Bill Duncan

Then-Heritage High School boys basketball coach Bill Duncan gives instructions to his team during the district championship game on Feb. 23, 2016.

After the State Board of Education rejected an appeal to restore his teaching license, former Heritage High School basketball coach Bill Duncan said he will reapply next year.

Duncan filed his first appeal in March, nine months after the board revoked his license based on allegations he shoved a player and called another a “Cambodian refugee” during a basketball practice in November 2016. Duncan resigned from Blount County Schools in January 2017.

In his letter to the Tennessee State Board of Education the former coach apologizes for putting his hands on a player, says he is “shocked that it happened” and that “pain medicine may have been a factor” because he had back surgery Oct. 31, 2016.

Duncan also says referring to a student as a “Cambodian refugee” was “extremely insensitive” and vows not to make disparaging comments again.

Along with his letter, Duncan submitted certificates showing that he completed seven hours of online sensitivity training and a 12-hour anger and stress management course by Compassion Counseling.

Eight people wrote letters of support, including former students, two pastors and coaches including Maryville College’s Randy Lambert.

Board rejection

At its May 31 meeting this year the State Board of Education unanimously voted to decline a staff recommendation to restore Duncan’s license.

“This doesn’t strike me as somebody who needs their license back nine months after we took it,” said board member Wendy Tucker, who made the motion.

“Politics aside, we are in a climate now where it has become okay to be racially insensitive, to say things to people that are hurtful, and this gentleman certainly took advantage of that, calling a student a Cambodian refugee, a Jew, shoving a student, and so I appreciate that he went to sensitivity training. I would love to know what sensitivity training looks like, because I’m not sure you can train somebody out of some of this,” Tucker said.

“I’m also bothered that he doesn’t remember shoving the student and he must have been on pain meds,” she added. “I mean that’s his current excuse, which feels like a big old excuse to me.”

Board member Nick Darnell was unswayed by the letters supporting Duncan, noting his long career.

“This doesn’t start that late in your career,” Darnell said. “That behavior doesn’t just magically appear one day.”

He and Tucker also were not impressed by Duncan’s letter.

“The remorse just doesn’t really seem to be there,” Darnell said, echoing a sentiment from Tucker earlier.

When The Daily Times reached out to Duncan to allow him to comment on the situation, he replied by email that he did not want to discuss the matter with anyone and considers it a “highly personal matter.”

Duncan’s letter to the board also reiterates his earlier statements that he never called a student a Jew, and that claims by female students that he touched them and made inappropriate comments were “fabrications.”

Notes from a BCS investigation said that an assistant coach saw Duncan push a student and call a player “Jew” as well as “Cambodian refugee.” Two female students said during the investigation that Duncan touched them inappropriately, including grabbing one girl’s buttocks and touching both on the leg.

“I have been working in public education for over 40 years and have never been accused of being inappropriate with female students,” Duncan wrote to the board. “There is no truth to these allegations and the sheriff’s investigation found nothing.”

Duncan said that in the interim between leaving his position and filing the appeal had had been donating his time to driving for the SMILES program, returning any mileage compensation to the program.

Duncan provided a certificate showing he scored 97% after seven hours of an online course titled “Sensitivity Training in the Workplace.” “I have learned that even though I may have had no hurtful intentions, my words have still been hurtful.”

In the 12-hour anger management course, Duncan said he learned coping strategies to use in stressful situations.

“I can still be an effective and positive role model for students and players,” Duncan wrote in his appeal letter. He called the two and a half years he had been out of the classroom at that time “the most trying and soul-searching years of my life.”

He signed the letter, “Coach Bill Duncan.”

Mentor and friend

Chris Poore, head boys basketball coach at Dobyns-Bennett High School in Kingsport, wrote that Duncan was his high school coach, the first coach he worked under and one of his lifelong mentors.

Working together at Scott County High School during 2010-11, Poore said, “Coach Duncan was not only good for the game of basketball, but he was equally good for teaching his players the game of life.”

Other letters from a former player and parent describe Duncan as demanding but caring.

John Michael Pearson II praised Duncan’s dedication to not only preparing for basketball games but also ensuring students would succeed in the classroom.

“Coach used to push me to the point that I would want to quit, and he would yell at me until almost my breaking point,” Pearson wrote. “However, I never had a doubt in my mind that Coach Duncan did not care about me.”

Rebekah Pearson wrote that she worked closely with Duncan as the manager for the boys basketball team her junior and senior years and although they were alone at times in the office, “not once was I afraid or uncomfortable around him.” She said that she didn’t believe the allegations against him because “he cares too much about people to cause that kind of pain to them.”

“I am not saying that Coach Duncan is perfect,” she wrote. “He has a temper and can be harsh, but he is a good man, a good teacher, and a great coach.”

Lambert called Duncan “a man I admire” and “a trusted friend” as well as a mentor.

“I like the way he challenges his athletes with lots of positive reinforcement and words of encouragement,” Lambert wrote. “He is what I classify as an ‘old school’ coach. I say this with great respect and admiration because I am of the opinion today’s generation needs ‘old school’ upbringing and direction more than ever.”

Duncan’s letter to the board and the letters from his supporters are available through The Daily Times website.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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