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Former Pine Tree ISD Athletic Director Fitzhenry: ‘They tried to crucify me’

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Posted: Friday, October 25, 2013 4:00 am | Updated: 6:57 am, Sat Oct 26, 2013.

Former Pine Tree ISD Athletic Director Derek Fitzhenry admits he’s made mistakes, but says he’s been lied to, lied about and “crucified” for events that were misconstrued.

After weeks of silence, Fitzhenry sat down this week to speak publicly for the first time about events that led to his resignation Oct. 18 from Pine Tree ISD, where he spent the past two and a half years as athletic director and head football coach.

“My intent in doing this is to tell the truth. It is not vengeful. I just want to get the facts out there. ... They tried to crucify me for this whole felony deal but when you look at all of the facts, my heart was in the right place,” he said. “I am a Christian man and I was trying to do what was best and what was fair.”

Fitzhenry blamed an atmosphere of secrecy created by the district, with officials failing to confirm fact or deny fiction, for the three-month saga that led to his departure. And he said what district officials told him in private failed to match what they later said in public.

His resignation ended a 22-year career in which Fitzhenry worked his way steadily up the chain. He started coaching at junior high, made his way up to JV, then to varsity, first as offensive coordinator, then assistant coach and head coach of a 3A district, and eventually head coach of Pine Tree ISD, a 4A school district.

“I had an impeccable 22-year career that ended in these three months of destruction,” he said.

The first game

Aug. 30 marked the first football game of the season, the debut of Pine Tree ISD’s new stadium — and the beginning of the questions surrounding Fitzhenry. It began as he entered the locker room to talk to some students who were “cutting up.”

He said his intent was to remind them they needed to focus on the task ahead of them — the football game.

“As I was walking through the door, another student walked through the door very quickly,” Fitzhenry said. “I braced myself and I used my forearm to move the student to the side.” Then he took the student by the shoulders and told him to listen to what he was about to say.

But, he said, the situation never escalated to him throwing or shoving a student, as rumors would have it.

On Sept. 3, Fitzhenry said, he arranged a meeting with Superintendent T.J. Farler and an assistant superintendent to discuss a personnel issue. During that meeting, he recalled this week, Farler told him he was being investigated for shoving one student and being rude to another. He was taken aback by the allegations.

“That’s not what happened at all,” Fitzhenry said.

He was placed on leave, pending the outcome of the investigation.

Fitzhenry said he met with the parents of the student, who told him they inquired about what happened but never lodged a formal complaint.

“They said, ‘It was never our intention for it to go to this level,’ ” he said.

Interrogations

During Farler’s investigation of the incident, Fitzhenry said, the superintendent failed to talk to everyone who was present at the time of the incident. Another coach and a student who were in the room told him they were never questioned about it, he said. And he said Farler had “prompted” and “riled up” another student to get the answers she wanted from him.

In that case, one of his players was pulled out of algebra class to be questioned. Fitzhenry said he was told the student was asked whether the head coach had mistreated him and the student said “no.” According to Fitzhenry, the student then was told, “You’re a starter in your position now. When the other starter comes back, do you think Coach Fitzhenry will keep you as starter?” The student replied that he didn’t know, and was then asked more questions about the Aug. 30 incident, Fitzhenry said.

“So she riles him up then asks him questions,” he said.

On Sept. 9, the school board met and, according to Fitzhenry, Farler suggested that he be fired.

“They (the school board) told her, you don’t have anything,” Fitzhenry said. The board told the superintendent to reinstate him.

Back to work

At 3 p.m. Sept. 10, Fitzhenry and his lawyer met with Farler and the attorney for the school district. As he was pulling up in his vehicle, Fitzhenry noticed TV news crews at the administration building. He said he believed someone had tipped them off about what he thought was to be a private personnel meeting with the superintendent.

“She gave me a written statement,” he said of the meeting. “There was a lot of incorrect information in the statement, but my lawyer told me to go ahead and sign it and said I could write a rebuttal.”

Because it was a personnel matter, Farler wrote in the document, nothing would be said publicly.

“I am removing the administrative suspension at this time,” she wrote. “You are to report back to the district for work on Sept. 10, 2013, to carry out your duties as athletic director. As this is a personnel matter, no official statement will be released to the press. When asked about the situation, the district’s position will be that an investigation has been conducted and the matter has been appropriately handled.

“Neither you nor the district needs this matter to go any further as it will only take away from our responsibilities to the staff, community and more importantly the students. I am putting this matter behind me in hopes that it does not ever have to be addressed in the future.”

Immediately after the meeting, Pine Tree ISD spokeswoman Vickie Echols released a statement to the media that Fitzhenry had been conditionally reinstated.

The statement read: “The Pine Tree ISD Board of Trustees met in regular session Monday, Sept. 9, 2013. After deliberating over three hours in closed session, Trustees supported action for the Superintendent TJ Farler to carry out a conditional reinstatement of Coach Derek Fitzhenry as Athletic Director and head football coach. The conditions for the reinstatement were not disclosed, because the school district is legally and ethically bound not to provide any details regarding personnel issues. Any statements made regarding the issues from unofficial sources are merely speculation and rumor. The process of handling situations regarding a student or employee are always protected by law for the safety and respect of all involved.”

Echols also sent an email at 4:01 p.m. Sept. 10 to all Pine Tree ISD staff members bearing the subject line, “Conditional reinstatement announced for Pine Tree ISD Athletic Director.”

No conditions exist

While media requests were made to the district for the “conditions” of Fitzhenry’s reinstatement and while the district said they would not be disclosed because it was personnel-related, Fitzhenry said the real reason Pine Tree ISD never provided the information was because no conditions existed.

“There were no conditions; I was fully reinstated,” he said.

On Sept. 16, Fitzhenry met with the school board and told them he had concerns about what had transpired, particularly about public talk of his “conditional reinstatement.” He also raised concerns about the fact what he was told would be said publicly differed from what actually was said.

The next afternoon, Echols sent another email to all Pine Tree ISD staff with the subject line “Personnel update.” Her email to the staff said Fitzhenry was “fully reinstated” as of Sept. 10. The message omitted any mention of “conditions.”

Emails about Fitzhenry's reinstatement
Screen shots of emails sent from Pine Tree ISD Director of Communications Vickie Echols regarding now former Athletic Director and head football coach Derek Fitzhenry's reinstatement about having been placed on administrative leave.

The district never told the media Fitzhenry had been fully reinstated with no conditions — a fact Fitzhenry said is among the most disappointing about his ordeal. The district had no problem crucifying him, he said, and failed to correct any of the falsehoods or rumors being circulated.

On Sept. 24, Fitzhenry submitted an official rebuttal to Farler’s Sept. 10 document to clarify points he said were wrong. For example, Farler wrote Fitzhenry had used inappropriate language, such as a profanity, with a student. Fitzhenry denied it.

Pirate pride

When he arrived in Pine Tree two and a half years ago, Fitzhenry said this week, it was “very evident” the boys in athletics “did not have a lot of belief in themselves.”

“Participating was good enough. The expectation was ‘we’re going to lose.’ I had to find a way to push them beyond what they thought they could do. That’s what a good coach does. He challenges you to be better than you think you can be,” he said.

In his third year, Fitzhenry said he began to realize some of his boys didn’t have much of a home life and learned they needed mentors — a stable male adult who could help guide them and help them develop character.

He formed a group called Game Changers, gathering men from the community, including school board members Charley Peck, Craig Meek and Will Adamson, and pairing each with a student in the district. From 45 to 75 students would attend Game Changers meetings, and Fitzhenry said the group typically had more than 100 people total in attendance.

The intent was to form a support group so accomplishments could be celebrated and condolences given in times of sorrow.

Fitzhenry brought in guest speakers to talk about topics of character development.

“We talked about real life stuff and we closed each meeting with scripture,” Fitzhenry said, noting that pastors from First Baptist Church provided biblical insight on each topic.

“When you’re a coach, you’re not just coaching football,” he said. “You’re involved with every aspect of these kids’ lives. You know when they’re having a good day and you know when they’re having a bad day. We had kids who smoked dope, who stole things, who would go out and do things they weren’t supposed to do sitting right there in that room. We had kids who did nothing wrong. Regardless of who they were or what they’d done, it was a chance for us to come in and teach them how to make better decisions.”

Under his leadership, Fitzhenry said, significant strides have been made in Pine Tree’s athletic program, and he believes they are evident in students’ attitudes.

“They see coaches care about them and put time into them,” he said. “You build relationships where the kids trust that you can coach them because you care about them, because you’re going to push them beyond their limits.”

Separation

Fitzhenry said he was disappointed to have to resign, that he had wanted to stay in Pine Tree to be committed to his students.

But without the district’s support, he said, he had little choice. The growing rumors, never dispelled by the district, were taking a toll at home, as well.

Fitzhenry said no one understands the devastation his family has felt in recent months. He has a wife, three sons and a niece who is in his custody. He said his wife, Cara, also a Pine Tree coach, went to work every day amid the speculation; he had to witness her tears.

“There has been a lack of understanding of the destruction of the reports that are now perceived as fact,” he said. “If I had mistreated the kids, I wouldn’t have had the support of the kids and their parents.”

On Sept. 7, days after Fitzhenry was placed on leave, his players came to his home and presented him with a signed game ball from Pine Tree’s 64-49 win over Center.

But he also was concerned the situation was distracting students from learning and competing at their highest level.

“When you get involved with the kids, you want to protect them. When you see them hurt, you don’t want that. You don’t want any part of that,” he said. “If your boss doesn’t want you, then you should move on. It was very obvious that the media from this was going to continue to cause a distraction for the kids. To fight would only lead to more distraction. And if the things I am doing don’t hold enough value that one mistake can’t be forgiven, then this isn’t where I need to be.”

That mistake, Fitzhenry said, had to do with revisions to an athletic policy handbook that took on an outsized importance under the magnifying glass of misperceptions about his standing the district had failed to answer.

Coming Saturday: The dispute over a handbook.

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