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Investigative Report: Frazee coach suspended for kicking student in groin

With the investigation and punishment complete in the Frazee teacher and coach incident, the district has revealed the details of the complaint.

It was found that after a seventh grade boy hit physical education and head wrestling coach John Barlund near the eye with a badminton birdie, Barlund reacted by kicking the student “in the groin area.”

Barlund denies the action, saying he was in defense mode and didn’t kick the boy.

In an email response to requests for comment, he responded by thanking the people who supported him and said, “as Walter Cronkite always said:  ‘In seeking the truth you have to get both sides of the story.’”

Barlund was punished with a week of unpaid suspension from the district and was not able to coach the wrestling team for the remainder of the season. Barlund is the head coach for the team, which went to state without him, placing fourth in the state.

In the investigative report, Superintendent Terry Karger stated that Barlund violated several school policies and fell “far below the expectations we have of any of our employees. You exhibited extremely poor judgment, and, as a result, the Board of Education feels it appropriate to also suspend you from your head coach duties for the remainder of the school year to allow you time to address your behaviors.”

Incident report

In the incident report from Karger to Barlund, notifying him of the suspension, Karger described the complaint that was filed. It says that on Feb. 4, Barlund “kicked a seventh grade student in the groin area at the end of sixth hour P.E. class.”

An investigator concluded that Barlund kicked the student after the student hit a badminton birdie that struck Barlund in the eye.

“You continue to deny engaging in this behavior; however, multiple witnesses provided consistent testimony indicating that you reacted in anger to be struck in the end and did kick (the student). Witnesses also consistently testified to hearing you use swear words during the exchange with (the student),” Karger’s report said.

The report says that Barlund’s actions caused the student pain and embarrassment, and the witnesses experienced fear and confusion.

Immediately after the incident, Barlund was put on paid administrative leave for a couple weeks while the incident was investigated. The school board then met in a closed meeting and discussed the issue for two hours before turning it over to Karger for the punishment.

Karger suspended Barlund for one week with no pay, Feb. 24-28. Barlund was removed as coach of the wrestling team for the remainder of the season.

The board also required Barlund to attend training on how to address his behaviors.

Eyewitness reports

At least three students witnessed the incident between Barlund and the student. Three who submitted statements for the investigation said that the student hit the birdie toward Barlund, which hit him in the face.

All three said Barlund’s initial reaction was, “What the hell was that for?” He then allegedly kicked the student in the groin area.

Barlund said he went into defense mode after being hit but didn’t kick the student.

Two other students that Heggum interviewed said that they saw Barlund react to the incident by kicking his leg up. One said she saw him hit the student with his foot, “but does not think Barlund hit him very hard.”

That witness, who also said it looked like the birdie hit Barlund hard, knows Barlund well. To what extent she knows him is unknown because it is blackened out of the investigative report that was released.

She said that she felt the story got exaggerated more and more as the story was told until everyone in the seventh grade knew about the incident. She said the student and Barlund had never had any incident between them in the past.

The other student testified that she didn’t see the student hit the birdie, but did see Barlund’s reaction to being hit, saying the kick was “off to the side in the bad spot.” She said the student didn’t do anything, and Barlund asked him to stay behind after class.

After the incident, Barlund reported the incident on the school’s online discipline reporting system. He said that the student was within five feet of him when the student hit him with the birdie.

“During the whole time as he walked up to me, he was holding it like he was going to hit it at me, I just didn’t expect him to actually (hit) it,” he wrote.

The Frazee Police Department was notified of the incident.

Investigator’s report

On Feb. 11, David Conzemius, another physical education teacher at the high school, Principal Rob Nudell, multiple students and Barlund were interviewed by Joshua Heggum, an investigator hired by the district’s law firm, Pemberton, Sorlie, Rufer & Kershner.

In Heggum’s report, he said that Barlund provided a very detailed description of what happened in the class up until he was hit with the birdie, and then he became very vague. He denied kicking the student, but testified that he protected himself with his “hands up and feet out.”

“When he demonstrated his reaction to being struck by the birdie, he spun around in a circle and kicked out his foot.”

He denied that his foot ever hit the student.

“When asked specifically about the kicking of his foot during the demonstration, he ignored an opportunity to confirm that he was suggesting the students may have seen his foot kick out and misinterpreted the incident,” Heggum said in the report.

In other words, Heggum asked Barlund if maybe the kids just thought they saw him kick the boy but he hadn’t actually. Heggum said Barlund avoided a response to that, saying he couldn’t speak to their interpretation.

Barlund told Heggum that after being hit, he was in shock and not sure what might transpire from there.

The students who witnessed the incident reported being surprised, confused, scared and/or uncomfortable.

After the incident, Barlund told Conzemius in their office what had witnessed. The student was there, too.

In the interview with Conzemius, Heggum said that Barlund told Conzemius that the student “wheeled back and hit the birdie as hard as he could, which is not true. (The student) tapped it a little bit, not enough to hurt anybody,” Heggum said.

Two students from the class then reported the incident to Nudell, who took written statements from the students. He pulled the student into his office and took a statement from him as well.

In his interview with Nudell, Heggum said that Nudell testified that the student “was very remorseful and said he should not have done it.”

Conzemius said in his statement that the student did not look very remorseful while talking to Barlund in the physical education teachers’ office.  

In Heggum’s interview with the student, the student said that he went up to Barlund and attempted to “tap the birdie into Barlund’s chest with his racket.” It instead hit him in the lower eye and upper cheek area.

In his report, Heggum said the student said it didn’t hurt at the moment but did when he went to walk away. In the locker room, the boy was mad about the incident and started to cry.

One of the students said that Barlund specifically told the students not to throw the birdies but to hand them over to him. The student said he felt the boy “was a little out of line, especially because Barlund specifically told him not to throw it,” the report says.

Barlund took the boy into his office with Conzemius present, which isn’t unusual for the other teacher to be present when the other is reprimanding a student. Conzemius said in his statement that he never thought anything would come out of the incident because “nothing about what Barlund said stood out for him as unusual or out of the ordinary,” Heggum wrote in his report.

Barlund’s explanation of incident

When Heggum interviewed Barlund, several others were present including Doug Schwarzrock, union representative, and Richard Wood, Education Minnesota representative.

Barlund said it was the end of the class period and he had called for the students to return their badminton equipment. All birdies were returned except for one and he saw out of the corner of his eye the student rushing toward him with his racket up.

He told the student “stop” or “don’t” but the student hit the birdie, hitting Barlund in the face.

“From what he remembers, he fell back against the stage and it is kind of a blur. He spun around and it was a blur for two seconds. His eye was watering and he could not see,” Heggum wrote.

Barlund said by then the gym was empty and he was in shock over what had just happened and what might transpire. He told the student he couldn’t believe he had done that and that Barlund would have to write him up for his actions.

He said the student had a “do what you gotta do” attitude after that. The student went into the locker room and Barlund put the equipment away. When the student came out of the locker room, Barlund asked him into his office, where Conzemius was present.

Barlund said the kid never entered the office but stood in the doorway. He said it was only a 15-20 second conversation because Conzemius had to leave, but it was decided that the student would be written up. He said the student’s response was just a shoulder shrug.

Barlund said that in his mind there was no way the student could have been kicked in the groin because he would be in pain, and the student didn’t show any pain.

Heggum asked Barlund what his response was to the student making the accusation that Barlund kicked him. Barlund replied that, “I don’t remember kicking, touching, with anybody, I know I hit the stage and spun around, and came up in a defensive position.”

He said he didn’t kick the kid and doesn’t think that his foot even came in contact with him, even by accident.

When asked if he had done anything inappropriate, he said possibly with his language, but nothing else. He said he knows it is inappropriate to kick a student, and that’s not what happened in this instance.

Like Conzemius not foreseeing this would amount to anything, Barlund said he was “floored” what Karger contacted him about the incident.

Past problems?

During Nudell’s interview with Heggum, he said that he has dealt with little disciplinary actions for any of the three boys — the two that reported the incident and the boy who was kicked.

One had never been in trouble, one was possibly reprimanded for running in the hallway and “has maybe a little more with (one of the students) but none of these boys are anywhere near to being the school’s most behaviorally problematic students.”

Barlund has no prior disciplinary history as well, but is described as “an intense man.” Nudell said he has seen Barlund be “verbally strong” with his students, but nothing ever physical.

In Heggum’s report, it says that the boy is the “type of student that needs to be redirected quite often.” He and Barlund have not had conflicts in the past though.

Investigator’s findings

Heggum found that Barlund violated the district policies 423, 507 and 525 by using inappropriate language and by kicking the student.

Barlund denied using any other swear words beyond “hell” even though some of the students said he did. Only the one sentence — “what the hell was that for?” — was reported by all the witnesses.

He also maintained he didn’t kick the student.

“However, his testimony is not credible because it is directly contradicted by the testimony of five different students. His testimony is also selectively unclear and therefore not believable,” Heggum said.

He said that Barlund testified that he was scared of what might happen after being hit by the initial birdie, and therefore couldn’t remember much of the actual incident.

“This testimony is also not credible because it is not believable that Barlund was afraid of (the student) given the immense size and strength difference between them,” the investigator said.

“I am extremely thankful to the people who have supported my family and I during this time,” Barlund wrote in an email. “I am happy to be back at school and look forward to a great spring.”

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter @PippiMayfield.