Former Bayonne High School head football coach Dwayne Williams has filed a lawsuit against the Bayonne Board of Education.
Williams was the head coach at BHS for just one season, from July 29 to December 7, 2021, until his departure following a brawl between the Bayonne High School and Barringer High School football teams on October 29.
Represented by attorney James Lisa, Williams has filed suit against the board, as well as Board President Maria Valado individually, and Superintendent of Schools John Niesz individually, among others. In his lawsuit, Williams alleges a hostile work environment, retaliation, defamation, and violations of his free speech, as well as a loss of economic advantage and breach of contract.
Lawsuit filed following public uproar
The six-count, 25-page suit was filed in the Law Division of the Hudson County Superior Court on March 7. Prior to the filing of the lawsuit, Williams and his supporters had taken the stance at public meetings that Williams was unjustly fired, that his termination or lack of contract renewal was because the administration did not want him there from the start, that he was always walking on eggshells, and that it could have been political or even racial, among other speculated reasons.
In the suit, Williams reiterates those points, alleging he was unlawfully terminated in his position. From the start, he says he did not feel wanted by the board. Previously, Williams was the coach at Barringer High School in Newark until 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic took a hard toll. Williams, a resident of East Orange, lost his mother, his sister, and two of his nephews to the virus.
While searching for his next move, the opportunity presented itself to coach at Bayonne High School and Williams couldn’t help but apply, noting it was on his mother’s bucket list that he coach the team. He was hoping for a better coaching environment in Bayonne, having left Barringer amid disagreements over COVID-19.
“They were trying to put kids on the field,” Williams said. “There was a rule that if somebody tested positive, you got a two-week quarantine.”
Williams said that was a slap in the face considering he had witnessed the affects of the virus first-hand.
“All of that stuff was going on and I got five members in the hospital on ventilators,” Williams said.
It was supposed to be a “dream job” for the former football star who played at Bayonne High School himself, but appears to have been a nightmare.
Rocky start to ‘dream coaching job’
On June 18, 2021, Williams applied to the job and was hired on July 29. But throughout the hiring process, Williams alleges there were several “decidedly strange” aspects, one of those being a phone call with Athletic Director Michael Pierson.
During the call, Williams alleges Pierson asked, “Do you really want this job?” Later in the conversation, Pierson allegedly told Williams that he “may have to play the race card, make this racial,” in order to get hired, the lawsuit alleges.
In an interview with the Bayonne Community News, Williams added that the aforementioned call with Pierson started with, “I shouldn’t be calling you.” That plus the other comments about race left him with an uneasy feeling.
“I never did trust him,” Williams said. “And that’s how it all started.”
Williams said things were rocky with the board meeting when the board had hired him, which he went to attend but alleges he was told the wrong time and missed it: “From that point on, I moved forward with skepticism in my mind.”
According to the suit, Williams was not Mayor James Davis’ pick for the job. Davis allegedly said, per the lawsuit, that “Dwayne [Williams] gets that job over my dead body.” The lawsuit does not attribute that alleged statement to any person.
Despite alleged hesitation by both the board and city, Williams was ultimately hired “after several adjourned meetings, backroom dealings, and tabled discussions.” However, Williams’ employment was “consistently the subject of issues created by uninvolved outsiders,” the lawsuit alleges.
Williams alleges there were instances were the board was seeking to fire him even prior to the football game against Barringer High School on October 29. According to the suit, there were “behind-the-scenes arguments” between Board of Education Trustee Jodi Casais and Pierson over trying to terminate Williams for t-shirts donated by an alumni “which were fundraised for the Youth Football Program.”
Barringer fight ends Bayonne career
Prior to the fight, Williams said he was talking with the Barringer coaches and giving high fives and hugging around seven to eight players near him, with approximately 13 other Barringer players were elsewhere. He said that Barringer told their players to go to the bus, meanwhile Bayonne players waited in their end zone. However, due to a downpour, the Bayonne team exited the field.
“They were going to the locker room because they didn’t want to run up the hill because it was a downpour,” Williams said. After both teams were on the move, Hoffman told Williams there was a fight under the bleachers.
Williams said with 16 coaches on his staff, and 11 security guards, as well as four cops on site, any fight between players should have been able to have been stopped immediately. He also disputes the negative light Bayonne High School was cast in throughout the report.
“They weren’t chanting ‘F*ck Barringer,'” Williams said. “All that is far from the truth.”
Another thing Williams wanted to point out was that it was Bayonne tradition to walk down the hill to the field from the high school at the start of the game. He said this did not occur at the end, and that no tradition was broken that night. However, Williams said he was thrown under the bus, regardless.
The suit alleges that Valado “acted out of the scope” of her role as a Board of Education President. Valado was not present at the game, but afterwards she allegedly “contacted employees at Barringer High School to apologize for Williams’ alleged actions” and allegedly stated that she “would get him fired.”
Hoffman’s statement key to SFC report
According to Williams, the board “has a history of discriminating treatment against minority coaches versus white coaches” and his experience is another example of that. He cites white baseball coach David Hoffman, who was not terminated despite the baseball team allegedly having an on-field brawl with an opponent. Apparently, the same Hoffman was also not disciplined following a gun incident in the hockey rink in his presence, according to the lawsuit.
When asked if there was a pattern of racial bias present against him by the Board of Education, Williams responded: “Let me ask this question: How do I get into the Hudson County Hall of Fame, and I’m not even in the Bayonne High School Hall of Fame? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Hoffman was also the on-site administrator in charge on the night of the game. Williams contends Hoffman’s report of the incident was “inaccurate, re-written” and then provided to Niesz before being handed off to the SFC.
An email exchange between Niesz and Hoffman on November 4 provided to BCN highlights an interaction prior to the submission of Hoffman’s statement to the SFC. Hoffman sends Niesz his statement, asking him if anything should be altered, added, or deleted. In response, Niesz tells him it was a “good statement” to which Hoffman said he “just wanted to make sure we were on the same page… I knew we would be.” Niesz ends the conversation stating Hoffman was “on the money.”
“The way it was written was, I don’t want to say it was colluded between the two administrators, but it sounded like it was,” Williams said.
Hoffman’s statement was an important part of the SFC report on the incident, thus Williams took major issue with implications it was crafted by more than just Hoffman. Especially since it was used as somewhat of a justification for his termination and Williams was not questioned about the incident prior to it being drafted.
“Everything is based on Hoffman’s statement,” Williams said. “He’s the one who threw me under the bus.”
Williams also challenges an important aspect of Hoffman’s report: where the security was that night. Williams contends that had security actually been present in the first place, the fight would not have occurred.
Williams out, Hayes in
Nearly a month after the fight on December 7, Williams was terminated by Niesz and Pierson, neither of whom were at the game, as well as Principal Richard Baccarella, the lawsuit alleges. Williams said this occurred “without discussion, without due process,” and “without explanation.”
Unbeknownst to Williams, the Super Football Conference (SFC) was set to convene its Controversies, Ethics, and Sportsmanship Committee on December 8, where Pierson and Baccarella would participate regarding the fight. Williams alleges he was fired the day prior to ensure he could not take part in the committee’s hearing on the incident and was not aware of the meeting or his ability to provide testimony.
At the meeting, the SFC committee did not recommend the termination of Williams. However, their report did recommend one year of probation and an etiquette training class for Williams as well as one year of probation for the team. That was a moot point since Williams was terminated the prior day, and according to the suit, something that had been in motion since Valado mentioned it to the Barringer coaches.
In addition, Williams also takes issue with the timing of the hiring of his successor. In the lawsuit, Williams alleges that another African-American coach, Jerome Hayes, was hired in January to “defend against assertions of racial discrimination.” According to Williams, the board usually waits until March to even announce open positions for the next school year, nevertheless fill any position.
Williams contends that he was hired and then “only acted toward in illegal attempts to destroy” his “career, credibility, and reputation.” To this tune, following his termination and the SFC ruling, Williams alleges a letter was sent out to parents and football players on December 13 asserting the “damage” that he had done.
While some players were set to stage a “walk-out” in solidarity with Williams, the lawsuit alleges Niesz threatened the students that they would not graduate if they did so. However, many passionate students still spoke their minds at board and city council meetings in defense of Williams.
Six counts in the lawsuit
The first count of the suit alleges a hostile work environment. Williams bluntly alleges the board treated “white coaches differently” than he was. The suit continues that “there is a long history of double standards when it comes to white employees and black/African-American employees” and calls the board and Niesz’s actions “racial and discriminatory.”
Williams also alleges retaliation. He cites complaining of “unequal treatment, hostility, and harassment,” with one specific instance relating to Power allegedly acting as the Athletic Director instead of an Athletic Trainer. Following his complaints, Williams alleges “his every move was questioned” and even complaints were then allegedly filed against Williams in turn.
Williams’ third count alleges unlawful interference with economic advantage. He cites Valado’s reaching out to Barringer staff as his main backing, and alleges he would not have been subject to loss of economic advantage and benefit had that not occurred.
The fourth count alleges an implied terms-breach of a good faith and fair dealing. Williams alleges internal documents direct and suggest that there was “improper motive, behavior and action” toward him.
Williams also alleges defamation as the fifth count in the lawsuit, aimed at Niesz and Valado. He said that “in written and oral communications” Niesz and Valado, “on multiple occasions, communicated to persons… false and defamatory statements of fact” concerning Williams.
The sixth and final count is that his free speech was violated. As a result of the allegations, Williams is seeking: a clean personnel file; a reinstatement to full responsibilities, tenure, and compensation; payment of compensatory damages for $650,000; payment of punitive damages set by the jury; and agreement of non-retaliation by the board or personnel employed or associated with the board; and costs, expenses and attorney’s fees; among other relief.
Still about the kids
Ultimately, Williams alleges his termination was the board using the Bayonne versus Barringer fight to remove him from his position.
“The superintendent didn’t want me,” Williams said. “The principal didn’t want me either. They wanted Jerome Hayes… How the hell do you hire me if you didn’t want me?… I had a couple of other opportunities. My mother had just passed away. I was already out of here… I couldn’t have cared less at that specific time in my life if I coached football again… They could have hired Jerome Hayes last year and I couldn’t have cared less.”
However, it has been a plus for Williams to know many residents are behind him.
“I knew the community had my back since the beginning,” Williams said. “At Bayonne games, we packed the stadium. We did something that hadn’t happened in Bayonne in a few years. They had crowds out there because I was bridging the gap between the old and the new. I was bringing Friday Night Lights back to Bayonne.”
Though this is about clearing his name, overall, it’s still about the kids on the field to Williams. He touted that eight of the nine seniors that were on the team this year are going to college to play football.
“I’m very much active in the community and at the end of the day, I’m very active with all my kids,” Williams said.
Attorney Catherine Flynn representing the board and associated parties in the lawsuit did not have any comment on the active litigation other than she would be “vigorously defending” her clients. This corresponds with board policy not to comment on personnel matters outside of executive session nor to discuss pending litigation.
An answer to Williams’ complaint by Flynn either denies any allegations or states there was not “sufficient knowledge to form a belief as to the truth of the allegations.” The case will continue to unfold in court as Williams seeks to redeem his name.
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.