As speculation persists, questions mount and Kirkwood School District parents, teachers and students demand answers about the abrupt departure of four longtime basketball coaches, one coach is coming forward with his side of the story.
Less than 48 hours after parents, community members, a fellow coach and a student expressed support for the coaches and pressed Kirkwood School Board members about why the coaching contracts of Kirkwood High School head boys basketball coach Bill Gunn and three assistant coaches have not been renewed for next year, assistant coach Shawn Erickson spoke with the Times about his termination.
Without explanation, the district announced on May 22 that Mark Decker will be the new head coach for the Kirkwood High School boys basketball team for the 2019-20 school year. Decker, an assistant basketball coach in Kirkwood for the past six years, is replacing Bill Gunn, who has been the basketball team’s head coach since the 2006-07 school year.
District spokesperson Ginger Cayce said personnel matters prevent the district from speaking to the reason for the staffing change.
The coaching contracts for Erickson, along with assistant coaches Armeake Estes and Corey Dowden were also not renewed. Gunn, Estes and Dowden remain employed with the Kirkwood School District. Erickson is a teacher in the Festus R-VI School District.
Rumors that the terminations were related to a group text among the coaches disparaging a member of the high school basketball team have been circulating for more than two months. Parents called on Kirkwood School Board members at its May 20 meeting to address the “wild speculation about what’s going on in the athletic department.”
The April 16 “Incident”
Erickson said he still isn’t sure exactly why he was terminated from his coaching position, but believes it’s related the group text. Erickson said in December, a Kirkwood High School student made two separate social media posts referring to Erickson and the coaches as “mofo’s.”
Erickson said in a private group text chat with the other coaches, he texted: “Is he so dumb he doesn’t realize you can see that?”
Erickson said in January, a different Kirkwood High School student illegally accessed a personal iPad that had the group chat on it, took a screen shot of it and distributed it among other Kirkwood High students.
On April 16, another student posted the photo of the group text on social media, according to Erickson.
“I was notified by the athletic director of the Kirkwood School District that an investigation was taking place. I was never brought in for a face-to-face interview during the investigation,” he said.
Erickson said he was then notified on April 19 by the athletic director, via phone, that he was being terminated as head junior varsity coach and assistant boys basketball coach at Kirkwood High.
“No reason was given for my termination other than referring to the ‘incident’ on April 16 regarding the social media post by a student at Kirkwood High School,” he said.
The photo of the group chat, which is still visible on a recent Kirkwood High graduate’s Twitter account, shows a conversation between Gunn, Erickson, Estes and Dowden making derogatory remarks about the Kirkwood High student who had allegedly called the coaches “mofo’s” in social media posts.
In response to Erickson’s comment about whether the student realized the coaches could see those posts, Gunn’s only comment in the chat was “big talker on social media.” Dowden and Estates made comments about the student “not making an impact on the f---ing game,” that he was “f---ing soft,” and “mentally weak all week long.”
Erickson believes this is the group text that led to the coaches’ terminations, even though the district did not make specific reference to it when notifying him he would no longer be coaching.
The Kirkwood School District would not confirm or deny whether the group chat was related to the coaches’ terminations.
Gunn, Estes and Dowden declined to comment about their terminations.
Calls For Further Investigation
Parents, teachers, a coach and a student implored Kirkwood School Board members at its June 10 meeting to investigate further and reconsider the disciplinary action taken against the coaches. They also showed their support for the coaches, sharing stories about their upstanding characters and the positive impact they’ve had on hundreds of students in the district.
“I do not believe that the discipline handed down to these men has been justified,” said Nick Strubhar, longtime director of the district’s Pioneer Basketball League program for students in grades 1-8.
Strubhar, who has worked with all four of the coaches for more than 10 years, asked every school board member to speak with Gunn, Erickson, Estes and Dowden, as well as the district’s athletic director and even the teacher’s union.
“I am here to encourage you to investigate this matter thoroughly. I believe a mistake was made, but it’s not too late to rectify it,” Strubhar said.
“These are quality men and coaches, and our community has benefited from them,” he continued. “Aside from the tremendous job these men have done as basketball coaches and mentors for this school district, they have each volunteered their time giving countless hours to the Pioneer Elite program serving hundreds of kids in the community.”
Parent Don Strong, who has two sons who play basketball for Kirkwood High, told the board its lack of communication on the matter has damaged the basketball program, the high school’s reputation and the board’s credibility.
“You’ve taken one of the biggest programs in the high school and raised a huge question about it,” he said.
In a statement released June 11, the district said: “We apologize for the limited communication to the KHS boys basketball families related to the change in coaching positions. It is always our intent to protect the privacy of our students and staff members; therefore, we do not comment on personnel matters.”
Spokesperson Cayce said a student and parent meeting was held on May 23 with all returning basketball players to provide information, and another meeting is planned. “Based on concerns raised at the board meeting, we will schedule a meeting with rising freshmen boys basketball students and their parents,” she said.