Booth sues over ouster

For­mer Dun­bar bas­ket­ball coach claims defama­tion

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Justin Fenton

Dun­bar bas­ket­ball great Keith Booth has filed a fed­eral law­suit against the Bal­ti­more school sys­tem say­ing it “scape­goated” him when he was fired as his alma mater’s head boys bas­ket­ball coach af­ter what he calls school of­fi­cials’ mis­han­dling of an in­ci­dent of stu­dent sex­ual mis­con­duct.

Booth, who starred at the Univer­sity of Maryland and played for the Chicago Bulls dur­ing a cham­pi­onship sea­son fea­tured in the re­cent ESPN doc­u­men­tary “The Last Dance,” al­leges he was let go in an “ex­treme and defam­a­tory way” in Fe­bru­ary, and of­fers new de­tails of what he says was a fraught first sea­son as the Po­ets’ coach.

The law­suit says his dis­missal came af­ter he learned of and in­formed ad­min­is­tra­tors of “im­proper sex­ual in­ter­ac­tion be­tween a Dun­bar ju­nior var­sity bas­ket­ball stu­dent ath­lete and a fe­male stu­dent man­ager on a team bus ride.” The in­ci­dent hap­pened as the team re­turned Jan. 11 from the 24th an­nual Bas­ket­ball Acad­emy tour­na­ment at Mor­gan State Univer­sity, al­though the law­suit said he didn’t be­come aware of it un­til weeks later.

A let­ter was re­leased to the Dun­bar com­mu­nity at the time say­ing Booth was no longer the coach and that the in­ci­dent was un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Booth’s at­tor­ney al­leges in the law­suit that the let­ter wrongly im­plied that Booth was at fault, de­spite the fact that he had con­fronted both stu­dents and alerted the as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal.

“Coach Booth will for­ever live with the stain of De­fen­dants’ false and defam­a­tory let­ter and de­nial of his con­sti­tu­tional rights to clear his name,” the law­suit says.

Booth is su­ing the city school board, schools CEO Sonja San­telises, Dun­bar prin­ci­pal Ye­tunde Reeves and Jerome Jones, the di­rec­tor of la­bor re­la­tions and ne­go­ti­a­tions for the school sys­tem.

The school sys­tem re­leased a state­ment Fri­day af­ter­noon that didn’t di­rectly ad­dress the al­le­ga­tions.

“While City Schools does not com­ment on pend­ing lit­i­ga­tion, it is im­por­tant for the Dun­bar HS com­mu­nity to un­der­stand that the al­le­ga­tions in any le­gal com­plaint will be tested through an ex­ten­sive process to de­ter­mine whether they can be proven true,” ac­cord­ing to the state­ment.

When Booth learned of the sex­ual in­ci­dent, he im­me­di­ately sus­pended the stu­dent ath­lete and in­formed Dun­bar’s as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal, “who for days, along

with De­fen­dant Reeves, did noth­ing with this in­for­ma­tion,” the law­suit claims.

“In­deed, three days af­ter Coach Booth in­formed the As­sis­tant Prin­ci­pal, the ju­nior var­sity-bas­ket­ball stu­dent ath­lete called De­fen­dant Reeves, the Prin­ci­pal, di­rectly and ad­mit­ted to hav­ing touched the fe­male. In the face of this con­fes­sion, De­fen­dant Reeves stood mute,” the law­suit al­leges.

Booth said he was di­rected to write a state­ment re­gard­ing the in­ci­dent, then was fired by Reeves.

Booth said that Jones, the hu­man re­la­tions di­rec­tor, later told him he was only “on leave,” but that re­ports of Booth’s dis­missal leaked out.

The law­suit fur­ther al­leges the fir­ing was “spurred on by some pow­er­ful alumni who were con­cerned more about past al­le­giances than the devel­op­ment of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions and con­sis­tent with her past his­tory.”

Booth’s law­suit does not iden­tify the alumni, but says they had com­plained to him that he was not show­ing enough re­spect for them and a pre­vi­ous coach. Af­ter a Jan. 31 game, the law­suit states, he was con­fronted about the com­plaints and told the alumni that they “should be raising money to fix the [school’s] fa­cil­i­ties” if they wanted to help the pro­gram.

In what was de­scribed as a re­build­ing sea­son with a young nu­cleus of play­ers, Dun­bar went 10-11 this past sea­son. The team won four of its last five games af­ter Booth was removed, in­clud­ing win­ning the 2A Re­gion II cham­pi­onship.

De­spite win­ning a state-record 16 state bas­ket­ball ti­tles, all since 1993 — in­clud­ing a pair of four straight (2003 to 2006 and 2010 to 2013) — the Po­ets have won only one cham­pi­onship since, in 2017-2018. Dun­bar fin­ished 16-9 the sea­son be­fore Booth took over, los­ing to Lake Clifton in the Class 1A North semi­fi­nals.

A McDon­ald’s All Amer­i­can at Dun­bar, Booth went on to en­joy a stel­lar col­lege ca­reer at Maryland be­fore be­com­ing a first-round draft pick, 28th over­all, by the Chicago Bulls in 1997. He spent two sea­sons with the Bulls, win­ning an NBA cham­pi­onship in 1998.

As a ju­nior at Dun­bar in 1992, Booth helped the Po­ets win their third na­tional cham­pi­onship, fol­low­ing ti­tles in 1983 and 1985.

Booth was hired at Dun­bar in May 2019. His law­suit walks through his early days in charge of the pro­gram, and how it fell apart.

Booth was hired by Reeves’ pre­de­ces­sor, who was re­placed shortly there­after. Af­ter tak­ing over as coach Booth com­mis­sioned three large ban­ners to com­mem­o­rate the school’s na­tional cham­pi­onships that would be hung promi­nently on the cen­ter of the north wall of the gym­na­sium, ac­cord­ing to the law­suit.

Booth says the alumni as­so­ci­a­tion ob­jected to hang­ing the ban­ners be­cause he had not sought their per­mis­sion. “Coach Booth’s de­ci­sion to hang the ban­ners de­spite the lack of per­mis­sion caused even more con­ster­na­tion for cer­tain sup­port­ers be­cause it meant that there would be no room on the wall for the por­trait of the for­mer Dun­bar coach to whom these pow­er­ful alumni were aligned,” the law­suit al­leges.

He also sparred with alumni over his de­ci­sion to have the team play in a tour­na­ment at DeMatha High School in­stead of a tour­na­ment on the Eastern Shore, the law­suit says.

Booth’s law­suit states he did not learn about it for weeks un­til an­other man­ager in­formed him.

Per the suit, Booth called the ac­cused male stu­dent ath­lete into his of­fice, and the stu­dent “con­fessed” and was sus­pended from the team.

Booth’s law­suit states he then in­formed As­sis­tant Prin­ci­pal Lawrence Wil­liams, who told Booth to write up what had oc­curred, but Booth be­lieved he should wait un­til he had spo­ken with the man­ager for cor­rob­o­ra­tion.

On Jan. 29, Booth spoke to the stu­dent man­ager who he said “ac­knowl­edged the in­ci­dent and stated that she had al­lowed it to hap­pen,” the law­suit says. Booth called her mother to ex­plain the sit­u­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to the law­suit.

Reeves, ac­cord­ing to the suit, chas­tised him for not bring­ing it to her at­ten­tion sooner and told him to take no fur­ther ac­tion.

Booth al­leges it was the as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal who failed to re­lay the in­for­ma­tion to her.

Booth said that on Feb. 7 he was handed a let­ter telling him the in­ci­dent was un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion and he would “no longer be per­mit­ted to re­port to Bal­ti­more City Pub­lic Schools for work, in­ter­act with the team or at­tend Dun­bar’s boys’ bas­ket­ball games un­til ad­vised in writ­ing other­wise.”

A let­ter say­ing Booth would “no longer serve” as the Po­ets head coach was sent out to stake­hold­ers.

His law­suit al­leges the let­ter wrongly im­plied Booth was fired and that he posed a threat to stu­dents.

Booth sub­se­quently re­ceived a let­ter say­ing he was still un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and he con­tin­ued to get paid, ac­cord­ing to his at­tor­ney, Barry Go­gel. His one-year con­tract has since lapsed.

“The sum and sub­stance of what he has re­ceived from city schools was those two let­ters,” Go­gel said in an in­ter­view.


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