There have been a number of personnel shakeups at Chickasaw City Schools over the past two years, and now a federal lawsuit is alleging a criminal investigation of a former principal and the departure of popular football coach were connected.
In 2014, former principal Brent Ward resigned just ahead of reports of a criminal investigation against him. Then, in May 2015, the decision not to renew former football coach Ronnie Cottrell’s contract raised questions among parents and the Chieftains’ young fanbase.
Cottrell, a former assistant coach at the University of Alabama, was hired in April 2014 and took Chickasaw to the playoffs in the school’s first year of varsity football. Less than a year later, he was ousted by the board of education before taking a job at Mobile Christian School.
In September of this year, Cottrell joined two other former employees in a lawsuit against Chickasaw City Schools, accusing the system of conspiring to prevent the reporting of an “assault” on a student and then retaliating against them for pursuing criminal charges before ultimately having them terminated.
Cottrell is joined by former assistant coach James Rigdon, as well as Rigdon’s wife, Stacy, who was previously employed by the school system as a paraprofessional. The case revolves around the Rigdons’ son, Chandler — a former Chickasaw High School student.
According to the complaint, Chandler Rigdon was standing in a hallway at the school when former Principal Brent Ward allegedly walked up and hit him at least three times — once on the back of his head, once on the top of his head and once on the side of his face.
“The third hit was to the side of Chandler’s face,” the complaint continues. “Chandler’s face became red and swollen.”
Cottrell is said to have witnessed Ward striking Chandler Rigdon, and in the complaint his lawyers accuse former Assistant Principal Willie Lewis of telling Cottrell he “needed to calm [Rigdon’s father] down” — that “the Rigdons did not need to press charges.”
James Rigdon claims he was also confronted by Lewis at football practice on the same day, where Lewis allegedly told him, “Word for the wise, if you want to stay, you need to let it go.”
Rigdon, however, did not let it go. According to the complaint, he began requesting security footage taken from the hallway on the day his son was supposedly struck by Ward. After seeing it, Rigdon says he began pushing for the school system to take action.
The complaint states that Ward’s actions were reported to Chickasaw City School Board President Robert McFall, then-Superintendent Kyle Kallhoff and the Alabama State Department of Education — all of whom supposedly took no action to investigate.
Ultimately, Chandler Rigdon and his parents filed a complaint against Ward with the Chickasaw City Police Department on Nov. 3 — the same day Ward was placed on administrative leave by school officials.
While news reports about Ward being placed on administrative leave began circulating just as the Rigdons filed their criminal complaint, their current lawsuit suggests it wasn’t their son’s accusation that prompted the board’s decision.
“The Board and Superintendent Kallhoff did not discipline Ward for hitting Chandler,” the complaint continues. “Instead, weeks after the incident with Chandler, Ward was accused of sexual harassment by a female employee. Rather than face discipline for that incident, Ward resigned from his position.”
While still on administrative leave in November 2014, Ward did in fact tender his resignation, and did so while school officials were still investigating allegations that had been “submitted by another employee.” However, at the time, Kallhoff didn’t go into more detail.
Both the Rigdons and Cottrell cooperated with the Chickasaw Police Department’s investigation. Cottrell also went on to testify in Chickasaw Municipal Court and the Mobile County Circuit Court trials against Ward, though the charge was ultimately thrown out.
All three plaintiffs said they were subjected to “harassment and disparate treatment” from other school employees — behavior they claim “escalated” once Chandler Rigdon filed charges against Ward. According to the complaint, that treatment included things like “random and unnecessary visits to their classrooms” and being “disciplined for seemingly minor events.”
The Chickasaw City Board of Education opted not to renew Cottrell’s contract on May 21, 2015. According to the complaint, Kallhoff notified James and Stacey Rigdon earlier that month they would also be placed on administrative leave, without providing a reason, which is allowed for non-tenured employees.
In June, the board non-renewed the Rigdons’ contracts, a decision the complaint says was made at the recommendation of Kallhoff — who left Chickasaw the following month to take a job as the superintendent of Demopolis City Schools.
The lawsuit, which is seeking back pay and compensatory damages, suggests all three employees were terminated or had their contracts non-renewed because of their involvement in the case against Ward.
In an unrelated incident this year, Ward was fired as the principal of Nichols Middle School in Canton, Mississippi, after allegedly putting a student there in a headlock. However, Ward denied any wrongdoing in reports from the time published in the Jackson Free Press.
Lagniappe reached out to Chickasaw City Schools, but was told no employees could comment on pending litigation. However, the school system has denied almost all of the claims in Cottrell’s lawsuit in a response filed in U.S. District Court.
Attorneys representing the plaintiffs similarly said they wouldn’t be able to comment on the lawsuit at this time. However, this is not the first time either coach has filed lawsuits against institutions they’ve worked for or with.
In 2004, Rigdon received a $265,000 settlement from Savannah State University — a historically black college which he sued for racial discrimination after being terminated by the school’s athletic director.
Cottrell famously sued former recruiting analyst Tom Culpepper and the NCAA in 2005 over comments about him that were made during an NCAA investigation into Alabama’s football program that resulted in stiff penalties for the Crimson Tide.
A jury in Tuscaloosa County initially agreed with Cottrell, awarding him a $30 million verdict, though that figure was later overturned by a judge — a decision that was upheld by Alabama’s Supreme Court.
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