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The former North Laurel High School Athletic Director has filed a lawsuit against the Laurel County Board of Education and Superintendent Dr. Doug Bennett.

The lawsuit stems from a letter dated May 8 to James "Jimmy" Durham, in which Durham was notified that he was being demoted as the NLHS and NLMS Athletic Director and would be reassigned to classroom duties.

Durham filed the lawsuit on Aug. 4, saying that he was wrongfully discharged from his duties.

The lawsuit centers on claims that Durham reported rumors about the eligibility of student athletes at neighboring county school, South Laurel High School -- eligibility requirements that were allegedly being violated -- in October 2019. In his narrative, Durham's attorney, Jeffrey S. Walther with Walther, Gay & Mack PLC in Lexington, stated that another NLHS school employee heard the rumor and that the allegations of "illegal recruiting" was true. Durham reported the claims to NLHS Principal Mike Black, stating in the lawsuit that Black told him to further investigate the matter. The claim was that some South Laurel High School girls basketball team members did not reside in Laurel County, and further checks showed that their addresses were to vacant buildings.

Recruiting student athletes violates the policies of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA).

Durham is the NLHS Designated Representative to the KHSAA and has served as a member of the Kentucky High School Athletic Directors Association since 2008 and was awarded the 13th Region Athletic Director of the Year in 2009, 2010, 2013, 2015 and 2019 as well as Kentucky Athletic Administrator of the Year in 2015.

"The KHSAA relies upon its member schools to report violations of the KHSAA bylaws," the lawsuit states. "KHSAA trains representatives of member schools to both self-report violations and report violations of other schools. Further, the KHSAA requests member schools provide specific evidence of violations, rather than merely report rumors and innuendo."

Further, it states that KHSAA investigated the claims and that the student athlete in question "did not have a bona fide change in residence," that "one or more board employees at South Laurel were aware" that the student did not have bona fide residence change and was not an eligible student athlete, that board employees at South Laurel High "still allowed the student athlete to participate in South Laurel athletic programs knowing such participation was in violation of KHSAA bylaws," and that "board employees at South Laurel attempted to cover up (student's) residence by lying to KHSAA investigators." As a result of that investigation, the SLHS student was declared ineligible by the KHSAA, the lawsuit further states.

Bennett became aware of the situation in December, according to the lawsuit, and despite two meetings with Durham, never told him he had violated any rules or policies until Durham received a letter on May 8, 2020 informing him of his demotion as NL Athletic Director. That demotion resulted in over $19,000 less salary for Durham and no action taken toward the South Laurel employees for allowing an ineligible student to participate in school athletic programs, the lawsuit states.

However, in the letter to Durham, Bennett states that Durham pushed the issue and reported it to another athletic director in a neighboring county. That person, according to Bennett's letter, later confirmed that the student athlete in question did indeed reside in Laurel County because he had confirmed the address where she resided. Bennett further stated in that letter that Durham had asked a school resource officer to "run the tags" of the vehicle driven by the SL student athlete, which was done. The officer then stated that tag check was not done for any criminal investigation, thus jeopardizing the police department's access to use the National Crime Investigation Center for vehicle checks.

Bennett's letter also states that Durham denied requesting that vehicle license tag check, citing several conversations with school employees.

"You created a tumulous situation between North High School and South High School and a basketball game between the two schools was cancelled because of the high tensions that arose because of your 'investigation,'" the letter concludes. "As Athletic Director at North Laurel High School, your job responsibilities were to the Laurel County Board of Education, not to KHSAA. You knew or reasonably should have known that your investigation at South Laurel High School would create problems and issues for others to deal with and it did."

The letter also states that Durham's demotion as Athletic Director would be effective June 30, 2020 and that he would be reassigned to a teaching position "consistent with your certification." It continues to state that Durham would "lose all your extra days of employment and your Athletic Director salary" and that the overall loss of pay would amount to a reduction in pay of $19,345.92" to the amount of money Durham was paid in the 2019-2020 school year.

Durham is asking for judgment against the Laurel County School District under the Kentucky Whistleblower's Act (KRS 61.101) for "actual, compensatory and punitive damages; equitable relief; recovery of his costs and fees expended within including a reasonable fee for his attorney(s) and any other relief to which he may appear entitled."

No date has been set for the initial hearing regarding this lawsuit. Calls to Laurel County School Attorney Larry Bryson for comment on the lawsuit were not returned by press time Tuesday evening.

A lawsuit represents the plaintiff's perspective only and does not imply guilt or innocence on the part of the defendants named.

njohnson@sentinel-echo.com

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