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The Philadelphia Inquirer

CAMDEN Cetshwayo Byrd, who was dismissed as the Camden High School boys' basketball coach last April after leading the Panthers to back-to-back South Jersey titles, has filed a lawsuit against the district and several of his former supervisors.

Byrd, who guided Camden to South Jersey Group 3 crowns in his two seasons with the team, 2011-12 and 2012-13, filed a civil action Feb. 24 in Superior Court.

The lawsuit names the Camden School District and Board of Education as defendants, as well as former Superintendent Reuben Mills, Camden High School principal James Thompson and athletic director Mark Phillips, and former district human resources director Maryann Greenfield.

"I just want answers," Byrd said this week. "No one has ever said to me, 'This is why you have been removed as Camden's basketball coach.' "

Camden schools spokesman Brendan Lowe said Thursday that the district had not yet received notice of the lawsuit. A board attorney did not return two calls.

Alleging wrongful discharge and defamation among other things, Byrd is seeking compensatory and other damages.

"His reputation has been damaged," said Camden lawyer Andre Norwood, Byrd's attorney. "What happened to him was wrong, and he doesn't want it to happen to anyone else."

Byrd, 43, is a special-education history teacher at Pennsauken High School. He was an assistant coach for Pennsauken's football team in the fall and has been named the school's head baseball coach for the spring.

Byrd, a 1988 Camden High graduate, indicated a willingness to return as Camden's basketball coach.

"Why wouldn't I?" he said. "Camden High is my alma mater. I'm purple and gold through and through."

While working as a teacher in Pennsauken, Byrd became Camden's coach in November 2011. He took over a team that had gone 8-18 in the previous season and led the Panthers to consecutive sectional titles.

His teams were 39-24 in his two seasons, including a 9-2 mark in Group 3 tournament play.

"I felt like I did a pretty good job, like we had the program going in the right direction," he said.

Former longtime Cherry Hill High School East coach John Valore was named Camden's coach in May 2013. Camden is 19-9 this season after beating West Deptford, 83-61, Thursday night. The team will play Haddonfield in the South Jersey Group 2 semifinals on Saturday.

In the lawsuit, Byrd says he was called into a meeting on Jan. 28, 2013, with Greenfield and assistant superintendent Andrea Kirwin, and questioned about a documentary that independent filmmaker Tony Paris had produced during the 2011-12 season.

Paris was granted access to the team. His documentary, showed several times on the Comcast Network in February and March 2013, focused on the program's history of success, and included interviews with Camden High administrators as well as behind-the-scenes footage.

Byrd said he received a letter from Greenfield on Feb. 7, 2013, indicating that he would be suspended from coaching the team for the 2013-14 season. Byrd said that Phillips was aware of the letter but told Byrd to finish the season "strong."

Camden went 10-4 after Byrd received the letter, capturing the program's 43d sectional title with a 67-54 victory over Timber Creek on March 5, 2013.

Camden also won the state semifinal game before falling to Newark East Side by 60-54 in the state championship game at Rutgers University on March 10.

The lawsuit notes that "Phillips and Thompson appear in the film," and claims that "Mr. Byrd was the only employee reprimanded and suspended as a result of the film being shot and aired."

Byrd said he does not understand how he could be disciplined for allowing a filmmaker access to his team when his supervisors, Thompson and Phillips, were interviewed and appear in the documentary.

"If that was the case, why was I the only one who was reprimanded?" Byrd said. "When I got the letter, it didn't say anything about the documentary. If it did, there wouldn't be a lawsuit, because we would have dealt with it at that time."

Paris said Thursday that he was informed by Phillips after the film was aired that his project needed Board of Education approval.

"Nobody said a word to me while I was filming," Paris said. "All the coach did was agree to interviews, like everybody else did."

The lawsuit claims Byrd's suspension was retaliatory because he pointed out that Phillips and Thompson were interviewed for the documentary and, as his supervisors, were responsible for informing the board.

The lawsuit says Byrd has suffered "humiliation, emotional distress, mental pain, and anguish, and continues to suffer substantial losses in earning, job experience, and other employee benefits."

Byrd said he sent a letter to the board through another attorney last May, asking for an explanation. Byrd said he never received a response, prompting his legal action.

"I'm not trying to be vindictive," Byrd said. "I'm not trying to come at anybody or hurt anybody's livelihood. But I want some answers. That's why I did this. They wouldn't give me an answer. Now they have to answer me."

panastasia@phillynews.com

@PhilAnastasia

 

March 7, 2014

 

 
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