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School board fires suspended Burton football coach

Mike Still • Feb 7, 2020 at 10:00 PM

NORTON — Eight months after two female students accused him of sexual harassment, former John I. Burton High School football coach James Adams was fired Friday on a 3-2 vote by the Norton School Board.

The decision came after a nine-hour closed grievance hearing at the Norton Econo Lodge involving the board, Superintendent Gina Wohlford, Adams, his attorneys and two lawyers representing the school system.

Board members Mark Leonard and Sherry Adams voted against the firing. Adams, who is related by marriage to James Adams, has voted at various times since July on matters concerning James Adams’ employment status.

Board chair Cody McElroy, Wes Campbell and Carol Caruso voted in favor of the firing.

James Adams, who was accompanied by his wife and daughter, showed little reaction after the vote. He was one of a number of witnesses during the daylong closed hearing, which also included testimony from University of Virginia Police Chief Timothy Longo.

Longo was the investigator for the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, which conducted an administrative review at the board’s request last July.

Adams, who was suspended in June 2019 after allegations of improper conduct toward female students, had remained on full pay and coaching stipend from that time until his dismissal Friday.

Two former Burton students, speaking during the school board’s June meeting public comment session, made accusations against Adams of inappropriate comments toward them when they were in his classes.

Adams was investigated by Norton police and the city Social Services Department in April 2018 after receiving information that he had thrown a stapler at a male student and that he made inappropriate comments to a female student about her appearance. That investigation led to an allegation that he struck another female student on the behind with a rolled-up piece of paper.

The male student declined to file charges and told authorities that Adams was joking with him. The allegations by the female students were viewed as not prosecutable, although prosecutors said the conduct was inappropriate.

The school board, despite a recommendation by Wohlford not to renew Adams’ coaching contract, voted during its June 10 meeting to keep him as the high school football coach. Adams was transferred from his teaching post at Burton to Norton Elementary and Middle School that month.

In November, the school board voted to find Adams had violated school policy after completion of the VACP review.

The board, at the November meeting, also hired Roanoke attorney Jennifer Royer to represent the board in an unspecified grievance.

Royer, who was present during Friday’s meeting, got an August court injunction request by Adams to return to his coaching job moved from Wise County Circuit Court to U.S. District Court in Abingdon, where a federal judge denied Adams’ request. Royer at that time represented the Virginia Association of Counties and Cities, which handles the school division’s insurance.

Wohlford was authorized after the November vote to proceed with her intended disciplinary action against Adams. Adams filed his grievance in December after receiving notice from Wohlford about the disciplinary action.

Friday’s board vote affirmed Wohlford’s recommendation to fire Adams and to notify him in writing within 30 days of the reasons for termination.

Adams has also been the subject of a Virginia State Police investigation of another harassment complaint filed with the Norton Police Department in July. VSP officials confirmed Monday that the investigation is continuing.

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