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School board upholds removal of Owen District wrestling coach
The Buncombe County Board of Education on Jan. 19 upheld the school system's decision last week to fire Owen High School's wrestling coach over an altercation with a parent.
On Jan. 19, a dozen Owen High wrestlers and their parents showed up at a school board hearing to support Lucas Pokorny as he appealed the school system's decision. Following the two-hour hearing, the board voted unanimously to uphold the decision to fire Pokorny.
Pokorny was removed as a teacher assistant at Owen Middle School and wrestling coach at Owen High after a Jan. 10 altercation with the parent of a student-athlete in the school’s auxiliary gymnasium.
Pokorny was represented at the school board meeting by Asheville attorney Brian Elston, who argued in a closed hearing that his client had no other available option when the scuffle occurred.
“Mr. Pokorny was told he was fired for violating a zero tolerance policy,” Elston said prior to the meeting. The school board's policy that covers visitors to the schools states, he said, "that when a visitor comes to the school and disrupts the educational environment or acts aggressively, that a principal or their designee can tell the individual to leave, contact the authorities or take whatever actions are necessary under the circumstances.”
The scenario Pokorny faced left him few other choices, according to him and several of the wrestlers who were present at the time of the incident. Everett Vale, a freshman on the wrestling team, was standing directly behind Pokorny when the confrontation occurred. In an interview Jan. 18,he said Pokorny's correcting an athlete's push-up technique preceded the confrontation.
The parent "barged in and started saying 'you don't talk to my son that way' and calling (Pokorny) names," Vale said. "He was cussing, and coach said multiple times 'please leave and we can talk about this after practice.'"
Instead, a physical confrontation ensued.
"I couldn't see who shoved who first since I was standing behind coach," Vale said. "All I know is the guy was talking a lot of crap to coach, which was wasn't right."
Vale added that the parent was "very, very aggressive."
No charges were filed as a result of the incident, but Pokorny was immediately "removed from his role as both teacher assistant and coach pending a final decision," according to a statement provided by Stacia Harris, Buncombe County Schools communications director. Pokorny was also "recommended for dismissal."
The county school system would not discuss specific details of the incident on Jan. 16, calling it a personnel matter.
Being the only adult in the gym with "around 18 students" left Pokorny with limited options for dealing with the parent, his attorney said prior to the hearing.
"He had a belligerent parent who was behaving in a threatening manner," Elston said. "He had no assistant coach, or any other adult, in the gym with him at the time."
The parent alleged that Pokorny struck him in the head and neck, but many of the wrestlers who witnessed the incident, including Vale, dispute that statement. Everett and his twin brother Owen, who left the gym to get help when the incident occurred, relayed the story to their parents.
"When coach Pokorny gets excited, and we've all seen this, he has a speech impediment and starts to stutter," said Vale's father, Wally Vale. "The parent started mocking that prior to this altercation. That enrages me that a grown man would mock someone with an impediment."
Wally Vale learned of the incident when his wife picked their sons up from practice.
"I immediately reached out to the school asking what happened and the response I got was that the situation was unfortunate and both men acted irrationally," he said. "But I was more concerned about what was going to happen to coach."
Wally and his wife Jackie Vale started an online petition on change.org, which collected nearly 800 signatures supporting the reinstatement of Pokorny as of the morning of the appeal hearing.
Elston believes Pokorny was teaching his wrestlers a lesson on standing up to bullying.
"One of the reasons coach Pokorny has decided to take this challenge and hire myself is that he's teaching players that you don't quit when you're fighting for something you believe is right," he said. "As you can tell from the wrestlers who showed up here to support him, this is a lesson that goes beyond the wrestling mat."
The Warhorse wrestling team will finish the season under the guidance of interim coach Jack Slaughter.
Regardless of the board's decision regarding Porkony's future, Elston believes the incident may result in policy improvements for Buncombe County schools.
"There should have been at least one assistant coach to help (Pokorny) out," he said. "So at least this hearing will raise awareness about that. If coach Pokorny has to be a martyr for better policies in the county, then so be it."