LAKE WALES, Fla. - When Burney Hayes enters a room, it's hard not to notice. His towering six-foot three-inch frame and his enthusiastic smile easily draw a crowd's attention. Despite his efforts to be discreet, those attending a meeting at the B street community center in Lake Wales got up to shake his hand as he made his way to the back of the gathering hall.
Hayes was fired last week from Lake Wales High School, after an incident where he allegedly shoved a student after an altercation during junior varsity basketball practice. It's against the policy of the Polk County School District for teachers to physically discipline students.
Dozens of supporters gathered at the community center to organize a demonstration against the school's principal, Donna Dunson, and the school board.
"We were devastated," said Anthony Jones, a Lake Wales sophomore and member of the junior varsity team. Jones said he witnessed the incident involving Hayes and one of his teammates.
"He told him to do push ups and he didn't do that," Jones said. "He started cursing at him and started cursing some more. He kept saying f-you and f-this." When the student tried to get back into practice, Jones described how Hayes grabbed him in a bear-hug to prevent the student from going into the gymnasium.
Calvin Marion, a community activist who helped organize the meeting, said the school district overreacted by dismissing Hayes, citing his long history helping young people in Lake Wales.
"He's made sure that kids go to school. He's picked kids up off the street," Marion said. "By himself he has just done so much for this community. It's almost like we can't allow him to go down," Marion said.
Hayes, 51, said he has dedicated himself to improving the lives of young people for the last 25-years.
"Lake Wales has nothing for a young black man," Hayes said. "When I was 26 I realized my calling," he said. And that included coaching young boys playing basketball.
The school district has surveillance video cameras that captured the incident involving Hayes and the player. The Lake Wales police department has a copy, but those attending the meeting said they haven't been able to view the video.
"We want to be able to see it," said Tamiko Hodge, who's kids have worked with Hayes in the past. "I don't want it edited. I want to see the video."