Principal Shontae Higginbottom fired basketball coach James McKatherine, who has been at the selective-enrollment high school for 15 years, over what the coach described as a one-time incident. He said he later was accused of threatening Higginbottom and arrested by Chicago Police.
In an interview Friday, McKatherine said he was called to the principal’s office Wednesday after he allowed students to re-enter the building through the back door after dismissal to watch a wrestling match.
Higginbottom did not respond to repeated calls for comment, but she did return to the school on Friday after nearly 900 students at King staged a three-hour sit-in on Thursday calling for changes to disciplinary policies that they feel are too restrictive, including a rule that the doors of the school be closed to students after the 3:15 p.m. dismissal.
“I’ve been here 15 years, and the back door has always been open,” McKatherine said, adding that he offered to start closing it if the policy had been changed without his knowledge.
According to McKatherine and another coach called into the meeting, Higginbottom cursed and belittled McKatherine for violating a policy banning re-entry to the school after hours.
“I’m going to get rid of you motherf---ers, get out of my office,” Ronald “Louie” Stewart Jr. said he and McKatherine were told by the principal.
Stewart is the athletic director and the wrestling coach at the school. Both he and McKatherine said this was their first time being disciplined by Higginbottom, who started at the school in September. They said they were shocked by the level of disrespect they were shown.
“Then she said, ‘You’re done,’ and looked at Coach Stewart and said, ‘You’re next,’” McKatherine said.
Both men say that McKatherine cursed at Higginbottom, but did not threaten her.
“He had enough, and he just exploded,” Stewart said.
McKatherine was escorted from the building and found school security waiting for him by his truck to detain him until police arrived at 4:30 p.m. Police confirmed he was charged with simple battery for threatening Higginbottom, a charge he denies.
“The kids caught wind of that, and that’s what started it,” Stewart said of the Thursday sit-in.
As of early Friday morning, Stewart said he believed he was still employed as a physical education teacher at the school but wasn't sure about his athletic duties.
“I assumed we were fired,” Stewart said from the parking lot of King. “I haven’t had a formal meeting with anyone. As far as I know, I’m still a teacher.”
Many students reached during the protest and shortly after said they were calling for the coaches to be reinstated and changes to new disciplinary policies. Students said restrictive rules were put in place to solve a nonexistent disciplinary problem, and both coaches echoed that concern.
“Her excuse will be discipline, but we have had more incidents since her changes,” Stewart said. “I think it was just a personal vendetta.”
McKatherine said he hoped the students would not get in trouble for defending him.
“I didn’t want the kids to get in trouble, but I guess they were defending themselves because if it can happen to me, it can happen to them,” McKatherine said.
Chicago Public Schools officials didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on the coaches' claims Friday, but Thursday a spokesman said they "met with a group of students" at King to address their concerns.
"We will ensure that the lines of communication with these students continue to be open as we move forward," the spokesman said in a statement.