DeKALB – Parents and students rallied Tuesday around a longtime DeKalb High School wrestling coach who was relieved of his coaching duties after he was found negligent for failing to stop a student from being hit with a belt and racially harassed on a bus.
At least 15 people urged DeKalb School District 428 board members to retain Lance Gackowski as an assistant wrestling coach and head coach for boys’ and girls’ tennis. Gackowski, who has coached wrestling in DeKalb for about 25 years, was relieved of his coaching duties Jan. 26, but remains a high school science teacher.
“If disciplinary action has to happen, don’t take away his coaching ability,” said Melissa Butts, who drove an hour and 15 minutes from Tampico to be at the meeting. “Find something else.”
District officials including Superintendent Jim Briscoe and school board President Tom Matya said they could not comment on the incident because it involves a district employee and student discipline. Matya said they are reviewing a number of policies in the district’s handbook and for coaches.
Supporters of Gackowski gave details of the incident at the meeting. They said that on Jan. 10, Gackowski was the only DHS staff member aboard a bus with about 50 student wrestlers that was on its way back from a meet at Sycamore High School. Students and parents of students who were on the bus described the atmosphere as being a madhouse.
“My son was in the middle of the bus and he didn’t know what happened,” said DHS parent Patty Croom. “How could [Gackowski] have known?”
At some point during the bus ride, a black student broke the headphones of one of his fellow wrestlers. That second student overreacted, they said, in an incident that escalated to him hitting the first student with a belt and calling him a racial slur, said Charles White, a student on the bus.
“It was a joke that went too far,” White said.
Debbie Seidal said other students, including her son, began singing a rap song with the same racial slur in the lyrics. Seidal said her son was punished with a five-day suspension, at least one other student was suspended, and the student who used the belt on his fellow student was expelled.
The Daily Chronicle is not naming the students involved because they are minors.
White and Bryant Mommer – a sophomore tennis player who was not present on the bus – said Gackowski was unaware of what was happening. In addition to students being extremely loud and rowdy, Gackowski was also trying to track down another wrestler who left the Sycamore meet with his parents, but didn’t tell anyone.
Mommer said he saw Gackowski at least a day later, and that he looked sad. That was when he found about Gackowski’s punishment.
Gackowski attended a closed-session portion of Tuesday’s school board meeting but left before the public session. During a phone interview Tuesday night, he said he had not been involved with efforts to have him reinstated, but was aware of phone calls and a petition supporting him.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Gackowski said. “If they allow me to coach, I will gladly do that. I don’t know if there’s a chance of that or not. I think [school leaders] are in a tough situation. I have no idea how they’ll react to the community.”
At Tuesday’s board meeting, many people, including Seldal and White, vouched publicly for the character of Gackowski, whom many referred to affectionately as “Gack.”
“He connects with the students, back then and today with the students, like my daughter,” said Tom Stack, who was one of Gackowski’s students from 1989.
DHS students Samantha and Taylor Volk presented the board with a petition containing more than 1,000 signatures of support for reinstating Gackowski’s coaching positions. The petition is posted on the White House’s Change.org website, which allows anybody to create and sign on to citizen-created petitions.
“We decided we just couldn’t sit here and do nothing about this,” Taylor Volk said.
The victim and his mother were also present at the meeting. They did not speak publicly, although Briscoe, Matya, and board Vice President Tracy Williams spoke with them after the meeting.
"It was an unfortunate situation that happened. We're just trying to push forward," the mother said after the meeting was over. She and her son declined to comment further. A person matching the victim's name from DeKalb is listed as one of the petition signers.
DHS parent John Rossi described the situation as being a travesty for students, saying that Gackowski has helped him out a number of times in the past.
Jennifer Taylor recounted a story how her son was reprimanded by Gackowski for swearing when he was injured on the wrestling mat.
“I find it hard to believe he knew what was happening on the bus,” Taylor said.