ANDOVER — About 200 high school students left class late Tuesday morning to shout out their support for hockey coach Chris Kuchar, as well as other coaches they believe have been mistreated by school administrators over the last few years.
The walkout was fueled by news Monday that Kuchar would not be returning for the 2019-20 school year, despite the hockey program's success.
"I'm devastated," said Kuchar, who was informed by phone at 2:30 p.m. Monday that his contract would not be renewed. "This is over petty politics. This is not about the kids because if it was, I'd be back for another season."
Students originally planned to surround the flagpole in front of the school during their protest, but when an Eagle-Tribune reporter talking to a hockey team captain there was kicked off of school property, the students rushed toward nearby Lincoln Circle to be heard.
Four seniors on the hockey team who crossed the street, wandering a couple feet off of school grounds, were punished by Principal Philip Conrad afterward, according to one of the students involved.
Three of the boys play spring sports — lacrosse, baseball and tennis. They were told they cannot participate in practices or games Tuesday night. The fourth boy, who does not play a spring sport, was given two detentions.
Andover Public Schools Director of Communications Nicole Kieser sent The Eagle-Tribune a comment stating "APS and AHS respect students’ right to voice their concerns." She said the decision to not renew Kuchar's contract was made by the high school principal and the athletic director, not by Superintendent Sheldon Berman.
"Dr. Berman was not involved in this decision, and as a matter of practice, the superintendent is not involved in the matters of hiring coaches or renewal of their contracts," she wrote in the statement.
In 2016, Berman wrote a lengthy letter to Conrad and then-Athletic Director Donald Doucette requesting Kuchar be fired for mistreatment of Berman's son, at the time a player in the hockey program.
Then, in January 2018, Kuchar and two top assistants were suspended pending an investigation by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families for allegations that players were denied food and water. Three weeks later, an independent investigation by the school cleared the coaches of the claims made by a parent, and they returned to the team.
Despite the displeasure of administrators, students who walked out were supported by passing drivers who honked their car horns.
A passenger in a car pulling out of the high school parking lot held a sign out the window that read, "Respect our coaches." The same message was painted in gold lettering on the historic rock near the building's entrance. For five decades, it has sported its share of paint jobs with varying messages.
"This has already happened three, four, multiple times," senior hockey player Matthew Schuhwerk said of coaches being ousted seemingly without warning. "We don't understand why it keeps happening. They're coaches that take time out of their lives."
Schuhwerk's teammate and senior classmate Alex Weinreb also questioned repeated decisions made by administrators to let coaches go without sharing much information with student athletes.
"We want to make sure everyone knows this administration is not doing their job right," Weinreb said. "They keep firing coaches, letting them go for no reason. They still haven't even given us a reason why."
The students also mentioned the suspension of volleyball coach EJ Perry last year, after administrators said he used profanity during games and practices, engaged in racial and ethnic stereotyping of Asian-Americans, made references to locker room violence as a remedy for mistakes on the court, and made other demeaning comments about Andover High student athletes.
Perry was reinstated shortly after and recently took a job at Windham High coaching boys basketball.
Chants of "respect our coaches" rang out Tuesday, coupled with cries of, "We want Kuchar."
"He turned our program around," Schuhwerk said of the coach. "We went to a Super 8 (a selective annual high school hockey tournament), MVC (Merrimack Valley Conference) back-to-back champs, sportsmanship award winners this year."
Senior Patrick Archambault spent all four of his high school years on the varsity hockey team.
"Coach Kuchar made me the man I am today. I wouldn't be here without him," he said Tuesday. "He sent us a text this morning, saying he heard about the walkout and said he loves us."
"We're not going to be here next year, but we know this is about much more than us," senior hockey player Nick Germano said. "He means so much to us, we want to make sure he gets the respect he deserves."
Neither Conrad nor Berman responded to requests for comment ahead of press time for this article.