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News / Northwest

Spokane football coaches, athletic director out after investigation into inappropriate comments

By Garrett Cabeza, The Spokesman-Review
Published: June 6, 2024, 7:45am

SPOKANE — Lewis and Clark High School’s football coaches and athletic director are no longer with the football program following a district investigation into alleged inappropriate workplace behavior that spurred concerns with the climate in the health and fitness department, according to Spokane Public Schools.

Athletic director David Hughes, who served 37 years with the school district, was placed on paid administrative leave Dec. 21 and has since retired, said Ryan Lancaster, school district spokesman. Lancaster wrote in an email the football coaching contracts of head coach Joe Ireland and assistants Michael Johnston and Trevor Mott were not renewed.

Ireland, who spent six years at Lewis and Clark, resigned from his health and fitness teaching role at the school but will finish out the school year teaching. Ireland was hired as University High School’s new football coach. Johnston, who spent seven years at Lewis and Clark, and Mott, who served 22 years at the school, continue to teach at Lewis and Clark. Johnston is a health and fitness teacher, and Mott is a social studies teacher.

A Whitworth University student-teacher, whose name was redacted in documents provided by SPS, claimed her teaching mentor, Johnston, and the other three men used vulgar language to describe students last fall during lunches at a high school conference room, according to a Nov. 8 email from the student-teacher to Whitworth associates.

Several Lewis and Clark staff members reported “locker room” talk among Ireland and his colleagues during the conference room lunches.

The student-teacher said in the email the comments made her “very uncomfortable” and that Ireland was the “ringleader” of the inappropriate chats.

“I do not feel like this behavior is a direct threat to me, but I worry about the impact it has on the kids and other staff members,” she wrote in the email. “I want to finish out the year at this placement, obviously, but I worry that “blowing the whistle” too soon could cause some major unwanted tension towards me.”

The student-teacher reported Ireland made an inappropriate comment in early October during lunch when describing photography students taking pictures outside, according to an interview between district officials and Ireland.

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Ireland said in the interview he uses swear words, including while referencing students, but did not recall making that comment. He said he does not swear around students but feels comfortable swearing around the people with whom he chooses to eat lunch.

The student reported Ireland and his colleagues used an offensive word the following week to describe some of the Lewis and Clark football players, but Ireland denied using the word.

Ireland said teachers commonly vent about students, athletes, administrators or colleagues, stating it is “par for the course.”

Richelle Swartz, SPS director of employee and labor relations, said the student-teacher reported there was a perception that a “clique” of football coaches that teach created a negative culture toward women in the health and fitness department.

Ireland said he did not think there was tension in the fitness department, documents say.

“Just because some of us eat lunch together, call it a clique or whatever you want, but there are staff from different departments that spend time together,” he said.

Ireland admitted he needs to be more cognizant of his words and who’s in his presence.

Swartz wrote she found Ireland’s comments “inappropriate, unprofessional, vulgar, and created an offensive environment.”

“The District is very concerned about the climate and culture in the health and fitness department and your lack of exercising good professional judgment in relation to comments you have made about students in front of staff and student-athletes,” Swartz wrote. “Finally, I find it more likely than not, at times, you have engaged in retaliatory behavior toward staff because of your difference in opinions.”

She determined Ireland violated the district’s “civility in the workplace” policy and issued a verbal warning.

Lancaster said Kyle Snell is the new head football coach and Austin Johnson is the interim athletic director. Marcus Scott was hired to take over the athletic director duties starting in July.

“(Snell and Scott) are committed to building a program that aligns with Spokane Public Schools values, which are centered on ensuring a safe and healthy learning environment for all students and staff,” Lancaster wrote.

Lancaster said SPS shared its investigation into Ireland with the Central Valley School District before it hired Ireland as University High’s football coach.

Marla Nunberg, Central Valley School District spokeswoman, said in an email the district followed all hiring procedures, including confidential reference checks, when it hired Ireland.

“There was nothing in this process to preclude employing the individual,” she wrote. “Also, as is standard district practice, all new employees are required to undergo training for harassment, discrimination and the like to ensure a positive educational environment.”

Johnston told district officials he and his colleagues swear at lunch and called students “dorks,” according to his interview with Swartz and district officials.

He said he acted unprofessionally at times and would do things differently if he could.

Swartz wrote that Johnston’s behavior “crossed professional lines and boundaries.”

“I find your comments were inappropriate, unprofessional, and created an offensive environment,” she wrote.

Swartz issued a verbal warning to Johnston.

For the most part, Mott said he did not recall himself, Ireland or others using the offensive language outlined by the student-teacher. He admitted to using locker room talk and swear words during lunch with colleagues.

Human Resources reviewed the district’s expectations of Mott with him.

Lancaster said the district delivered its investigative findings Jan. 26.

Ireland, Johnston and Mott could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Contact information for Hughes was not available on the district’s website.

SPS superintendent Adam Swinyard addressed the investigation Tuesday at his regularly scheduled news conference where he addresses school board agenda items.

He said it’s extremely important to recruit and retain “incredible employees.” He said staff performs regular training on appropriate behavior in the workplace.

“We want our schools to be a positive and welcoming space for everyone,” he said. “We want our students to feel a sense of belonging and connection. We want our families to feel that, and we want our staff to have a work environment where they feel a sense of connection and belonging, and it’s a positive, enjoyable place to come to work every day, while also making sure that we’re ensuring the highest level of safety possible both from a physical and an emotional standpoint.”

Swinyard declined to comment on the reasons for the disciplinary actions taken by the Human Resources department and district leadership because of the “nature of those investigations” and the “employment process.”

“Our community has very high expectations for the conduct of our employees, and we have very high expectations for anyone that’s working with youth in our community,” he said.

In a May 17 message from Lewis and Clark principal Ivan Corley to high school staff, Corley noted several staffing changes.

“As the principal, it is my responsibility to ensure the physical and emotional safety of our staff and students, which requires that misconduct is addressed and never swept under the rug,” Corley wrote. “All decisions are carefully considered as I feel morally and professionally obligated to follow state law and district policy as it is related to any misconduct.”