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South Bend Tribune (Indiana)
SOUTH BEND -- Mark Johnson, the longtime head boys basketball coach for Riley High School, fired off an email to the school principal on Jan. 15, complaining about a pattern of interference by a parent.
That parent, Johnson said, had gone around him to set up team meals and a photo shoot for senior players. When Johnson denied a request for a meeting, she emailed him another request, copying the district superintendent and other high-ranking officials on the message.
The parent "has tried to manipulate her agenda into our program," Johnson wrote to the principal, Francois Bayingana. "Regardless of her intentions, her interference is not wanted, and she has no voice on what goes on."
The parent's email, copied to Superintendent Kenneth Spells and other South Bend Community School Corp. administrators, was "a direct attempt of harassment and intimidation," Johnson wrote.
At the same time, Johnson was frustrated by pressure to open more roster spots on his team and to avoid cutting one player in particular.
The email was the culmination of a series of complaints by Johnson that would eventually lead to his resignation after 15 seasons and raise questions about the roles of various school administrators in the controversy, including a school board member.
The identity of the parent at the center of Johnson's complaints is unclear because school corporation officials redacted her name from the emails before releasing copies requested by The Tribune.
Citing federal privacy laws, SBCSC spokeswoman Sue Coney said the parent's name was redacted because it could lead to the identification of a student.
Emails released by the school corporation this week at The Tribune's request date back to at least September. They offer a chronicle of numerous discussions between Johnson, Bayingana and other officials in which Johnson questioned roster directives -- he has said he was ordered to keep his roster at a certain number and not cut certain players -- and raised concerns about parental meddling.
In his January email, Johnson said that if he was not allowed to run his basketball program free of outside pressure, he planned to step down at the end of the season. He did so less than two months later.
In one exchange, Johnson defended himself against criticism by Charan Richards, the director of Riley's guidance office and the sister of Leslie Wesley, a school board member whose son played on the team.
The emails also show that Spells, the superintendent, had received written records of Johnson's complaints about parent interference and his threat to resign by Jan. 17, during the thick of the basketball season.
In an interview with The Tribune in March, Spells said he had spoken with the principal "in the last couple of days" about Johnson's complaints and that "Mark never shared that with me, personally."
In a written statement Wednesday, Spells acknowledged that he received Johnson's Jan. 17 email from Bayingana but said he does not involve himself in every dispute and expects his staff to resolve most complaints.
"Most of the times, concerns are resolved quickly and effectively," Spells said in the statement. "When, in March, I learned the concerns had not been resolved, I followed up with the principal about the issue."
Spells previously said he was investigating the issue, but it was not clear Wednesday if he had completed the investigation or taken action on his findings.
The emails show that, as early as September of last year, Bayingana and other administrators, including the corporation's assistant athletic director, Marie Doan, were discussing roster numbers with Johnson.
On Nov. 7, Johnson met with Bayingana and later that night asked his boss to repeat in an email his final roster instructions.
"I would like you to please put in writing the directive you gave me on how many players that I have to keep per team, and the name of the individual that I have to keep on varsity," Johnson said.
The next day, Bayingana replied that they agreed to have 10 varsity players, 13 junior varsity players and 13 on the freshman team. The rest of his answer is mostly redacted, apparently including the name of the player Johnson was asked to keep on the varsity team. But he also seems to have had mixed feelings on the results of the meeting.
"After our conversation yesterday ... I did a lot of thinking," Bayingana said, followed by several redacted words. "...and I will continue to support you no matter what decision you make."
On Dec. 20, Johnson alerted Bayingana to the unidentified parent's photo shoot for seniors, expressing dismay that his "authority has been usurped." On top of that, three players had begun complaining to teammates about their playing time.
"What I knew would happen, has already started," he wrote. "This is why I was so adamant in allowing me to pick my team."
He then warned that he would dismiss those players from the team if they complained again, hinting that one of those boys was the player he was pressured to keep on the team at the beginning of the season.
"I do not want anyone making any requests in regards to our program to anyone except me," he said, "and just because certain individuals made the team, doesn't mean they will remain."
By mid-February, Johnson offered a defense of his coaching after Richards, the sister of school board member Wesley, sent an email questioning what she saw as Johnson's harsh way of cutting players from the team and delivering criticism.
She also criticized his handling of the 2016-2017 senior night, when he instructed the announcer to introduce the seniors as a group before the game, instead of recognizing each player individually.
Although The Tribune received partially redacted copies of Johnson's response to Richards, emails released by the school corporation did not include Richards' original complaint.
However, when reached by phone Wednesday, Richards said she complained about the senior night announcements because she believed Johnson was reacting to disagreements with Wesley.
"You don't want to shake one kid's hand because you don't like their parents," Richards said about Johnson. "Because you're upset with one child, you're going to take it out on all those kids?"
In an email responding to Richards' complaints in February, Johnson said he simply wanted the seniors to take the court as a group, and that he hoped to recognize each player afterward but was unable to because of how the game ended.
Richards also said school administrators did not pressure the coach into any roster decisions.
She noted that Wesley was not elected until November, adding that it was difficult to believe Johnson would allow himself to be intimidated into any decisions.
"I know Mark Johnson, and he's not the kind of person you're just going to run over," Richards said.
Wesley on Wednesday said she was not aware of the controversy and said she could not comment on personnel matters.
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