Note: This story was last updated at 12:05 p.m.
About 200 people turned out at a school board meeting on Wednesday to show support for longtime teacher and track coach Eddie Anderson, who has been suspended without pay pending a police investigation, and to challenge some of the accusations made against him. Some objected to the process used by the school system, saying the reputation of a fantastic teacher has been sullied.
Anderson, an Oak Ridge High School chemistry teacher hired in 1979, was suspended without pay on April 30 while the Oak Ridge Police Department investigates an allegation of inappropriate contact with a former student. In the letter announcing the suspension, Oak Ridge Schools Assistant Superintendent Chris Marczak said the allegation was being turned over to the ORPD as a criminal investigation.
No additional details about that allegation have been released. Anderson’s attorney, Dennis Francis, declined to comment last week, and the Oak Ridge Board of Education and Oak Ridge Schools Superintendent’s Office have been advised to not comment until the investigation is complete. City officials have also not commented on the ongoing investigation by the Police Department.
In the meantime, most of the public discussion has focused on an April 11 track meet, the Taco Bell Invitational in South Carolina. School administrators said, among other things, that Anderson knew ahead of time that a hotel the team was going to stay in was “unacceptable and dangerous,” that he did not inform parents of the specifics of the trip and did not answer the phone when they called, and did not double-check student room assignments, which led to a girl entering a boys’ room through an adjoining door and engaging in “inappropriate contact.”
There were also concerns that there was no pre-made meal schedule and no refrigerators in the hotel rooms, and students were taken to Walmart the night of the meet to get evening and breakfast food and they had to eat on “dirty floors and in makeshift situations,” according to an April 27 letter from Marczak to Anderson. That letter followed up on a meeting that Anderson had with Superintendent Bruce Borchers.
Some of the concerns were documented by photos, text messages, and statements from parents and students, according to the letter.
School administrators also said Anderson admitted keeping more than $2,100 from concession sales in a lock box in the trunk of his car, but a “more appropriate option would be for a Booster parent to work every track meet and that the funds be controlled by the Booster Organization,” Marczak wrote in the letter.
Anderson was suspended for three weeks for those alleged infractions. The suspension started Monday, April 20, and was to end Monday, May 11.
But Anderson’s supporters said there is more to the story. Among other things, they said the teacher and coach did everything he could under last-minute circumstances to get the students into a good hotel at the South Carolina track meet, and bookings at other better hotels had fallen through. Anderson and other coaches did their best to make sure the students were safe, supporters said, and they suggested the coach shouldn’t be blamed for students who might have eaten on dirty floors. A few retired teachers said the overwhelming majority of teenagers behave on field trips, but it’s not unprecedented for a few to occasionally misbehave.
In an April 21 letter, Marczak told Anderson that he had to explain the South Carolina trip to parents, the principal, and athletic director, and he would not be allowed to return to the track program as head coach, although he could come back as an assistant coach.
Athletic officials at ORHS said they cannot comment on the track meet trip.
Anderson’s suspension with pay because of concerns about the track meet started 10 days before he was suspended without pay because of the allegation that has been turned over to the ORPD.
“Additional information was received that required us, by law, to report the information to the ORPD,” Oak Ridge Board of Education Chair Keys Fillauer said, reading from a prepared statement before a special budget meeting on Wednesday. “They are now handling the investigation. We, as the BOE, will not resolve this situation in the media or on Facebook and cannot speak on personnel issues.”
A few hundred Anderson supporters lined the walls of the School Administration Building’s Board Room on New York Avenue before the special budget meeting on Wednesday, although there was no public comment period.
“I want to assure you that the board is listening to your concerns, reviewing your emails, and above all staying informed as this process moves forward,” Fillauer said in his statement.
He said it’s an extremely difficult time for Anderson, his family, and Oak Ridge Schools. School system policies will be followed to ensure that all factual information is presented and an appropriate decision is made, Fillauer said.
“I hope that each of you will allow us to complete that process and not make decisions based on suspicion and half-truths,” Fillauer said. “Furthermore, threats to board members are not warranted or valued and only serve to distract from finding the truth for the issue at hand. Let’s let the process that has been established work.”
It’s not clear whether the concerns over the track meet have any relationship to the allegation turned over to the Oak Ridge Police Department. And it’s not clear that the track meet is the primary issue, at least from a legal perspective, although that’s where most of the public attention has been focused.
Francis, the lawyer, said he and Anderson hadn’t spent a lot of time discussing the track meet, but he didn’t specifically describe what legal help he might be providing to the teacher and coach.
On Wednesday, Don Carlson, who brought a sign that said “Out with Borchers and Marczak—We Want Eddie Back,” called the concerns over the track meet “a tempest in a teapot.”
“That kind of thing just happens,” he said. It could have happened to anyone, and it could have been much worse, Carlson said.
Those who support Anderson objected to how the school system has handled the case, and they called for a fair review. Opposition to the handling of Anderson’s case was building up even before his suspension without pay was announced.
“I understand that the police have a procedure that they have to go through,” Carlson said. “But the balance of the publicity has been so negative.”
Retired math teacher Benita Albert, one of several retirees showing her support for Anderson on Wednesday, said she was concerned about the process and the information published so far, with no rebuttal from Anderson.
“Something’s terribly wrong, both with the way this has been presented to the public and also the damage to a school system that I love,” Albert said. “This is one of the saddest days I’ve ever seen in Oak Ridge Schools.”
Oak Ridge Today has not been able to reach Anderson for comment. And school officials have said they can’t offer additional comments.
“On the advice of the Board of Education’s attorney, neither the Board nor the Superintendent’s office will have any further comment on this matter until the investigation has been completed,” Borchers said in a May 1 statement.
ORHS student Brach Burdick, who helped promote the show of support on Wednesday and will graduate this spring, said the purpose of Wednesday’s rally was to show school officials how many people are upset with how the teacher’s case has been handled.
“We think the first investigation done by the schools (of the track meet) was done rashly, and it was done sloppily,” Burdick said.
“If they do a more formal investigation, the truth will be shown,” and Anderson’s name will be cleared, he said.
Burdick said there are two Facebook groups supporting Anderson, and they have close to 2,000 members.
Burdick had Anderson, who is also head of the Science Department, as his AP chemistry teacher this year.
“He’s fantastic,” Burdick said. “He’s one of the best in the building.”
Mary Zuhr, a retired librarian from Willow Brook Elementary School, brought a bulletin board from her daughter Erica to Wednesday’s budget meeting. It was filled with track mementos including racing bib numbers, pictures, and ribbons. Erica Zuhr had Anderson as a track coach for six years.
“He’s a fine educator and friend,” Mary Zuhr said. “It’s heartbreaking to see the way he’s being treated. I’ve never heard a negative word about Eddie.”
Carlson said he believes the allegation against Anderson is spurious.
“I have every confidence that he will not be charged,” Carlson said. “At that point, we will have treated one of our most venerated teachers like a common felon. It’s just sad.”
Anderson announced his retirement May 1, the day after his suspension without pay started. The retirement is effective June 2.
School officials have said that Anderson will be paid his full salary for the period of his suspension if he is vindicated or reinstated.
Anderson, 62, has a bachelor’s degree in biology with honors from the University of Tennessee in 1975 and a master’s in education from UT in 2002.
He received a series of outstanding, excellent, and above average ratings in eight evaluations between 1980 and 1998, according to his personnel file.
He was offered tenure for the 1984-1985 school year, became an assistant track coach in 1983, and the head track coach in 1995. Anderson was also the head swim coach in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Anderson received a formal letter of reprimand in November 2011 for allegedly calling former Oak Ridge Schools Superintendent Tom Bailey and Assistant Superintendent Ken Green “arrogant and out of touch” in an email to Green and at least one school board member, according to the letter of reprimand, which was written by Green.
More information will be added as it becomes available.