Well-known Pa. high school wrestling coach claims harassment, racism during tenure

(Allentown) Morning Call (TNS)
JaMarr Billman

Former Easton wrestling coach JaMarr Billman said shortly after he took the position in 2016 he informed school officials of bullying against his staff, harassment and a hostile work environment but nothing was done.

The 1997 Easton graduate saw more “hurdles” in March 2018 when he said he filed an unlawful harassment complaint against athletic director Jim Pokrivsak. That followed his reinstatement after being fired over an incident at the PIAA Wrestling Championships involving him and members of a wrestler’s family.

In an exclusive interview with The Morning Call this week, Billman, who was the only African American varsity head coach at Easton, described what he has been feeling for much of his four-year tenure, which ended May 29 when the school district opened the position.

“As a minority coach, I experienced pains and hurdles by the athletic department and administration that no other coach faced,” he said, speaking for the first time since the firing. "I thought in 2018 that Easton could not discriminate against me, as I was an alumni and former student-athlete.

“In 2020, I truly believe that I was discriminated [against] due to the color of my skin.”

Billman spoke at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at a rally at the school district administration building.

Billman said he did not re-apply for his job, which carried a Monday deadline to apply. The board could appoint a new coach at its June 29 meeting.

Easton is one of the most high-profile head coaching jobs in Pennsylvania high school wrestling. The school is second all-time in state varsity wrestling victories.

Good grades until last season: The two-time PIAA champion as an Easton wrestler, who said he was never given a job description, received an evaluation grade of 80 out of 96 after his first season in 2017. He was not evaluated in 2018, then said he received a 93 in 2019.

However, Billman was given a grade of 56 after his final season, one point below satisfactory level despite, he said, never having any disciplinary action against him or being contacted about any deficiencies in his performance.

Evaluation issues: Billman also took issue with how this season’s evaluation transpired.

In September 2019, acting superintendent Frank DeAngelo appointed assistant athletic director Elaine Arnts as Billman’s direct supervisor. She attended practices multiple times a week and almost every match.

According to Arnts, she was asked by Pokrivsak to provide notes for Billman’s evaluation. She did on April 12, then was told four days later of a Zoom meeting with Pokrivsak and assistant superintendent Alyssa Emili on April 17.

During that Zoom call, according to Arnts, she was told to “retract” much of her notes and re-submit them. She said she did so on April 29. Nothing of what she submitted that was favorable toward Billman was used in the final version, she said.

Additionally, Arnts said she received a substandard evaluation.

Negative items: Among the negative items Pokrivsak addressed with Billman included the coach not using Hudl, a video review and performance analysis tool, and not attending coaching seminars.

Billman, who had a union representative with him during the May 6 Zoom review, said he defended those two points, then said Pokrivsak told him he’d remove them from the review but never did.

Billman challenged all but one point Pokrivsak brought up, including a claim that Bethlehem Catholic had filed a complaint that Billman was trying to recruit one of its wrestlers. Billman said he was told by Pokrivsak that Bethlehem Catholic “dropped" the complaint.

Billman's record: The Red Rovers were 42-26 in Billman’s four seasons, including 7-7 in 2019-20, including Easton’s first loss ever to Emmaus during the District 11 Duals.

But Easton had a combined nine PIAA Class 3-A qualifiers the last two seasons, including three medalists each year — which was better than Billman’s first two seasons.

School board member Susan Hartranft-Bittinger said she couldn’t imagine why somebody would lose their job if they were doing it effectively.

“I don’t see this as a race issue, at all,” she said, adding she’d be the first to speak up if it were a matter of race. “I see it as an employment issue. I believe any decision made with any personnel is made with criteria based on facts, not by color of skin.”

Voicing concerns: Billman said he voiced his concerns regarding treatment of him, his assistant coaches and the program on several occasions to school administration, including on Sept. 17 and Sept. 24, 2019, plus Oct. 15, 2018, but to no avail.

Board member Thomas Guth Jr. said he wasn’t aware that Billman was having problems until rumors swirled after the vote to open the wrestling coaching position.

“It concerns me… he’s now saying he’s had some issues along the way,” Guth said. “If I knew that there was an issue, I know I would have busted my ass — I think everybody on the board would have busted their asses — to get to the bottom of it, knowing if we didn’t this could blow up into its own beast again, and we don’t want that.”

Alleged assault: Billman allegedly was verbally and physically assaulted during the 2018 PIAA Wrestling Championships, which led to his firing then rehiring in the week after the tournament.

It also led to Easton spending more than $100,000 in legal fees and consultants for an investigation into the incident and making subsequent policy and other changes.