POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- The Poplar Bluff School Board must decide if accusations of profanity used during track and football team practices will cost a tenured teacher his job.
A public termination hearing for high schoolteacher and coach Lance Bell was held Thursday at the central office. Bell, who has been with the district five years, has been on paid administrative leave since April. He taught health and served as head track coach, as well as assistant football coach.
A decision from the board is expected to be released within 20 days, after transcripts from Thursday's approximately three and a half hour proceedings are received. Testimony during the hearing was given by Bell, administrators and current and former students.
This is the district's second public termination hearing in less than a month. Public termination hearings are a tenured teacher's last recourse at the district level before termination.
They are very rare, according to administrators' attorney, Joseph Wientge Jr., of the St. Louis firm Mickes Goldman. Wientge added his firm represents approximately half the school districts in the state. They have about 75 termination cases a year reach this level, with about 10 percent of those culminating in a public hearing, he said.
In presenting the administrators' case, Wientge told board members Bell was warned multiple times not to use profanity. He presented documents showing Bell was placed on probation in October until May 31 for this reason, as well as letters from administrators addressing the teacher's use of profanity in 2008.
"What we have here is a willful, persistent pattern of inappropriate language," he said. "We've had too many repeated violations of our policies."
Bell admitted to using a profane term during a review of game tapes with football players in the fall of 2010, and during a track practice in the spring of 2011. He apologized and said his teaching contract should be considered separately from the coaching positions, adding none of the complaints were related to his time in the classroom.
"GD is not appropriate language," he told the board during testimony. "I shouldn't have said it. I regret saying it. I apologize to anybody I offended ... When we're to the point where we are now, I need to change some of my ways. I'm trying to do that. Habits are sometimes hard to break."
The board should give Bell another chance, said his attorney, C. Wade Pierce of the Poplar Bluff firm Duncan and Pierce.
"He's asking for our forgiveness, not that you wipe it away as if it didn't happen," Pierce explained.
The statement of charges by administrators accuses the teacher of failure to communicate with students in a professional and positive manner; insubordination for failure to comply with district policies, procedures and directives; and willful violation of board policies and the district's code of conduct.
Wientge called assistant football coaches John David Pattillo and Jason Dowd, who is also an assistant track coach, to describe the incidents at the film session and at track practice.
Pattillo told the board there were two coaches in the film session that he thought were using inappropriate language. He also told the board he witnessed Bell call a student "dumb," after the football player missed a practice to attend a tutoring session.
Describing another instance, Pattillo said, "Coach Bell basically told (a) young man if he weren't so fat, he could finish the sprint."
Pattillo said he had contacted two of the district's other coaches following those events, and the men had planned to approach Bell privately about his behavior. Bell was placed on administrative leave before they could.
"I didn't want to see Coach Bell lose his job," said Pattillo. "I thought we as a staff needed to talk to him."
Superintendent Chris Hon and associate superintendent of personnel Amy Jackson testified repeated warning regarding inappropriate language were addressed to Bell, and to the entire coaching staff.
"If coaches cannot meet this expectation, it is my belief they don't need to be coaching at Poplar Bluff," Hon wrote in an August memo to coaches and administrators. "I am sure there may be other schools in the state that may have lower standards than Poplar Bluff if this is an integral part of your coaching philosophy."
Bell was placed on leave after the track practice incident in the spring, Jackson said.
"My recommendation to Mr. Hon was to terminate employment," she said.
Pierce argued the track practice incident was only reported by a student after that student was released from the team. The attorney presented several character witnesses, including Bell's pastor, Charles Buck, booster club president Brian Taylor, district coach Elizabeth Lewis-Muse and current and former students.
"I envy the kids that come through Poplar Bluff the opportunity to run for a coach like Lance Bell," said Muse, who worked with Bell.
Muse explained that Bell cared for his students, something not seen in all coaches.
A track player who will graduate in 2012 told the board for nearly three years Bell met him at 5:30 a.m. every day before school to practice because his baseball schedule conflicted with track.
Joshua Freeman, a 2011 graduate who played football and track, told the board his mother had been disabled for seven years and Bell was always available to talk to him.
"He's the best coach I've ever had ... Without him, I don't think I would have gotten a scholarship this year," said Freeman, who will play football for Southeast Missouri State University.
Brad Dorr, another 2011 graduate who played football, also praised Bell for his coaching ability.
"He is one of those coaches who is very rare," said Dorr. "He makes players great."
The way Bell ran practice, students were prepared and on time, he continued.
Taylor said he would want Bell to coach his own son.
"I think you'd be doing a big mistake if you let him go," said Taylor. "People who play don't play sports, don't understand the heat of the moment. I've slipped. Anybody who has coached and says they haven't, is lying."
In cross examination, Wientge asked Taylor if coaches are role models who have an added responsibility to conduct themselves in a professional manner.
Taylor agreed they are, adding, "People do make mistakes, though."