SIBLEY, Iowa - Rumors and speculation were put to rest Thursday night at a special meeting of the Sibley-Ocheyedan school board. The sole item on the agenda was to consider terminating the contract of middle school social studies teacher and high school football coach Kyle Ewinger.
Sibley-Ocheyedan Superintendent Bill Boer brought his recommendation to terminate Ewinger following an investigation into rumors Ewinger had been sleeping at the school. Boer said he found Ewinger asleep in his classroom with a student on the morning of Oct. 3. Boer said he notified the Department of Human Services of the discovery and that he had informed the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office of the incident, not to press charges, but in case they would need to investigate the situation as the district’s designated Level 2 Investigator.
Ewinger spoke to the board and a room of nearly 50 parents and students in his defense. Ewinger said the child in question has been taken in by his family.
The boy does not have a father figure, and Ewinger has stepped into that role. Ewinger added that the child stays at his home with his son and wife several times a week and is treated like one of the family.
On the Friday night before the incident, Ewinger had coached a football game in Orange City. He said when he returned to the school, the child with him, it was around midnight. After Ewinger performed his usual Friday post-game duties of calling media with information, reviewing and sending in video clips and the like, it was closer to 3 a.m.
Ewinger was to referee a youth sporting event at 7 a.m. He said he tried to take the young man to his grandmother’s house, but she did not answer the door. Ewinger said he then attempted to take the child to his own home but had left his keys inside and his wife was asleep and didn’t wake up when he tried to reach her.
As a last resort, he returned to the school with the child. He said he happened to have in his vehicle an air mattress he’d just exchanged at a store, so he and the child slept there for the few hours before he was to referee the sporting event.
“Nothing malicious, nothing of any intent, nothing planned. None of those things were part of this,” Ewinger said. “It was a circumstance where I did not know what to do with the child or know what was I supposed to do. He’s been in our care with mom, with grandma and with us, for the previous three months. We treat him like he’s our own.”
Boer outlined the basis of his decision to recommend termination of Ewinger.
“First, it’s a violation of district policy 404. ... It’s inappropriate for role models to sleep at schools with an elementary student,” Boer began. “In violation of 404R.1 under this policy, teachers are to follow a code of ethics established by the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners, and those ethics require maintaining professional relationships with students.
“282-25.31E, sleeping in a classroom with an elementary student violates that standard in my opinion. 282-253 and standard 6D, a teacher shall not create a situation that causes embarrassment to a student, in my opinion that was violated,” Boer continued.
Boer also contended Ewinger violated school policy requiring teachers to create conditions conducive for learning.
“I also find that this behavior is inappropriate for the Sibley-Ocheyedan School District,” he said. “… It created a situation where there was an inappropriate working relationship with the administration. The administrative staff finds that this behavior is so far out of the norm, that Mr. Ewing(er) has broken down this relationship. … It also creates in the opinion of the administrative staff an immoral situation.”
School board president Susie Bormann asked Boer what led to the decision to fire Ewinger. Boer recounted finding Ewinger on the Saturday morning and stated he left the classroom after finding Ewinger and went to principal Cory Jenness’ home to talk to him and texted the school district’s attorney. After speaking with the attorney, he interviewed numerous people and reviewed board policy. Boer said he was unsure of when he contacted DHS.
Later in the meeting, Boer said a custodian had found two small alcohol bottles in the school which led him to begin tracking what was happening. To date, Boer said he has not linked them to Ewinger or any other staff or student. Boer also said no criminal charges had been filed against Ewinger, nor had DHS found anything criminal in its investigation.
As members of the public were invited to speak to the board on the matter, questions were raised as to why Boer did not remove the student from the scenario when he found Ewinger and the child sleeping.
“Why weren’t they woken up? He (Boer) could have potentially left him in a dangerous situation,” Lucy Julius said. “That’s my concern. If that was a concern, as a mandatory reporter, he (the student) should have been removed from the situation.”
“To respond to that question, when you open the door and turn the light on, it was such a shock factor that it was like - I turned the light off. I mean it was, the only words I can think to describe it aren’t really appropriate to say here. It was like a, ‘Holy cow!’ You’re frazzled. As I am walking down the hall going, ‘Okay, what’s the next best step?’” Boer said in defense.
Kim Van Der Sloot chastised Boer for his inaction.
“I’m a mandatory reporter,” Van Der Sloot said. “I know the law is that if there is a dangerous situation, you remove that situation immediately and you report it. Mr. Boer, you didn’t do that. That is the law. I am a mandatory reporter, and I know that.
“So if you felt there was a dangerous situation, shock or not, you didn’t do your job. (Ewinger) broke a rule, but that’s a law that has been broken,” she said.
A line of people spoke out, including the child’s mother and family members, in support of Ewinger and his teaching and coaching of students. Only a few spoke unfavorably of the educator.
Before full details of the incident were made public, Ewinger asked to have the board go into closed session, as it is a personnel matter. He was told it was too late to ask for one. It was explained that Ewinger had five days to have requested a hearing in the case and didn’t until the day before the public meeting.
Ewinger said Boer told him he had 15 days on Oct. 7. Boer immediately began shaking his head and denied having said 15 days. Ewinger added he has not had access to his employee email since he has been suspended pending the investigation and was only made aware of the public meeting the day before when a letter was shoved under his door. He said he then requested a hearing.
The school board members wrestled with the decision of what to do. Board member Kyle Grimes said repeatedly he couldn’t understand why Ewinger stayed at the school.
“Why did you think it was OK to stay overnight in the school? Why did you think that was appropriate, even if it had been your own child?” Grimes asked. “... I am just struggling with that.”
Bormann was also torn.
“I struggle with this, because in my mind it is not OK to stay overnight. … Whatever we do, we are setting a precedent. That’s where I find myself going back and forth, and I hope you can understand that,” Bormann said to Ewinger.
Ewinger said he did understand and that he was told by Boer that had he been alone or with his son, he’d have likely only been talked to. Since the child was not adopted or blood-related, it was investigated.
Board member Tracy VanDiepen noted the precarious position the board was placed in.
“I know our job is to follow our policy… put best interest of our students first. We’re not all going to agree what that looks like,” VanDiepen said.
The board was offered four options: turn down the recommendation to terminate Ewinger’s contract; enforce it; to suspend him with pay for a period of time; or to suspend him without pay for a period of time. Bormann asked the board if they’d prefer to consider one of the other options besides termination.
“This is very serious to me, and I need to treat it that way,” VanDiepen said. “I am not willing to allow a mistake to be made… I am not in favor of a lighter motion. I am sorry, the risks are too high.”
In a roll call vote, the board voted 4-1 to terminate Ewinger. Board member Tasha Bos cast the dissenting vote. Several students and parents in the crowd wept at the vote.
Van Der Sloot and others are calling for an investigation into Boer for his inaction in removing the child in violation of mandated reporter requirements.
The Sibley-Ocheyedan school board will meet again in regular session Monday night.