Students offer support for OCHS track coach Kilby

Orange County Schools Superintendent Dr. Cecil Snead and school board chair Sherrie Page listen to students and parents speak in support of OCHS track and field, indoor track and cross country coach Larry Kilby after Monday’s special school board meeting. Kilby’s teaching contract was not renewed and he was not retained as the high school track coach after a five-year stint.  

Not long after the Orange County School Board adopted a resolution condemning racism, the school superintendent and board chair faced more than 30 students and parents outside the Taylor Administration Education Complex to hear their concerns about a popular African-American track coach who was not retained for the 2020-21 school year. 

Orange County Elementary School teacher and Orange County High School track and field, indoor track and cross country coach Larry Kilby confirmed Monday afternoon his teaching contract had not been renewed for the 2020-21 school year and that he was no longer an OCHS coach.

Kilby, an African-American man, has been with Orange County Schools five years after working in his native Madison County for eight years. He declined further comment but said he did not know the students were speaking to the school board on his behalf.

School board minutes show his contract was not renewed at the May 4 meeting.

At Monday’s special called meeting, the board’s brief agenda included only a few items: a closed session (personnel) and a presentation of a resolution condemning racism.

Orange County School Board Chair Sherrie Page said Monday’s meeting was called largely to approve a number of personnel issues before the end of the fiscal year June 30. The board is not scheduled to meet again until July 6.

Meanwhile, she said school administration and the board had been working on the resolution condemning racism since June 4, and since it was finished, the board adopted it and announced it Monday.

The resolution said “racism and hate have no place in our schools or our society and we must protect the constitutional rights of every person who lives, works and learns in our community.”

It declared, “We cannot be silent. We urgently must act to stop the racial injustice that harms and anguishes black people, who are our family, friends, neighbors, students, staff members and fellow Americans,” and said, “we must listen. Those who have endured discrimination and intolerance deserve to be heard as they share the stories and truth about their experiences and feelings, and we must seek with great empathy to understand their challenges and their pain.”

The resolution continued, “We must learn. It is time to engage our community in meaningful and honest conversation about racial inequality, to build alliances with those committed to justice for all, and to work together to support our shared conviction that racism must end.”

It also declared it must lead.

“Each of us, individually and collectively, is responsible for creating and nurturing an anti-racist learning environment where every child is respected and valued for who they are, regardless of their skin color. We must actively acknowledge, address and prevent racial bias that occurs as a result of division policies, practices and actions; and we must do better. Our school division can be and will be a sanctuary of safety in our community and a beacon of light for the world, as we build and strengthen trust with those we serve, and we model the acceptance of all people.”

The resolution concluded by noting, “the members of the school board stand steadfast in our commitment to foster an inclusive educational environment where every student, teacher, support professional, parent and community member is treated with dignity and respect.”

“The resolution was developed and vetted by the school board and staff to show support of and solidarity with the community regarding racism,” Orange County Schools Superintendent Dr. Cecil Snead said.

But the students and parents assembled Monday afternoon had questions.

They cited the overarching impact Kilby had on their lives as students, athletes and individuals, suggesting he was the type of role model and positive influence the schools should seek to retain, rather than dismiss.

“It’s just not that kids like Kilby. He changes their lives and that affects the parents,” said Alexis Beasley, a rising senior track athlete at OCHS.

“He can get on their level. He can walk in their shoes and hold them accountable for their actions and still get through to them, parent Ann Warren continued. “He’s a father figure and mentor and a black male who stands out. We want him to stay.”

Locust Grove Middle School teacher and track coach Jessica Rave added, “I challenge anyone to say anything about him that’s not positive. He knows what he’s doing. I fail to see what could possibly cause him to be taken out of that program. There’s not one negative thing that someone could tell me about Larry Kilby. All these kids are right; he’s wonderful.”

Parent Diane Shoultz shifted the conversation from Kilby’s employment to the board’s recent resolution.

“You all just adopted a resolution about racial discrimination. It is no surprise to anyone here, or anyone in the world, that there’s a lot of tension and a lot of things happening when it comes to your skin color, and you’re screaming at the top of your lungs with that policy,” she said. “You’re screaming, ‘We hear you. We take a stand with you. We don’t want people to think that about our community and we will not stand for that in our community and we love our community.’

She said Kilby’s impact on the students had a trickle-down effect.

“They become leaders and impact other children and still other children and that’s how you make a change in your own community,” she said. “We need people like Mr. Kilby to be that leader because, heads up, there are a lot of people in the world who think maybe brown skin might be bad and it might be a little scary and there might be a lot of kids, like my daughter who is bi-racial, who are worried. I need someone who is a leader who will stand up for me and is a role model. It screams we need someone like Mr. Kilby.

“You have an opportunity, right here in our community to make a change, and that’s where it starts,” she concluded.

Myles Johnson a 2020 OCHS graduate, who helped coordinate Monday’s demonstration with rising OCHS senior O’Brian Martin, said the high school doesn’t have a lot of African-American representation among its faculty. “I’m not even on the track team,” he said, before citing Kilby as a “great mentor: black, white and altogether.” Johnson said Kilby reached out to him to suggest some of the people he was hanging out with would bring him down—a message that struck home with the recent graduate. “He talked to me and told me what I needed to hear about what I wanted to do with my life. We’re out here talking about Black Lives Matter. Mr. Kilby’s life matters.”

Martin added, “Mr. Kilby is a role model to most of us. Mr. Kilby had an impact that was undeniable and irreplaceable. When things are falling apart, he’s the glue that held us together.” He called him “the soul of the track and field program and the heart of his students,” and added, “His actions have shown how he’s made our lives better.”

Former track star Hannah Snodgrass established a petition on change.org in support of Mr. Kilby and by Tuesday morning, it had achieved more than 2,500 signatures.

In her appeal, she writes, “I had the amazing opportunity to work with Coach Kilby for the four years I was at Orange County High School. He is the reason I am who I am today. On the track, he helped me achieve multiple district and regional championships, along with multiple advancements to the VHSL State championship. He did this not only for me, but many other athletes as well. Off the track, he cares about our mental health like no other. He understands the difficulties of various youth life traumas, including but not limited to, single parent households, loved ones lost and financial struggles. Coach Kilby has been a mentor, a motivator, a step-in father figure and role model for many. This is not just on the track, but off the track as well.”

Jarious Faulkner, another former track athlete, credited Kilby for getting him into college. He said Kilby encouraged students not just to be good athletes, but good students and that as good students, they can do anything.

“He instilled in me, ‘I can do this,’” he said.

Trainer and coach Ron Rose spoke and commended the students for speaking out.

“You’re doing the right thing,” he told the students, before cautioning, “Hiring and firing reasons often aren’t shared and don’t make a lot of sense. Sometimes personnel things [stink]. It’s not your place to know, it’s his. Hopefully, he gets answers.” However, he added, “I’ve never met a coach as good as Coach Kilby.

Dr. Snead, who listened patiently aside school board chair Page, thanked everyone for their remarks and said he was proud to know the students, to work with them and hear their perspective. “I pray the world will be a better place,” he said.

He later added that he would not comment on specific personnel matters and cited the school board’s nondiscrimination policy that reads, “The Orange County School Board is committed to nondiscrimination with regard to sex, gender, race, color, national origin, disability, religion, ancestry, age, marital status, genetic information or any other characteristic protected by law. This commitment prevails in all of its policies and practices concerning staff, students, educational programs and services, and individuals and entities with whom the board does business.”

Page added that the schools already have a policy against racism and the resolution adopted Monday complemented existing policies in place.

Toward the end of Monday’s gathering, Martin, who is scheduled to be a student representative to the school board in the coming year, indicated the students, parents and others supporting Kilby would be attending the July 6 scheduled board meeting on his behalf.

Warren wondered whether the board might be able to create a meeting, among the current health crisis restrictions, that could accommodate more attendants and speakers than current health guidelines permit.

She, and others, also wondered if another meeting might be held prior to that date.

Page thanked those assembled and said the board would follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and guidelines about meeting in-person. “We’ll see what we can do,” she said. “I’m not going to promise we will meet before then, but we will have conversations with the school board.”

After the event, the primary speakers and organizers were pleased Dr. Snead and Page met with them and heard their comments, but still sought action on behalf of their coach and mentor.

“This is a great first step,” Snodgrass said. “The presence we made when we walked through that door—we got everyone’s attention.”

“We’re not ungrateful,” Beasley added. “We’re grateful they listened to us.”

Martin said he was pleased with the diversity of students and parents who attended Monday’s meeting and said he and others will consider their next steps.

“I’m glad they listened to their students and their constituents,” Martin said.

Page commended the students and said, “It’s important that young people’s voices are heard. It was good to hear their concerns and we heard what they said.”

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