- by Paul Steinbach
- August 2020
The former athletic director at North Laurel High School in London, Ky., filed a lawsuit against the Laurel County Board of Education and the school superintendent earlier this month, claiming he was wrongfully discharged of his duties in May.
As reported by The Sentinel Echo of London, James Dunham's lawsuit centers on claims that he reported rumors about the eligibility of student-athletes at a neighboring county school, South Laurel High School — eligibility requirements that were allegedly being violated — in October 2019.
In his narrative, Durham's attorney stated that another NLHS school employee heard the rumor and that the allegations of "illegal recruiting" was true. Recruiting student athletes violates the policies of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association.
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. Durham reported the claim to NLHS principal Mike Black, stating in the lawsuit that Black told him to further investigate the matter.
"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.
Superintendent Doug 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 informing him of his demotion as NL athletic director. That demotion resulted in salary reduction exceeding $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.
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 tumultuous 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."
At the time of his demotion, which took effect June 30, Durham was the NLHS Designated Representative to the KHSAA and has served as a member of the Kentucky High School Athletic Directors Association since 2008. He 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.
He 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."
Paul Steinbach is Senior Editor of Athletic Business.