Are Politics Threatening an Open Educational Environment in Hanover? 

click to enlarge Hanover High students Stephanie Mayle and Georgia Geen are part of a group that wants the School Board to protect teachers from political witch hunts.

Scott Elmquist

Hanover High students Stephanie Mayle and Georgia Geen are part of a group that wants the School Board to protect teachers from political witch hunts.

At Hanover High School, student newspaper editors watch their step when considering whether to write editorials on controversial subjects. And teachers risk facing suspension for displaying anything remotely racy, such as a Power Point slide of Michelangelo’s nude sculpture “David.”

Also banned are the novel “The Color Purple” and the films “In Cold Blood” and “Capote” because they are rated R, students say.

That’s the learning environment as described by some students, former teachers and parents, who say that teachers are especially intimidated by pressure brought by Sean Davis, a member of the Board of Supervisors who represents the Henry District.

They say that Davis has personally intervened to have teachers suspended or face other disciplinary actions if they present ideas or images that Davis considers too liberal.

They also say that as many as five teachers have left the school because of the controversies, which have included teachers having official “monitors” placed in classrooms to oversee performance, interrogating students about what their teachers say in class and having teachers mysteriously leave for weeks at a time.

The atmosphere has become so poisonous that a parent, who asked not to be identified, wrote a letter to Attorney General Mark Herring on Sept. 29, asking for state police “to investigate the conduct of Board of Supervisor Sean Davis and my understanding of a pattern of intimidation of teachers and staff” at the school system.

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by Style, specifically notes the case of Michael Goodrich-Stuart, a longtime, popular English teacher with whom Davis had issues because of what he said in class and because of a wall of photographs and drawings kept in a student newspaper activities office.

The letter writer says that Goodrich-Stuart was given a three-day suspension and forced to have another teacher, a retired Hanover principal, monitor his class. The school superintendent dropped the suspension, according to the letter, after Goodrich-Stuart hired a lawyer.

Goodrich-Stuart, who left Hanover and now teaches in Henrico County, declines to comment.

A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office confirms that Herring received the letter but declines to comment further.

In response to emailed questions from Style, Davis writes: “The Board of Supervisors does not have any role in human resource matters within HCPS. I am familiar with the political tactic of asking someone to respond to false allegations. Recently formed Political Action Committees may use these tactics but politicizing education doesn’t serve our students well.”

Jamelle Wilson, who until recently was Hanover superintendent and now serves as dean of the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies, declines to comment. Chris Whitley, spokesman for the school system, says that Wilson’s replacement took office Dec. 1 and “we have nothing to contribute.”

The issues are likely to be the subject of public debate Dec. 8, during a meeting of the Hanover School Board. There, a recently formed student group called Hanover Students for Freedom of Information and Learning, or HSFOIL, plans to push for changes in school rules to protect teachers against unfair punishment for making sure a variety of views are considered in class.

The group got its start when Davis and other politicians protested a documentary film last year called “Searching for the Roots of 9/11.” It was produced by Thomas Friedman, a veteran foreign correspondent for The New York Times who spent decades reporting from the Middle East. The film explores how people around the globe of different backgrounds might regard the United States.

Davis drew headlines for his efforts to ban the movie. He wrote in one email obtained by Style: “We are a people who live in the homeland of great patriots like Patrick Henry. We believe America is exceptional.”

Hanover graduate Caroline Provost, who now attends Virginia Tech, says she was so offended by Davis’ move that she helped form HSFOIL earlier this year. “It is rather idiotic for Sean Davis to remove the movie,” she says. “Here’s a tea party conservative not supporting the Constitution.”

Provost says she was motivated to take action when Goodrich-Stuart, who also was the high-school newspaper adviser, drew criticism from Davis for some of the art students put up on a wall. According to Provost, one day students went into the room and found all of the material removed. “Nothing on the wall was at all pornographic,” she says — “just innocuous posters, artworks, articles.”

At one point, Provost says she went to class to find that Goodrich-Stuart wasn’t there. A substitute teacher told her that he would be gone “for at least four days.” When Goodrich-Stuart returned, he was “monitored” by another teacher who sat in class.

A post on the student-led Facebook page for HSFOIL says that several Hanover teachers, “including most of HHS’s English department,” left Hanover for other counties.

Georgia Geen, a senior at Hanover High, says she joined the group “because our teachers can get in trouble for teaching anything that’s remotely controversial.

Cathie Lee, the parent of a Hanover High School student, says she’s deeply worried that school officials won’t confront Davis, a former Marine who works at the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association, a Richmond advocacy group.

The student group says it’s going to ask the School Board to toughen its policies to protect teachers from unfair outside political influence.

“My concern is that the School Board is not doing anything to protect their children,” Lee says. “They have to be careful about what essays they are writing.” S

Editor's note: This version corrects the statement that Hanover Public Schools did not respond to Style Weekly's queries. They did.

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