JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – One of two former Science Hill High School teachers who had a physical fight on campus last week had several confrontations with other staff through the years, school records show.
After a 2001 heated argument that nearly came to blows and during which an assistant principal told teacher Ernest Hill, “get out of my face or I will knock your $#%@ head off,” Hill was directed by the superintendent to complete anger management counseling.
Hill, a wellness teacher who coached several sports during his 34-year tenure with Johnson City Schools, retired following the scuffle with JROTC instructor Sgt. Jeremiah Ross. Ross resigned his position.
Hill’s personnel file contains several stern warnings from superintendents spanning a period between 1995 and 2004. Some involved off-campus troubles, but others centered around conflicts with fellow staff members and usually involved coaching or athletics issues.
A 2004 warning from then-superintendent Toni McGriff following a misdemeanor offense of attempted child abuse/neglect (excessive discipline) references Hill’s employment history.
“As you know, I am very aware of the incidents in the past that have involved law enforcement or have resulted in confrontations with your principals and coworkers,” McGriff wrote. “If you are involved in any other incident of these kinds, it will result in employment consequences.”
News Channel 11 requested both men’s personnel files. That of Ross, who began teaching ROTC in 2017, had no incidents noted.
A bumpy work history
Hill’s file includes narratives on more than a half dozen incidents, as well as two racial discrimination complaints filed by Hill, with the records stretching from 1995 to 2009.
Formal writeups on incidents range from a run-in with the new football coach in 1999 (Hill was an assistant) to several incidents involving Hill’s connections to the track team, both as a coach and a former coach.
Two off-campus incidents involving law enforcement and the court system also were in Hill’s file, including a resisting arrest guilty plea and a misdemeanor child abuse plea for excessive discipline.
Hill, who is Black, also filed two Title VI complaints alleging racial discrimination — one in 2004 and one in 2008. In both cases, the complaint investigator found no evidence of discrimination.
The first letter in Hill’s file relates to a resisting arrest guilty plea after a March 14, 1995 incident involving the Jonesborough Police Department.
Then-superintendent William Symons gave Hill a 10-day suspension from work. The letter notes that if the charges were upheld, any further “complications” that would result in a guilty verdict “would result in our having to terminate your employment.”
Another letter two years later, this one from Superintendent William Russell, references a call from Hill informing him of another arrest following a confrontation with his ex-wife. No charges were filed, but Russell brought up the 1995 incident as a warning.
Hill’s first recorded run-in with colleagues came in 1999 when John Bowles took over as head coach of Science Hill’s football program. The only record is a letter from then HR Director Beverly Campbell to an attorney for the school system.
According to Campbell, Bowles, with the support of Athletic Director Mike Voitlein, had removed Hill as an assistant before the season citing missed team meetings and generally “not showing interest.”
Campbell wrote that Hill had “made threats about getting NAACP, Mrs. McConnell (a local leader in the Black community) and others involved.” She wrote that Superintendent Russell was, “interested in what can be done in light of other situations. Previous warnings are at the front of his folder…”
“We are concerned about Ernest’s volatility,” Campbell added.
2001: ‘These behaviors are extremely serious and cannot be allowed to continue’
Hill’s closest brush with a physical confrontation came in December 2001, two years after his dismissal from the football staff, and involved an assistant principal, Bill Nuss.
Hill was head track coach at Science Hill at the time and had written the athletic department’s Keith Turner Dec. 5 to request the track and field team be allowed to share the auxiliary gym after school with whatever teams were using it.
In his account of that day, Turner wrote that he’d responded saying whatever sport was in season (in this case, 8th- and 9th-grade basketball) had exclusive use “without interruption” and that the gym was available when basketball teams weren’t using it.
But on Dec. 5, Keith Turner of the athletic department had informed Hill the team shouldn’t use any part of the gym during 8th- and 9th-grade basketball season. Voitlein informed Hill verbally, but Hill brought a small group of athletes to the space anyway and according to Turner, had also set up hurdles in the space.
When several staff members came to the gym to demonstrate a new method of securing the doors and noticed Hill’s team practicing.
Hill told Turner he disagreed with the directive and according to Turner’s account, was told the decision wasn’t going to change. Shortly after, Turner wrote, Hill began “making a negative scene in front of many students.”
At that point, Bill Nuss walked toward Hill “and made the comment ‘don’t even go there’ trying to get Mr. Hill not to make a big scene,” Turner wrote.
According to Turner, Hill and Nuss’s separate written accounts, the situation escalated with Hill arguing in very close proximity to Nuss, both inside and outside the gym.
Nuss and Turner both acknowledged that at one point Nuss told Hill to get out of his face or he would “knock his #$@* head off.”
Giving his side of the story, Hill apologized but explained that until a change in athletic administration, the team had been allowed to train inside the gym even as other teams practiced.
“Negative words + Negative body language + Negative statements by all parties involved results in a Negative unproductive encounter,” Hill wrote of the confrontation.
“I apologize for the things I did unprofessionally on the 5th of Dec. And at the same time I forgive those things said and directed toward me that were unprofessionally,” Hill wrote.
Superintendent Toni McGriff wrote Hill two weeks later. She said his failure to follow the directive against training the team was insubordinate.
Hill’s argumentative response to Turner and the escalation that culminated in the confrontation with Nuss, McGriff wrote, were behaviors that are “extremely serious and cannot be allowed to continue.
“They constitute insubordination and may be grounds for termination of your employment.”
McGriff ordered Hill to enroll in an anger management program or begin individual anger management counseling and to develop a written anger management plan in collaboration with the counselor. She also ordered him to follow supervisors’ directives “and commit no further acts of insubordination.”
Failure to comply, McGriff wrote, would force her “to take further actions regarding your continued employment.”
Shortly after, on Dec. 26, Hill filed a complaint against Nuss. McGriff wrote Jan. 17, 2002 letter that she was investigating his claims, but no other notes are in the personnel file.
On Feb. 11, 2002, McGriff acknowledged Hill’s successful completion of anger management classes and an anger management plan.
Several more incidents through 2009, then nothing
Hill had several additional incidents over the next decade.
In April 2004, he received another letter from McGriff in response to the misdemeanor attempted child neglect/abuse case. McGriff mentioned potential termination and wrote, “In light of your past history, any further unprofessional conduct on your part will have serious consequences.”
Aside from a court document requiring Hill to serve six months unsupervised probation and attend domestic abuse counseling, the incident has no other records attached to it.
But four months later, Hill filed his first discrimination complaint during an Aug. 3, 2004 visit to Robbie Anderson, the system’s Title VI coordinator.
Hill told Anderson Mike Voitlein, still the athletic director at Science Hill, had told him that day the school wasn’t renewing his contract as head track and field coach — a position he’d held for five years. Hill said Voitlein cited the domestic incident earlier in the year as well as insubordination “concerning an incident with a student athlete at the regional track meet.”
Hill filed a written grievance “based on race and on a lack of due process in regard to his dismissal” as coach, Anderson wrote in an Aug. 9 summary of her investigation.
Anderson found no discrimination and said the coaching decision was backed by several “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons.”
Those included “problems in developing positive working relationships with assistant coaches,” leaving the administration having difficulty filling those positions. They also included failure to submit paperwork in a timely manner to TSSAA, violating school rules regarding student participation in athletic events and exhibiting previous insubordination.
Almost four years later, Hill filed another racial discrimination Title VI complaint. In March 2008 he said Science Hill staff had told him he couldn’t voluntarily train Milligan College and East Tennessee State University athletes “as long as the Science Hill track team was still present.”
Hill filed a complaint March 10 alleging racial discrimination and added a complaint regarding lack of access to a computer or work space at the gym.
Anderson again found no discrimination and referenced a 2007 directive, stemming from conflict with current coaching staff, that banned him from any athletic contact with SHHS athletes.
She wrote that efforts should be made to secure a personal work space and computer for Hill to enter attendance and grades but called that an “oversight.” If Hill was able to produce already requested letters from ETSU or Milligan seeking his assistance, “a decision regarding Mr. Hill’s restricted use of the track will be reviewed,” Anderson wrote.
The final notable items in Hill’s file include a March 11, 2009 letter from Science Hill Principal John Boyd documenting Hill’s absence from two days of assigned cafeteria duty earlier that month, something each faculty member was assigned two days per term.
Two weeks later, Hill wrote a memo to Assistant Principal Catherine Edwards complaining of up to three students from another teacher’s class were being sent unsupervised to the gym.
Following those two minor instances, Hill’s file had no further notable materials in it prior to this month’s incident.