Monday, June 27, 2011

Popp defender questions parents' actions in Richmond Hts. coaching controversy

@Anonymous: I can’t thank you enough for your questions. Many of them are useful in getting at what should be the heart of the matter: the quality of the education the children are receiving in the Richmond Heights Local Schools.  The answers to that critical issue implicate all of the participants: the teachers, the administration, the school board, and, of course, the students themselves.

I am going to try and provide a succinct recap of what has led the District to its current state. I came late to address this issue, and from what I have gathered since my first post on the matter, I gather that many of my readers have as well. After the recap, I will address your questions in two groups: the easy ones, and the important ones. The easy ones I will address in this post. The others I will write about tomorrow.


I. In a letter dated February 7, 2011, the parents of the boys basketball team advised the superintendent of the district of serious charges against coach Jason Popp. [i][This letter is reproduced below.]

2. After a meeting with the parents, followed by an immediate investigation, school superintendent Linda Hardwick relieved Mr. Popp from coaching the team and appointed an interim coach for the balance of the season.  This action did not prejudice Mr. Popp’s rights in any way, as his supplemental coaching contract was not terminated and no final decision was made regarding his eligibility to return as coach.

3. Between February 11, when Popp was suspended as coach, and May 16, when the superintendent delivered a letter to each board member advising them of her decision not to recommend Mr. Popp as coach for next basketball season, furious activity was taking place behind the scenes involving certain school board members, the superintendent, the board’s lawyers, and the coach himself. Much of this maneuvering was initiated by allies of the coach on the board, who appear to have believed that a) Kopp did nothing wrong; b) if he erred in any way, it was minor; c) the concerns of the parents were exaggerated and not worthy of serious consideration; and d) the situation could be exploited to damage the public image of the superintendent, whom they had already decided should be fired.

4. During this period, the school board suffered the abrupt resignation of its most recent appointee, Gannon Quinn, and replaced him reluctantly with Bobby Jordan Jr. Meanwhile, the coach, who to this day has never repudiated the charges made by the parents, refused to apologize to the students or their parents, and was apparently reassured on numerous occasions that he would be reinstated. Undaunted, Mr. Popp proceeded to coach the boys spring track team pursuant to a contract he was awarded in 2010. [The Superintendent would later acknowledge that she was unaware Mr. Popp was coaching the track team; had she known, she might likely have intervened. From my vantage, I would wonder why the athletic director failed to bring this matter to her attention.]

5. Mr. Popp applied to coach both the boys and girls basketball teams for 2011-12. The Superintendent stuck to her guns in finding that Mr. Popp’s virtual admission of the allegations against him, coupled with his refusal to meet the conditions she had established [apologize, take sensitivity training], rendered him unqualified to coach as a matter of school district policy and state law.

6. Neither the board majority nor its legal team could find a way around the superintendent’s position and so ultimately, were required unanimously to accept her recommendation of a new coach.

I have multiple sources for most of the above truncated account. Some part of it is based on inferences drawn from my sources. I stand on the accuracy of my reporting.


1.     Have I bothered to ask questions about Coach Popp’s history with students? What about as a teacher? What about his character?

No. The coach has established a moratorium on speaking with the media. He is president of the union and every teacher I have spoken with has virtually curled up into a fetal position when I have attempted to engage with them. I haven’t stopped trying, though.

2.     Why, after 16 years of teaching and coaching in this district, is the coach suddenly being accused of being insensitive, discriminatory, inappropriate and/or demeaning?

This question might be relevant if the coach denied the acts and statements of which he stands accused. His refusal to disavow the behavior, or to apologize for it, raises the more pertinent question of what in the Richmond Heights educational environment made him feel entitled to engage in behavior that in most enlightened and engaged districts, would have led to his suspension, not just from coaching but from teaching as well.

3.     Has he ever done good things for the district or the students or the athletes, including ever helping his accusers?

I would hope so, since I presume he has been paid for every one of the days he has been under contract to do just that.

4.     Could it be that the parents do not like him? What effect did the February 4, 2011 Plain Dealer have on this situation?

All the parents I have spoken with want the same thing for the boys on the team, and for all of the students in the district. They want their children to be respected, supported and educated.
They do not want their children to be called out of their name by faculty. They do not want their children to be demeaned, ridiculed, and undermined. They do not want their children to be stereotyped as ghetto, unworthy of scholarship aid, or in any way “less than”.

The parents understood the news article as being full of stereotypes. One man’s reality is another’s stereotype. I will say that none of the parents with whom I have spoken qualifies as a hothead, or a radical, or quick to “play the race card”. [I mightily dislike that phrase by the way, because I find its use more typically obfuscates rather than illuminates].

5.     Is it possible that the parents used this situation to get Mr. Popp out of coaching, and coached their children to come up with reasons to have him dismissed, because there were no real underlying reasons — because he is a good guy?

You are really stretching here. If anything, the parents should have discovered the coach’s tactics and attitudes much sooner. The players had been disturbed by the coach’s behavior for some time, and shared their concerns with adults in the system, but were discouraged from making it an issue. Various reasons were given for this urge to sweep their complaints under the rug, including repeated assertions that “Popp has powerful friends in the system. He is the union president.”

6.     Do I find it interesting that Popp has said nothing to defend himself?

No. Apart from a denial or an apology, there is not much for him to say. I think he has likely received some good advice from his lawyers to say nothing, possibly because the allegations, if established, are so far in violation of school policy and state law as to put his teaching license in jeopardy. And possibly because of the offline assurances he likely has received relative to the probability of his reinstatement.

7.     Have I bothered to ask questions about Coach Popp’s history with students? What about as a teacher? What about his character?

No. The coach has established a moratorium on speaking with the media. He is president of the union and every teacher I have spoken with has virtually curled up into a fetal position when I have attempted to engage with them. I haven’t stopped trying, though.

8.     Coaches are coaches, motivators, disciplinarians, etc.

High school coaches first and foremost should be educators. Coaches are adults.

9.     Have I listened to these same kids when they are on their own? Don’t they use the “n” and “f” words?

We could make this question easy or difficult. I don’t hang with these kids. The ones that I have observed are generally well-behaved in the adult settings where I have observed them. I would not presume to attribute the behavior of any few of them to the many, which I sense that many of Coach Popp’s defenders may do, based on their devotion to the reasoning implied by your question.

If you will provide me with any instance in which any of these boys have used inappropriate language, I would be delighted to pass the report on to their parents, and I would expect the parents to address the situation promptly. That’s how it was done in my community back in the day. That is, when the adult witness didn’t address me directly for my inappropriate behavior. And I wager that you could address them directly yourself, irrespective of your gender, age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, provided you had the rudimentary ability to let them understand that you were coming from a position of authentic caring.

  These are the easy questions. Come back tomorrow to find my response to your other questions.

[i] Parents of Richmond Heights Boys Varsity Basketball
434 Douglas Boulevard
Richmond Heights, Ohio 44143
February 7, 2011

Dr. Linda T. Hardwick
Superintendent, Richmond Heights School District
447 Richmond Road
Richmond Heights, Ohio 44143

Dear Dr. Hardwick:

Although the boys basketball team may appear to be thriving and well with their perfect record of 15-0, behind the scenes the team is very defeated in spirit and morale due to the behavior of Head Varsity Coach, Jason Popp. There has been ongoing discussion relating to Mr. Popp’s use of inappropriate language, as well as racial and economic harassment. These issues have been addressed in the recent past by both members of the team, and parents with school officials including Athletic Director, George Smith, and Interim Superintendent, Dr. Moore.  Below are recent examples.

  • On Tuesday, January 18, 2011 the team was departing the bus for a game against Cardinal High School, and Coach Popp told the team that their opponents will expect them to “play like niggers, which you are….”
  • Thursday February 3, 2011, Coach Popp told one of his players that he did not give “two fucks” about his grandmother when the young man asked to be dismissed because practice had run over time, and it was his grandmother’s birthday. (there is a parent meeting scheduled Tuesday to discuss this)
  • Coach Popp mentioned to three of his players that one of the boy’s father is a “drunk, and the apartment he lives in is probably government housing”.
  • He also mentioned to members of the team that four boys in particular had no reason to pursue athletic scholarships because they were from single-parent homes and would qualify for financial aid. He repeated these same statements in a meeting with Mr. Carlos Slade, uncle of a player, regarding his unwillingness to seek athletic scholarships based on his assumption that these boys qualify for financial aid.
  • About three weeks ago Mr. Early, the parent of a player, had a meeting with Coach Popp and Mr. Smith regarding comments made by the coach in which he admitted to saying to the player that he would end up living “down on Superior” if he did not get his grades together.

These and other insulting and degrading comments have been said consistently to our children while at team meetings, on the bus and at practice.  Coach Popp also had an opportunity to praise our kids for their hard work.  They have been required to practice on weekends, holidays, and school closings.  Instead he used this opportunity to paint a picture of poverty and despair for the undefeated Spartans through an interview opportunity with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. There were many parents who found the previous statements made by the coach implausible, but quickly found them to be summarized in the article’s release on Friday, February 4, 2010.  The article displayed his feelings and attitude towards our children, this basketball team and our community (see attached article and highlights).  The statements in the Plain Dealer mirrored complaints made by the children, as he was quoted making comments referencing kids who come from government housing and receive free lunch. Additionally the coach was quoted speaking of kids who come from single-parent homes and a lot of families where money is not exactly falling out of their pockets. As parents we were equally disturbed to realize that the coach admits to not having confidence in his player’s abilities to play basketball at the collegiate level with the exception of one. In fact there is a remark made by the coach which references losing the area’s best kids to other schools, alluding to the fact that he does not believe our kids at Richmond Heights are among the best.

At this time the parents and the Varsity Boys Basketball team of Richmond Heights High School demand the instantaneous removal (before the next scheduled game) of Coach Jason Popp. It is our belief that if we are to maintain a winning team coupled with players who are not mentally handicapped by the degradation, and humiliation in which they have had to endure, an interim coach is necessary immediately, pending whatever process the district has in place in order to investigate this matter. It is the wish of the Varsity Boys Team to continue on with their season in order to help maintain the spirit of the school and the community. The school, community, and the entire basketball team are proud of the accomplishments of the varsity members despite the hardships they have faced. Nonetheless, the team and parents are in agreement, and the boys refuse to continue on with Head Coach Jason Popp. Please note that as parents we are outraged! This is about more than basketball and it is our sincere hope that as Superintendent you will be certain that the proper actions will be taken in order to do what is best for the people which have been most affected, and for those who may quite possibly be affected by Coach Popp’s disgraceful actions in the future: the children of Richmond Heights School District. The parents and varsity members embrace a more personal discussion of this matter as soon as possible.

Respectfully yours,

Parents of the Richmond Heights Varsity Basketball Team

cc: Joshua Kaye, President Richmond Heights School Board
         Dr. Robert Moore, Principal/Past Interim Superintendent
         Nathan Bishko, Interim Principal
         George Smith, Athletic Director

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