GROTON – The Groton school board welcomed its new interim school chief while fielding strong criticism about the ouster of the high school football coaches during Monday’s board of education meeting.
Both the introduction of J.D. Pabis as interim superintendent and the vocal opposition to the decision not to bring back football coach Jeff Lewis and his staff stem from an upheaval in leadership as the school district has struggled on how best to respond to a hazing incident that hit the school district in September.
Around 75 people filled the high school cafeteria on Monday as a contingent of community members spoke in support of Lewis. In late December, school officials decided not to renew the contract for Lewis and assistant coach Bobby Brull. Volunteers Dave Hicks and Brian Keefer were also part of the varsity football staff.
A group of 11 football players, most wearing their varsity uniforms, stood before the assembled crowd and board in praise of Lewis as a role model and father figure.
Nick Debruyn, a member of the football team, said Lewis inspired him with the confidence to play football and to grow as a person. He said Lewis made him a better student, taught him to have confidence in himself and to never give up.
“No one can ever come to replace our coaches,” Debruyn said. He said all the coaches have earned his admiration and respect, and more than that, “they also have my gratitude for making me a better person.”
WATCHDOG REPORT:Often-brutal hazing practices continue
Team members praised Lewis as someone who leads by example and who puts academics first. Player Matt Gombas credited the coaching staff for helping him make the honor roll, saying they “want me to succeed on and off the field.”
Parents and community members also spoke at the meeting as they credited Lewis for his character and attitude, while some also criticized the board for using the coaches’ dismissal as a way to shift blame for the hazing incident.
Craig Mackenzie said everyone would go back and change what happened if they could. “Everybody hates this,” he said at the meeting, saying it has “ripped this community down to nothing.”
He said dismissing Lewis and the other coaches was not the answer, as he considered them positive role models, adding “there’s not many of them anymore.”
Jason Harriott, who has held leadership positions in various Groton youth football organizations, said Lewis has characteristics like tenacity and leadership and is someone who “has helped boys become young men,” he said.
Calling the decision against the coaches “a knee-jerk reaction” and “a poor response,” Joseph Sirvent said dismissing them sets a bad precedent for all coaches in the district. He likened getting rid of the coaches to junking a car when one part goes faulty, or tearing down an entire building if the roof leaks.
Many who spoke said they had optimism that the introduction of Pabis as the interim superintendent would have a positive impact.
Pabis, a former Groton administrator, will helm the district on an interim basis following the resignation of James Abrams last week. Abrams resigned Jan. 5 after a special board of education meeting held three days prior in which the board voted to enlist the help of Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga BOCES in managing the district.
The school board accepted Abrams’ resignation during a special meeting last week in which they dissolved his contract and appointed Pabis as the interim school chief.
Abrams and other school officials came under fire after members of the varsity football team engaged in what has been described as a hazing incident.
Groton police reports document an assault in which a freshman football player was held down by one upperclassman while another rubbed his genitals on the victim’s face, according to sworn witness statements.
Criticism of school leadership has reverberated throughout the district since that incident Sept. 10 in the high school boys locker room.
Along with Abrams’ departure, the school district did not renew the contracts of the football coaches, a move that received countervailing petitions on the website Change.org.
One online petition, opened on Dec. 29 by group called Groton Community, calls for the reinstatement of the football staff and credits the coaches for being supportive of the players.
“(The coaches) have not been supported by the administration of the school district and the community is now asking for their reinstatement and support of the program,” according to language in the petition. By Monday evening, the website registered 249 signatures in support of the reinstatement.
Another petition, started by the mother of the hazing victim, asks for the board to stand behind their decision to release the varsity football coaching staff. Started Dec. 30, the petition has 214 signatures as of Monday evening.
At the board meeting on Monday, Michael Lockwood said he gave the board a more comprehensive list of signatures in support of the coaches, which he said totaled 355. That number, he said after the meeting, is more than those who often vote for the school budget, and should be indicative of the support for the coaches, he said.