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Keith Booth sues Baltimore schools for defamation over ouster as Dunbar basketball coach

Keith Booth, shown here trying to put on Dunbar Poets sport jacket when he was hired a year ago, has filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Baltimore school system of defaming him by making him a scapegoat over an incident involving a student athlete.
Keith Booth, shown here trying to put on Dunbar Poets sport jacket when he was hired a year ago, has filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Baltimore school system of defaming him by making him a scapegoat over an incident involving a student athlete.(Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Dunbar basketball great Keith Booth has filed a federal lawsuit against the Baltimore school system saying it “scapegoated” him when he was fired as his alma mater’s head boys basketball coach after what he calls school officials’ mishandling of an incident of student sexual misconduct.

Booth, who starred at the University of Maryland and played for the Chicago Bulls during a championship season featured in the recent ESPN documentary “The Last Dance,” alleges he was let go in an “extreme and defamatory way” in February, and offers new details of what he says was a fraught first season as the Poets’ coach.

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The lawsuit says his dismissal came after he learned of and informed administrators of “improper sexual interaction between a Dunbar junior varsity basketball student athlete and a female student manager on a team bus ride." The incident happened as the team returned Jan. 11 from the 24th annual Basketball Academy tournament at Morgan State University, although the lawsuit said he didn’t become aware of it until weeks later.

A letter was released to the Dunbar community at the time saying Booth was no longer the coach and that the incident was under investigation. Booth’s attorney alleges in the lawsuit that the letter wrongly implied that Booth was at fault, despite the fact that he had confronted both students and alerted the assistant principal.

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“Coach Booth will forever live with the stain of Defendants’ false and defamatory letter and denial of his constitutional rights to clear his name," the lawsuit says.

Booth is suing the city school board, schools CEO Sonja Santelises, Dunbar principal Yetunde Reeves and Jerome Jones, the director of labor relations and negotiations for the school system.

The school system released a statement Friday afternoon that didn’t directly address the allegations.

“While City Schools does not comment on pending litigation, it is important for the Dunbar HS community to understand that the allegations in any legal complaint will be tested through an extensive process to determine whether they can be proven true,” according to the statement.

When Booth learned of the sexual incident, he immediately suspended the student athlete and informed Dunbar’s assistant principal, “who for days, along with Defendant Reeves, did nothing with this information,” the lawsuit claims.

“Indeed, three days after Coach Booth informed the Assistant Principal, the junior varsity-basketball student athlete called Defendant Reeves, the Principal, directly and admitted to having touched the female. In the face of this confession, Defendant Reeves stood mute,” the lawsuit alleges.

Booth said he was directed to write a statement regarding the incident, then was fired by Reeves. Booth said that Jones, the human relations director, later told him he was only “on leave,” but that reports of Booth’s dismissal leaked out.

The lawsuit further alleges the firing was “spurred on by some powerful alumni who were concerned more about past allegiances than the development of future generations and consistent with her past history.”

Booth’s lawsuit does not identify the alumni, but says they had complained to him that he was not showing enough respect for them and a previous coach. After a Jan. 31 game, the lawsuit states, he was confronted about the complaints and told the alumni that they “should be raising money to fix the [school’s] facilities” if they wanted to help the program.

In what was described as a rebuilding season with a young nucleus of players, Dunbar went 10-11 this past season. The team won four of its last five games after Booth was removed, including winning the 2A Region II championship.

Despite winning a state-record 16 state basketball titles, all since 1993 — including a pair of four straight (2003 to 2006 and 2010 to 2013) — the Poets have won only one championship since, in 2017-2018. Dunbar finished 16-9 the season before Booth took over, losing to Lake Clifton in the Class 1A North semifinals.

A McDonald’s All American at Dunbar, Booth went on to enjoy a stellar college career at Maryland before becoming a first-round draft pick, 28th overall, by the Chicago Bulls in 1997. He spent two seasons with the Bulls, winning an NBA championship in 1998.

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As a junior at Dunbar in 1992, Booth helped the Poets win their third national championship, following titles in 1983 and 1985.

Booth was hired at Dunbar in May 2019. His lawsuit walks through his early days in charge of the program, and how it fell apart.

Booth was hired by Reeves’ predecessor, who was replaced shortly thereafter. After taking over as coach Booth commissioned three large banners to commemorate the school’s national championships that would be hung prominently on the center of the north wall of the gymnasium, according to the lawsuit.

Booth says the alumni association objected to hanging the banners because he had not sought their permission. “Coach Booth’s decision to hang the banners despite the lack of permission caused even more consternation for certain supporters because it meant that there would be no room on the wall for the portrait of the former Dunbar coach to whom these powerful alumni were aligned,” the lawsuit alleges.

He also sparred with alumni over his decision to have the team play in a tournament at DeMatha High School instead of a tournament on the Eastern Shore, the lawsuit says.

Booth’s lawsuit states he did not learn about it for weeks until another manager informed him. Per the suit, Booth called the accused male student athlete into his office, and the student “confessed” and was suspended from the team. Booth’s lawsuit states he then informed Assistant Principal Lawrence Williams, who told Booth to write up what had occurred, but Booth believed he should wait until he had spoken with the manager for corroboration.

On Jan. 29, Booth spoke to the student manager who he said “acknowledged the incident and stated that she had allowed it to happen," the lawsuit says. Booth called her mother to explain the situation, according to the lawsuit.

Reeves, according to the suit, chastised him for not bringing it to her attention sooner and told him to take no further action. Booth alleges it was the assistant principal who failed to relay the information to her.

Booth said that on Feb. 7 he was handed a letter telling him the incident was under investigation and he would “no longer be permitted to report to Baltimore City Public Schools for work, interact with the team or attend Dunbar’s boys’ basketball games until advised in writing otherwise.”

A letter saying Booth would “no longer serve” as the Poets head coach was sent out to stakeholders.

His lawsuit alleges the letter wrongly implied Booth was fired and that he posed a threat to students.

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Booth subsequently received a letter saying he was still under investigation, and he continued to get paid, according to his attorney, Barry Gogel. His one-year contract has since lapsed.

“The sum and substance of what he has received from city schools was those two letters,” Gogel said in an interview.

Baltimore Sun reporter Glenn Graham contributed to this article.

This article has been updated. An earlier version inaccurately stated the defendants in Booth’s lawsuit. The complaint was filed against the Baltimore City school system, schools CEO Sonja Santelises, the system’s director of labor relations and the Dunbar High School principal. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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