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Warren De La Salle puts president on leave, will search for new leader

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Warren — De La Salle Collegiate, a private Catholic high school in Warren, is searching for a new leader after its board placed President John M. Knight on paid administrative leave, the school announced Thursday.

John M. Knight

The school hopes to find a new leader by Aug. 3, according to a statement.

"Over the past several weeks, the Board has been engaged in discussions about the future of De La Salle Collegiate. Coming out of these meetings, the decision was made to place President John M. Knight on paid administrative leave as the Board continues its discussions and makes decisions going forward," said the statement by Jack Brusewitz, chairman of the school's board of trustees.

Brusewitz declined further comment when reached by phone on Thursday. 

Knight's leave comes during recruiting season, as parents make decisions about where to send their high school-bound boys in the fall.

Sarah Prescott of Northville-based law firm Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter issued a statement on Knight's behalf. It says that Knight's personnel file was "perfectly clean" before he "reported suspected sexual abuse of youths to the authorities," and that the leave was demanded without explanation. 

The statement reads:

John Knight was placed on an undefined "leave" yesterday afternoon.  He reported suspected sexual abuse of youths to the authorities and very recently several were criminally charged.  Mr. Knight's personnel file was perfectly clean before he did this — so I have asked the school's attorneys for any explanation other than the obvious, that this is retaliation for his whistleblowing. I have received no explanation.  

Since reporting the hazing in a program involving a popular coach, Mr. Knight has been subject to outrageous personal abuse including threats to himself and his family.  This community needs to ask itself what it stands for, because this man did the right thing and now he has been viciously attacked and removed. 

The 2019-20 school year has been a tough one for the 700-or-so student school, marked by a reported hazing incident involving its football team, multiple closures due to school threats, its separation from its state championship-winning football coach and, now, the leave of its president.

The alleged hazing led to a criminal investigation in which five students were charged, and prompted school leadership to forfeit a playoff game. 

More:Fifth Warren De La Salle student charged in alleged hazing

Warren Police Commissioner Bill Dwyer said Thursday he wasn't surprised by Knight's suspension in light of what he considered a lack of cooperation by school officials as law enforcement investigated the incident. He said he considered the school's response to be "the opposite" of any whistleblowing.

"The school and students and parents have suffered greatly as a result of hampering by school administrators," Dwyer said. "There were mistakes made in handling of the hazing incident from the beginning ... even after the (St. Clair County) prosecutor's review of the matter found police acted in a professional matter despite (being) hampered in their investigation, which made it impossible to go forward at the time (with charges)."

The police commissioner told The Detroit News recently that the alleged incident, which occurred the night before a football game, reportedly involved victims being held down by teammates and touched with a broomstick handle.

"The team has a ritual in which they have dinner the night before at which time the hazing occurs," Dwyer said.

A conflict of interest in the Macomb County Prosecutor's Office, due to the potential a senior staffer might be a witness, led that office to recuse itself and the St. Clair County Prosecutor's Office has taken the case.

Dwyer and St. Clair County Prosecutor Michael Wendling both lamented the school’s slow response in reporting the alleged incident to police, instead doing its own investigation first.

The school later admitted the hazing was "more pervasive" than it initially thought.

Wendling also said school officials have been uncooperative in providing documents to investigators.

Football coach Mike Giannone took over De La Salle prior to the 2016 season, and led the team to the Division 2 state championships in 2017 and 2018. He coached at Macomb Dakota for 18 years, compiling a 158-51 record that included 15 straight appearances in the state playoffs, including Division 1 state titles in 2006 and 2007.

The 2019 team was 5-4 in the regular season and was to open the playoffs against Birmingham Groves before school officials pulled the plug on the season.

Taking his place is Dan Rohn, himself a winner of four state championships. His hiring was announced Monday and was one of Knight's last major personnel moves.

“Dan’s background of success in forming young people of faith, compassion and conviction is a great fit for De La Salle Collegiate,” a statement from Knight said at the time.

In responding to the news of changes at the top of the school administration, Dwyer said: "The school has been disrupted for months. I'm hoping this will bring some closure and permit getting back to normal operations."

Twitter: @downi75

Mike Martindale and Jennifer Chambers contributed.