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Swanson reinstated after classroom incident

West Fargo Sheyenne coach Joel Swanson drags the infield during Mustang baseball practice. David Samson / The Forum1 / 3
West Fargo Sheyenne baseball coach Joel Swanson. Darren Gibbins / The Forum2 / 3
Head Sheyenne baseball coach Joel Swanson watches a batter during the April 29, 2016, game at Jack Williams Stadium against the team he used to coach, Shanley High School. Forum News Service file photo3 / 3

Joel Swanson will return to teaching and coaching after he was placed on paid administrative leave following an incident involving the classroom he oversees at Cheney Middle School.

Swanson was placed on paid administrative leave from both teaching and coaching on Monday, April 30, according to a West Fargo School District statement, and his return was pending the outcome of the investigation. He was reinstated in late May.

Swanson is an alternative education teacher at Cheney and the head varsity baseball coach at West Fargo Sheyenne High School.

"The district had to do its due diligence on the situation," Swanson said. "Everything was found to be OK."

According to a statement of incident by Swanson, a student in his first day in Swanson's program "had already started to stir the pot with other students" and the student made threatening gestures to a paraprofessional. Swanson said the student kept the hood of his sweatshirt over his head, which is against classroom rules.

Although Swanson continuously reminded the student of the program rules and at one point talked to him in another room, the student refused to read silently to himself and continued to keep his hood up over his head. After a fire drill, the student went to a back room where Swanson asked him to hand over the sweatshirt. The student refused, so Swanson "took his sweatshirt off him like a hockey jersey," according to the report.

When the student tried to grab the sweatshirt, Swanson shut the back room door. The student "began beating and kicking the door" but eventually calmed down and Assistant Principal David George was notified of the situation by Swanson.

The student claimed Swanson caused marks on his arms by ripping the sweatshirt off of him. Swanson met with various school officials between April 30, the day of the incident, and May 15 multiple times. In the first meeting, Swanson gave a detailed statement and district administrators spoke of their concerns of Swanson's actions and judgements.

According to school district reports, Superintendent David Flowers said he was disappointed in the behavioral management style that Swanson used. Flowers added that "such a method based solely upon exerting power over students is not and will not be acceptable in any West Fargo Schools classroom or program."

Flowers called for a reinvention of the Middle School Alternative Education Program, which Swanson leads for students with special behavioral needs. As part of an improvement plan, Swanson will take part in the planning for a new alternative delivery model, which included several aspects, such as "elimination of scare tactics, coercion, and intimidation as motivators." Swanson would not be the principal teacher in the program but would be supervised by and take direction from a lead teacher.

According to the letter of reprimand signed on May 24, Swanson was to remain on paid administrative leave for the remainder of the school year and would be put through an improvement plan that included training and professional development.

"This reprimand serves as notification to Mr. Swanson that forceful removal of a student's sweatshirt is not tolerated nor will be tolerated as a strategy for effective classroom management or student discipline," the letter of reprimand said. "Any repeat of similar behavior, including power struggles and/or use of physical force with students will result in a recommendation of discharge for cause."

When reached by phone on Monday, June 11, Swanson said he didn't know if the student involved in the incident will be returning to the school district. Swanson said no formal charges were brought against him or the school district and that he was "found clear of everything" over the course of the investigation.

"Obviously, I'm happy with the outcome," Swanson said. "Better decisions could've been made at the time, but I'm definitely relieved to be returning."

Swanson has coached in North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin since 1991 and has coached high school hockey and football for various metro schools as well. He's been the baseball advisory representative for 12 years for the North Dakota High School Coaches Association. He worked as a scout for the Tampa Bay Rays for eight years and runs a college scouting database for players in the state.

Swanson previously coached at Fargo Shanley High School for 14 seasons and led the Deacons to a state title in 2013. He said his contract wasn't renewed at the school in 2014 after he sent a text to his players critical of their work ethic. Swanson was hired as Sheyenne's coach in 2015. He led the team to the Class A state title game and took runner-up in 2016, when he was selected as USA Today coach of the year. In 2017, the Mustangs reached the state tournament semifinals and took fourth place. This season, the Mustangs were 3-1 before Swanson was put on paid administrative leave. The Mustangs were 5-10 afterward and didn't make the state tournament for the first time since Sheyenne had a varsity team.

Swanson said he was sad to miss out on the final season of the seniors. Swanson said he couldn't communicate with his students or players at all, but said he watched every game online and kept up with his coaching staff. He said he doesn't know if parents or students will treat him differently after the investigation, but he felt supported by fellow teachers and some parents. He doesn't think it will be an issue "whatsoever" moving forward.

"I'm very passionate about the coaching part of it. To not be able to talk to parents or players or anything like that, it was very, very hard," Swanson said. "But you learn, move on and start to prepare for next season."

Swanson said he wasn't surprised that the incident needed to be investigated and that action was taken by the school district went as far as it did. He stressed that the school district had to do "due diligence" and felt he was cooperative with the investigation. He said waiting for decisions on his future was emotional but feels he was treated fairly.

"We all make mistakes at some point. You go through a reprimand process. West Fargo did a good job of doing their due diligence and to cover all sides. I have zero hard feeling with anything in this process or anything like that," Swanson said. "After 27 years of coaching and 26 years of teaching, you don't want one incident to define you. Hopefully, the people who know me and have worked with me and coached with me know who I am. That's the important part."

According to a letter of reprimand in Swanson's teacher file, repeat behavior could "result in a recommendation of discharge for cause."

Colton Pool

Pool is a reporter for The West Fargo Pioneer covering city sports and community news. He was the sports editor for The Dickinson Press covering Dickinson State athletics, high school athletics and Southwest Speedway. He graduated from North Dakota State with a degree in journalism and a minor in English. You can reach him by phone at 701-451-5715 or tweet him @CPoolReporter. 

(701) 451-5715
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