WHITEHALL — Former Whitehall varsity football coach Justin Culligan was fired for allegedly using foul language after school officials warned coaches before the start of the season that there was a zero-tolerance policy on swearing, according to emails from school officials.
The Board of Education voted Oct. 20 to terminate Culligan following a two-hour executive session. That meeting came on the heels of fighting that broke out at the Oct. 18 game between Whitehall and Rensselaer.
Superintendent Elizabeth Legault told the Board of Education about her conversation with Culligan after his removal as head coach.
“He said he did not swear and he would fight this. He said he had no due process,” Legault wrote in an email dated Oct. 24.
The Post-Star obtained more than 40 emails about Culligan between board members and the superintendent dating back to July after filing a Freedom of Information Law request.
Culligan confirmed Tuesday that derogatory and foul language was cited in his official termination letter, which he received Monday. However, he said the letter went on to say the incident wasn’t serious enough to be placed in his personnel file. Culligan teaches high school social studies.
School officials did not elaborate on what language he used. Culligan denies using any foul language.
“Nobody told me who saw me, when it was,” he said. “If there was a specific instance, I would be more than happy to sit down with the board and agree or disagree with them.”
Culligan said he is not even sure if the accusation relates to the heated game Oct. 18 against Rensselaer. During the second quarter, Rensselaer players made a couple of late hits on Whitehall players after going out of bounds. That eventually led to a lot of pushing and shoving among players from both teams. His staff separated the students to try to keep the peace, according to Culligan.
“At no point did I ever put a hand on a kid. At no point do I ever remember swearing,” he said.
Culligan questioned how anybody would be able to hear anything a specific person said during the scrum.
He is considering options for appeal.
Culligan’s tenure in his fourth season as head coach was rocky. He initially was not reappointed as varsity football coach at the board’s July 14 meeting. Players started rallying around Culligan and a couple of parents wrote letters in support of Culligan’s reappointment.
One of the parents told the board that an incident where Culligan allegedly grabbed her son was a misunderstanding.
When asked about it Tuesday, Culligan said he knows the incident in question. It happened more than a year ago, when he and the student were coming back from a football camp. The student was goofing around with a water bottle and popped the top right behind his head. Culligan said he turned around and grabbed the student after being startled.
“The whole incident took four seconds,” he said. “He apologized. I apologized.”
Two weeks after its initial decision, the school board on July 28 reversed itself and appointed Culligan to the position.
Legault told the board in an email dated Aug. 7 that she had a formal meeting with the coaching staff and told them there would be a zero-tolerance policy for any foul language or derogatory remarks directed toward a student.
Culligan said school officials did not tell him of any specific behavior to improve when the season started. The overall message was to be careful because the board initially didn’t want to rehire him.
On Oct. 20, the school board voted 9-0 to terminate Culligan effective immediately.
Legault sent another email to board members at 3:51 p.m. Oct. 22, asking if it would reconsider its decision. She expressed that she believed the situation would have a negative effect on athletes and students.
In that same email, Legault said a student showed her Twitter postings from Rensselaer students that were vulgar in nature.
“This is not acceptable. Our kids, because they’re kids, will be involved and they do not deserve this,” Legault wrote.
Board members said they were opposed to reinstating Culligan.
In an email to other board members dated Oct. 22, board member Jeremy Putorti said he was “absolutely opposed” to rescinding the board’s previous decision to terminate the coach.
“The Administration brought sound proof of insubordination and conduct unbecoming of a coach,” he said in an email to his fellow members dated Oct. 22.
Putorti was away on business and could not be at the Thursday meeting in which the board defeated, in a 6-2 vote, a motion to reinstate Culligan.
The board had already made up its mind before the meeting to not reconsider the decision.
Board President Virginia “Ginny” Rivette told Legault in an email dated Oct. 22 that her suggestion to consider reinstating Culligan won’t go forward because it didn’t have the votes.
She also asked for more security for Thursday’s meeting. Three sheriff’s officers were standing by as people yelled and pointed fingers at the board after it made its decision. Board members received police escorts out of the auditorium.
Board member Amy Austin said she was willing to have the meeting to hear the players’ and coaches’ perspectives, but didn’t want them to get their hopes up that the decision would be reversed.
The waters were muddied when board member Theodore LaRose wanted to issue a statement to the media clarifying Superintendent Legault’s recommendation.
In an email at about 6 p.m. Friday, he said he believes the record needs to be cleared up. He said Legault recommended Culligan be allowed to finish the season with the team and not be reappointed in the future. However, the majority of the board disagreed and wanted to fire the coach immediately.
Other members disagreed with LaRose’s version of events.
Putorti said the superintendent did suggest a couple other options. However, the recommendation from her was to terminate.
“We, the BOE, decided the timeframe of the termination which was ‘immediate dismissal!’ ” Putorti wrote in an email.
Rivette issued a statement Friday saying Legault did not recommend immediate termination.
Ultimately, the team continued on with its play under the assistant coaches and the athletic director. On Saturday, it lost 23-20 to Holy Trinity on a last second field goal. Now, Class D top seed Whitehall is preparing for its playoff game against Canajoharie, which will take place at 7 p.m. Saturday at Schuylerville Junior-Senior High School.
Rivette offered a few follow-up comments Tuesday, saying it wasn’t an isolated incident that led to Culligan’s dismissal.
She said she is focused on moving the district forward.
“My plan is to do what’s best for the kids. That’s the only reason why I give up my free time and have my integrity questioned,” she said.
Rivette added she was impressed with how the students spoke and conducted themselves at Thursday’s meeting. The same was not true for the adults.
“I hope that’s what they take away from this. You can disagree, but you don’t have to be disagreeable,” she said.
Legault did not return a Post-Star message seeking comment Tuesday.
Culligan, 39, said Tuesday he hasn’t decided if he wants to coach football next season.
“Ultimately, I think it’s a big misunderstanding. I don’t have any hard feelings toward the board. I don’t have any hard feelings toward the superintendent,” he said.
“I just love the community. I love the kids. I’ve been there 11 years. It’s the only teaching job I’ve ever had,” he added.