so his office turned the matter over to ABSS officials to determine whether there had been a potential policy violation.

ABSS had released multiple statements following the decision to fire Hessenthaler as the head football coach at Southern.

In a November 7 press release, ABSS officials stated, “We believe it is necessary to provide clarity regarding the recent removal of the Southern Alamance High School Head Football Coach.  On the evening of October 30, ABSS administrators were alerted by the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office of some concerns related to a staff member, Walter Friedrich Hessenthaler, at Southern Alamance High School. Staff immediately opened an investigation which included multiple interviews and conversations with students, staff, administrators, and families.  These interviews continued over a three-day period.”

“Additionally, we advised the Sheriff’s Department of our findings as a follow-up to their initial notification,” ABSS officials said in the November 7 press release.

In his letter, Johnson also urged the school board to reconsider the decision to fire the beloved former football coach.  “I ask you the school board and the superintendent to reconsider [your] action and return Coach Fritz to his original positions, even if it means probation,” the sheriff wrote.  “Coach Fritz loves the kids at Southern High School and just wants them to be the best they can be.  This is definitely needed in our schools today.”

 

‘A travesty’

All but a handful of the 50 people who’d signed up to speak during public comments Monday night pleaded with school board members to reinstate Hessenthaler as the head football coach at Southern. Other speakers addressed unrelated topics.

Though Ellington-Graves had said at the outset of the public comments period that, if multiple speakers had intended to speak on the same topic, they could designate a spokesman, none opted to do so.  Two or three people who’d signed up earlier in the evening to speak during public comments had left the meeting before they were called to the podium.

“Removing him from his coaching and his teaching is a travesty,” said Charlie Brooks, describing himself as a good friend who has known Hessenthaler for nearly 20 years.  “He has love for his family [at Southern] – it’s immeasurable.  I don’t feel like the due diligence was done in how this was handled.  I implore you as the board, elected by us to be the voice for us, right the wrong that’s been done.  Please reinstate Fritz as our coach; it wasn’t broken before, so please fix it now.”

School board members heard dozens of pleas, one by one, and accounts of how Hessenthaler had changed the lives of legions of students and athletes who’d come under his influence.  Many of his former players recalled how he’d shown them how to be better men.

Justin Booker, a senior at Southern, told the board, “Coach Fritz has been a father figure and a role model for me to be a better man.  I had to work to get in the spot I am today.  He holds me accountable, and is there when I mess up.  I wish and hope y’all would give him a second chance, like he did me.”

Alexander Cox, a teacher and coach at Southern, recalled meeting Hessenthaler at Southeast Guilford High School, where Cox said he’d been a student and Hessenthaler had been a coach.  Cox recalled that he was 16 when his father died of a heart attack, and Hessenthaler was there to fill the gap.  “On the same day, he was at our house to make sure everything was okay,” Cox said.  “This started a very close relationship between coach Fritz and myself.  He became the father that I did not have.  He is the reason I became a teacher and a coach myself.  When you get on that field, you get a chance to become a mentor, to save a kid.”

Cox recounted his reaction when he received an “all-call” on Friday, November 3.  “I’m not ashamed to say it, I started crying,” he said, adding that he then had to tell 60 kids [on the football team] that their coach had been fired.

Parent Susan Schronce-Hudson asked the board, “Did you think about the downstream effects this would have?  Did you honestly care about our school and our kids? ABSS leaders and staff, do you really care about our kids and the community with the decision to fire coach Fritz two hours prior to the first round of playoffs – with a robo-message?  Did you think about the negative effects it would have on our kids? Help us to understand what evidence helped you to make that decision.  Who was spoken to initially, and were those individuals talked to get their true feelings regarding the incident?”

Parent Renee Franklin also talked about the role that Hessenthaler had played in her son’s life.  “My son has been coached by coach Fritz for the last four years, and he has learned more from that man than he has from any coach; he’s been playing football since he was seven,” she said.  “This man is like a father figure to my son; my son’s dad is not in his life…They were told two hours before that game that their coach was fired.  They went out there, broken-hearted, and fought.”

Shane Roser pounded on the podium as he demanded that the board reinstate Hessenthaler.  “Only one human being ever walked the Earth, Jesus Christ, that had no faults,” Roser said.  “Every one of you has some faults.  You heard this [earlier] today – do better, do better.  Absolutely, reinstate this man – he was never charged with a crime.  It was a rush to judgment.  It’s ridiculous what was done to this man, and this won’t be the last you hear from me – if you don’t reinstate this man, you’re going to watch me on the news, I promise you.”

 

‘Coaching decisions are final’

Two-and-a-half hours into the meeting, at the conclusion of the public comments period, school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves announced, “The coaching duties are an at-will assignment.  Coaching decisions are final, and they are not appealable to the board.”

Ellington-Graves and other ABSS officials, including the school board’s attorney, reiterated their position Monday night that they are prohibited from discussing the matter publicly, under a provision in state law that provides confidentiality for public school employees’ personnel information.

State law classifies any unauthorized disclosure of confidential personnel information that results in a conviction as a Class 3 misdemeanor, subject to a maximum penalty of up to 20 days’ jail time and a $200 fine, according to the North Carolina courts system.

However, an ABSS policy gives the school board the authority hold a discretionary appeal hearing on employment decisions that an employee believes has adversely affected his or her employment status.  The policy states, “The  grievant may submit to the superintendent a written request for a hearing before the board of education within 10 days of receiving the superintendent’s response…the board will decide at that time whether to grant a hearing.

“Otherwise, the board chairperson will appoint a three-person panel to review the request and determine whether to deny the appeal; review the superintendent’s decision on the written record only; or grant a hearing,” that policy states.  “The panel will report the decision to the board.  The board may modify the decision of the panel upon majority vote at a board meeting.  If the board denies the appeal, the decision of the superintendent will be final and the grievant will be notified within five days of the board’s decision.”

Disorder leads to ‘moment of recess’ and closed session – in the middle of the meeting

Following the chairman’s announcement, numerous audience members rose to their feet and began hollering.

“You can follow directions, or you will be asked to leave,” Ellington-Graves said, repeatedly banging her gavel to restore order.

At least one of two Burlington police officers who’d been stationed in an adjoining hallway entered the auditorium, and positioned himself between the dais and the seating area.   Their numbers eventually swelled to about five police officers who were standing by inside the Central Office Monday night.

“At this time,” the officer announced, “we’re asking everyone to leave.”  Some attendees complied; most retreated to their seats.

Meanwhile, school board member Ryan Bowden rose to his feet and implored the crowd,“I’m asking y’all to please simmer down.”

Other audience members directed barbed remarks, mostly inaudible, toward Ellington-Graves, as she continued banging her gavel.  “I am doing my job,” she said.  “My job is to run a meeting.”

Bowden then asked his board colleagues to take a moment of recess in an adjoining conference room beside the auditorium at central office.  He loudly smacked the lid on his laptop closed just before he exited the auditorium.

Bowden told the audience, “I don’t think this community understands why things are transpiring the way they are.”  This board doesn’t have all the information yet; that is going to be done in a closed session.”

Bowden’s remarks drew loud applause, with numerous audience members yelling, “We love you, Ryan.”

“Mr. Bowden,” the chairman interjected, “We had this conversation before the meeting.  I understand your position and your passion, but I am following the advice of the board attorney.”

School board members retreated behind closed doors for their recess and returned to the auditorium shortly afterward, before voting to enter into a closed session to consult with their attorney at 9:14 p.m.  They reconvened the open portion of their meeting at 10:00 p.m.

Meanwhile, ABSS began advertising the head football coach’s position at Southern High School on Tuesday, according to the school system’s website.

Hessenthaler’s annual salary for the teaching and coaching positions totaled $88,724.95, based on data that was furnished by the school system’s payroll department and was current as of October 31, 2023.  His pay included: a $58,370, base annual state-funded salary for his teaching position; a county-funded teaching supplement of $7,879.95; and a $22,475 county-funded stipend for his football coaching duties.

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