A St. Francis High School soccer coach who wore a clown mask for a photo at the team’s final practice is fighting to get his job back.
Ben Hildre, a volunteer coach for the junior varsity girl’s soccer team, received a letter from district Superintendent Troy Ferguson on Friday relieving him of his duties after a photo of Hildre wearing a clown mask on school grounds circulated on social media. Administrators say they had to act for the safety of students, several of whom had previously expressed anxiety about the national “creepy clown craze,” where people dressed in clown costumes are spotted walking residential neighborhoods at night, sometimes carrying weapons. Others have made online threats.
Hildre was mistaken as part of the phenomenon last week when an image from the team’s end-of-year practice celebration wound up on Twitter. He said he always dresses up for the last practice, part of an annual Halloween tradition.
A group of varsity players got a laugh out of this year’s gag and asked for a picture of him peeping out from behind a garbage can in the mask. He thought it was in jest, but a firestorm erupted after one of the girls posted the image Wednesday with the caption, “Clown Sighting: St. Francis High School soccer fields.”
Some students who weren’t in on the joke got scared and reported what they perceived as a threatening message to school officials. By Friday afternoon — about 90 minutes before their next game — Hildre was let go.
“The issue is that the timing was terrible,” Ferguson said. “To them, it was all in good fun ... but for someone else, seeing that could be very disturbing. I think it was an irresponsible [decision.]”
District officials said they’ve never had a last-practice Halloween tradition that included costumes. Hildre said it was his own personal tradition and wore a Phantom of the Opera mask last year and has previously dressed up for club teams.
Hildre’s removal barred him from coaching the last three soccer games of the season. Ferguson said he is open to the idea of having Hildre return next school year.
Hildre called the punishment “rash,” and rallied parents and athletes to fight for a reversal. With his team by his side, Hildre pleaded his case at Monday night’s school board meeting, where a handful of supporters spoke in his defense.
A St. Francis alum, Hildre is in his second year coaching at the high school level. His daughter is a freshman at St. Francis.
For his last practice, Hildre was planning to wear his gorilla costume, but could only find part of the outfit. He grabbed a clown mask he had lying around as a substitute.
He blamed the ensuing controversy on a misunderstanding and an overreaction by administrators.
“I understand the concern for your kids, but you have to see the context it was taken in,” Hildre said, adding that his intent “wasn’t malicious.”
On Sunday, Hildre described the saga on his Facebook page, where he called out a 16-year-old student he’d never met who reported the photo to school authorities. Many of his allies blasted the student. He later apologized for dragging her into the conversation.
Ferguson argued that he didn’t want district role models like Hildre to perpetuate the clown craze — intended or not — because he feared it might encourage more teens to use those scare tactics. A teenager dressed as a clown was arrested in Crookston, Minn., on Monday after allegedly chasing children with a large butcher knife.
“We have children in our district who are afraid of this,” Ferguson said. “It’s a safety and security issue. It’s real and I have to take it seriously.”