John Jay wrestling coach denied reinstatement
Once again it was a crowded school board meeting as dozens of supporters of longtime John Jay wrestling coach, Bill Swertfager, gathered at the Katonah-Lewisboro school board meeting Nov. 17.
And once again they walked away disappointed as the board decided to not reinstate Mr. Swertfager as the wrestling coach, officially ending his 21 years at the helm of the program he restarted as a varsity team back in 2001.
After hundreds of people came to the last board meeting Nov. 3, the board decided to move last Thursday’s meeting to the John Jay Middle School auditorium to handle what was anticipated to be another large show of supporters for Mr. Swertfager, and they did show, with about 100 people in attendance.
The administration understood why the crowd was there and Katonah-Lewisboro Superintendent Andrew Selesnick led off the meeting with a statement to address the situation and explain his decision.
“Three times this week, Bill and I met in my office hoping to resolve this challenging situation. Our meetings were cordial and respectful, everything I would have presumed them to be, and initially they were productive and I thought we had developed the path forward. However, and much to my disappointment, we were ultimately unable to resolve our differences,” the superintendent said in his statement.
“He and I spoke at length about our shared desire to unify the community. Unfortunately, we were not able to reach agreement on some necessary steps to move us forward. I must respect Bill’s decision, even though I wish it were different, and as a result I am not in a position to recommend him as a coach in our district,” his statement concluded.
When the superintendent finished reading his statement, a somber mood was clear amongst the disappointed but respectful crowd as the board then opened the meeting up for public comments.
Mr. Swertfager was the second speaker to come to the podium, and he read his statement in response. While acknowledging he had been in meetings with the superintendent, he expressed a different view on the results of those meetings.
“I’ve been in negotiations with the superintendent until as recently as 3:30 today when he tried to get me to sign a document that did not reflect the truth and I refused to sign it. I need to be able to look myself in the mirror for the rest of my life and know that I did the right thing no matter what the consequences are.”
Mr. Swertfager continued to recap his account of what has transpired and went on to thank all of his supporters who came out to speak in his favor at the Board of Education meeting and wrote hundreds of admiring personal letters to the administration.
“I didn’t do and never have done anything malicious, intentional or morally wrong and this administration knows this to be true,” said Mr. Swertfager, who then opened up about his career and thanked his supporters.
“I poured my heart and soul into wrestling, the John Jay community and the development of athletes, your children under my care for the past 40 years. It hurts me deeply that this has needlessly come to this,” he said.
“The last year and a half has been a torturous experience for me and very hurtful for my family. I just want to thank all of you from the bottom of my heart. You’ve said such kind things about me and showed incredible love and support. Given my body of work, I just wish I would have had the same support from the administration and the board. My family and I will never forget the outpouring of love and I will be forever grateful,” he said.
His wife, Diane, spoke next, conveying to the board how trying an experience this has been for the Swertfager family. Then, one supporter after another stepped up to speak. Some shared moving, personal stories about the positive impact the coach has had on their lives, adding to the emotion of the session as the speakers realized following the superintendent’s statement that Mr. Swertfager would not be the wrestling coach at John Jay.
In his statement, Mr. Selesnick also expressed his concern about what he described as false information about the administration’s decision that has been circulating in the community and the media. He emphasized the importance of maintaining privacy in district personnel decisions.
“If allowed to stand, this false information could have a chilling effect on other students who may need to stand up in similar circumstances, and, if allowed to stand, that false information diminishes the courage and actions of those who spoke up in May of 2021. Respecting the privacy of everyone involved is important to us,” he said.
Mr. Swertfager also noted in his statement the need to respect the students involved in the incident that eventually led to the administration’s decision, while also stating his belief that the situation has been mishandled by the administration.
The situation arose in the spring of 2021 and led Mr. Swertfager to take on a different role during the wrestling season last year, where he served more as the director of the program rather than as coach in the corner on the mat. Due to confidentiality requirements on district personnel matters, the administration has not disclosed further specifics about the nature or timing of events that led to his removal as wrestling coach.
“The students’ well-being and safety have always been my main concern,” Mr. Swertfager said. “I’ve urged everyone to please be kind, understanding and respectful towards any of the students in this situation. They did what we teach them to do and what they should have done. If they feel uncomfortable with something, they should say something. I hope the students and the academic community embrace them as well.”
Mr. Selesnick also expressed to Mr. Swertfager and his supporters that their messages have not gone unheard.
The superintendent explained in his statement how the board decided at the Nov. 3 meeting to table a decision on Mr. Swertfager’s future so they could take the time to read and evaluate all the information they had received and reconsider whether he should be reinstated as a coach.
“Earlier today, I told Bill that all the testimonials that we’ve listened to and read conveyed some stories to us that we had never heard before, and the sense of who Bill is as a person did not come as a surprise,” Mr. Selesnick stated. “I thanked him for all the dedicated years of service that he has provided the district.”
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