By Adam Strunk
NEWTON–A crowd of mostly angry patrons filled the Newton Board of Education room, packed in at its edges and spilled into the hallway. Many called for explanations from the board of education following a special Wednesday meeting it held to allow a wrestler who violated its code of conduct to participate at the state competition.
The crowd got the explanations from three of the four members who voted in favor of the action, even if many didn’t agree with those explanations.
“I felt like I was going to my own execution driving up here,” Board Member Matt Treaster said. “I’ve landed planes on aircraft carriers and put my life at risk; I’ve never felt as nervous as this.”
Harvey County Now attended a special board of education meeting Wednesday and reported on the events that took place the following days.
The special meeting was called Tuesday by Board Members Matt Treaster, Mallory Morton and Luke Edwards to be held Wednesday to discuss extenuating circumstances around a Newton High School wrestler who had been ruled ineligible for participation at state by the high school administration. The administration learned he used a vaping device at school. Some board members expressed a desire to allow the student to participate.
The extenuating circumstances, outlined by multiple board members and the student’s father at Monday’s meeting, were that a video of the student vaping was turned in to the school district by the mother of an ex-girlfriend. They stated that the family sat on the video for more than a month to release it so the athlete wouldn’t be able to participate in state competition.
The prior Wednesday meeting began under legal confusion and still remains that way.
State law requires all board members to receive a two-day notice of a meeting unless they waive notice. At the meeting, three members of the board of education declined to waive the notice.
BOE attorney John Robb was consulted and told the BOE it could not have the meeting unless all seven signed. If the board waited two full days, the wrestler wouldn’t be able to participate at state.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Board Member Melissa Schreiber said she spoke with the Kansas Association of School Boards, who said they could go forward with the meeting without the waivers.
The district contacted KASB attorney Luke Soba, who said they only needed four signatures on the waiver.
Board President Mallory Morton then moved forward with the meeting, and the board convened in executive session to discuss confidential student matters. They held a two-hour executive session, extended six times, and following, Edwards immediately motioned to change school policy to allow deviations from the Railer Code of Conduct based on administrative discretion.
The board approved that motion 4-3, with Board Members Andy Ortiz, Brenna Haines, and Schreiber voting against it.
In the days that followed, Haines said that policy discussion occurred multiple times during the executive session–something not allowed for under state law. She said she tried to stop it, and she planned on filing complaints to the attorney general’s office on open meeting violations, violations of the two-day notification to board members, and against Board President Mallory Morton, who said she said threatened her.
Ortiz and Schreiber both said that policy was discussed during the executive session, which they tried to prevent.
Edwards said he didn’t believe the board broke the law and Morton made no threats. Morton said the board followed state law and later pushed back against Haines’s allegation.
Edwards later stated that the board found out at the Wednesday meeting that the high school administration had regularly deviated from its code of conduct in the past.
On the topic of their Wednesday decision, person after person got to the podium, and the vast majority criticized the board of education’s decision. Some called for resignations, some discussed how it damaged the school and community, and others asked why their children were punished and wanted their children’s punishments re-opened.
“The decision to amend the Railer Code of Conduct is indefensible,” Daniel Galley told the board.
The point that three board members’ children also qualified for state on the wrestling team regularly got brought up.
“This decision is corruption, plain and simple,” Galley said.
Victor Garcia told the board his son previously was punished for kids bringing marijuana in their car and reached out to Ortiz about it, but his son was still punished.
“Andy let me know that we were moving away from this back door dealing,” he said.
Garcia said he wanted his son’s situation looked into if the board was granting exceptions.
“You need to address every family that’s been affected, from a senior to a freshman, and review every single case and show them the same grace you showed the young man,” he said.
Garcia said, however, as a coach–he’s coached college soccer in the past–he thought the board’s decision was wrong. He said it was hard already to instill into student-athletes that decisions have consequences.
Julie Hendricks made a similar point, stating her daughter was suspended for holding a bag of another cheerleader and not able to cheer after the bag was found to have marijuana in it. She said she reached out to Superintendent Fred Van Ranken, who was kind enough to talk to her but didn’t give the answer she liked. She said she reached out to a board member, who didn’t give the answer she liked. She said her daughter didn’t get to cheer, but they dealt with it.
“I would like to know how you will make this up to my daughter,” she said.
Shayla Larsen, who previously addressed the board after her daughter was suspended for recording a fight on the bus, asked that her daughter’s case be reconsidered. She said the message the board sent to her daughter is that if she was able to win medals for the school, she wouldn’t have the same consequences.
“My daughter is right there watching you guys give favoritism,” she said. “She did nothing illegal and got two days of suspension. This guy committed a crime and gets one day ISS [in school suspension].”
Darin Schmidt formerly served on the district booster club and told the board he was around when the Railer Code of Conduct, which athletes sign to uphold, was crafted.
“I remember thinking back then this is a really good code of conduct and this could start a culture change in schools,” he said. “It’s no good at all if we don’t enforce it and practice what you preach”
He thanked board members who voted against amending the policy.
“My kid was so disappointed when they heard about four of your decisions last week,” he said.
Julia Long said the board’s actions impacted the whole district.
“Your actions didn’t benefit one student,” she said. “It did show the community that the parent of the student was the only thing that mattered […] It’s not in my nature to suggest you step down. With the lack of integrity I see before me, it’s not the worst idea.”
Janet Soukup told the board it was going back to how it used to be.
“I just keep coming back to the good old boys club has shown up and raised its head in Newton,” she said. “At least two of you have lived through this and I thought we had gotten past it. Your overturning administration at the high school was wrong.”
She called on those who approved the decision to resign, as did multiple others.
Ben Meier, who works for Mirror and helps oversee Harvey County Drug-Free Youth, asked the board to consider the consequences of their actions.
“I ask you the same thing we ask middle and high schoolers when we visit with them. What will be the consequences of your actions, because they far outweigh the decisions you are making,” he said.
Multiple others also spoke, criticizing the board’s decision. Many of the speeches were met with applause.
Two people spoke in favor of the board’s actions.
Stephen Theisen turned to the crowd and said he understood many were against what he had to say. He said initially he was upset reading reports of the board’s actions. But as more information came out, he learned that high school administration regularly applied discretion in other cases. He argued that students deserved fair treatment.
“I think the four took the hard road and stood up for equal protection,” he said.
He said he understood not everyone would think it was fair or agreed with their decision, but students should be afforded equal protection if discretion was already being provided.
“I think they did a good job, and I wanted to stand in support of it,” he said.
Andrew Buchanan, the father of the wrestler the board made a decision about, also addressed the crowd and stated what was going on with his family.
He said he found out about the video on Jan. 31. He said he punished his son and waited for a call from the district about his punishment. He said that call didn’t come until Feb. 21.
He said the video was sent to the district by the mother of an ex-girlfriend of his son. He said that the video wasn’t sent to the district until it would mean that his son couldn’t participate in the state competition.
He listed off the words on social media posts involving screenshots of the video.
He said the post stated, “Karma is a b-i-t-c-h you effing piece of s-h-i-t of a human. I hope you’re rotting.”
Buchanan described it as cyberbullying.
“This wasn’t done for the team to win state,” he said, noting that everyone knew Maize would win, as Newton lost to the team at its own tournament, a dual and regionals.
“I argued this video was sat on a month and released at the perfect time to harm my son,” he said. “I was not going to stand quiet when an adult attacked my child.”
Following a meeting relatively light on action, board members got their chance to respond and explain.
Morton asked Haines for comment first, and Haines said she planned on getting clarification if Monday was a legal meeting.
“You can’t have two different legal opinions and pick the ones you like,” she said. “I agree with several speakers tonight that there are board members that need to resign.”
Andy Ortiz said he hoped the situation didn’t bleed down to students and encouraged people to not let it do so.
“I want to give this some space and time,” he said. “I’m proud of the community for showing up, and I hope this continues. I appreciate every one of you and your voices.”
He also said the same sentiment to the board on their opinions.
“Whether I agree with you or not, thank you for sharing it,” he said.
Edwards gave a long description of the situation the board dealt with and why he made his decision.
“I do support consequences,” he said. “I do support accountability. There were consequences for actions. What I don’t support is someone being hateful to someone else. If you laugh at someone and call him a POS and put a picture of them on social media, I don’t want to support the plan.”
He said he viewed the submission as bullying and it was something he couldn’t stand for. He said he would have done the same for any student. He said he was trying to protect a student from malicious action.
“It could have been turned in before that but wasn’t. Why?” he asked. “Because they wanted to hurt him the most. It seems like it was an extenuating circumstance, in my opinion. I understand a difference of opinion and people say no policy is policy, but I thought I was doing the right thing. People will disagree with me. That’s fine, but I would do it a million times again.”
Edwards went on to say the code of conduct needed an appeals process.
He said it had been deviated from by the administration multiple times in the past. He said it had been violated six times in the past year and with that amount that was something the board could review.
“No one is upset that those other kids had received a lower punishment,” he said of discussions in executive session. “Discretion has been exercised, and punishment has been lowered.”
He said he also didn’t feel it appropriate to have a larger policy discussion at a special meeting.
Treaster, often quiet and soft-spoken at meetings, took a significant amount of time to explain his view of things.
“I knew what I was going to get into tonight,” he said. “I knew there would be people in this audience that would get venomous. I thought with my heart. So much of what I’ve done the last 27 years in this community has dealt with children.”
He said he understood that the optics were terrible. One of his sons is a wrestling coach, another is a state wrestler. Treaster himself wrestled for Beloit, winning state four times in a row–a feat his son accomplished last weekend, as well. He said of course he supported the school wrestling program, but his decision was about protecting the individual.
“I couldn’t let the bullies win,” he said. “I just kept going back to that. I searched my heart and head the best I could. Yes, it was rushed, but I felt like we’re going to let the bullies win here if we let this go to Friday. It wasn’t done for personal gain or the team; it was done for that kid, and I would have done it for any other sport or activity.”
Treaster also noted that the board has to continue to work together.
“The bigger concern is where we go as a board,” he said. “I was very proud of the board and considered all of you friends, and I still do, but we have to get along; you can’t just turn your back.”
Schreiber said she respectfully disagreed with Treaster and Edwards.
“Kids and parents sign the code of conduct,” she said. “Kids are held to a higher standard representing our community and our school.”
Dayna Steinmetz didn’t provide any comments and said she was at a loss for words.
Morton was the last to speak.
She outlined the previously discussed position involving the student-athlete and said she didn’t support bullying.
She spoke to the discussion in the executive session and said she stated, “If we are going to follow the code of conduct policy to the letter that allows for no deviation, we must do that to everyone.”
She said that didn’t constitute a threat to any individual.
“Never until this have I seen the wild accusations and blatant attacks on character,” she said.
She said the conversation during the session was to work through two specific student cases, the one mentioned and the other from which high school administration chose to deviate from the code of conduct earlier in the year. She said she believed deviation was allowed in the code of conduct and learned it was not.
She said she did not support bullying.
“I’m keenly aware my position has made me unpopular,” she said. “I believe all actions done by the board have been legal. I do agree and have a question of what is the end game and where do we go from here. I hope we can work through this as a board.”