Drama and Disappointment at the Grants Pass School District Termination Hearings

On Thursday, July 15, I had a front-row seat at the four-hour Grants Pass School District 7 termination hearings for North Middle School Assistant Principal Rachel Damiano and science teacher Katie Medart, who were put on leave earlier this year after recording a video in support of the I Resolve movement, which offers alternatives to “transgender equity” policies in schools. Sitting in an area reserved for media, I watched quite a show along with over a hundred supporters of the two educators.

Most news outlets reported that both women were terminated for violating school policy. You’ll also hear that the board was split because both motions to support the superintendent’s recommendation to terminate passed by 4 to 3 votes. The “yes” votes were cast by Board Chairman Scott Nelson, Brian DeLaGrange, Cliff Kuhlman and Debbie Brownell. The “no” votes were cast by Gary Richardson, Cassie Wilkins and Todd Neville.

While those facts are true, there is a lot more to this story that needs to be told – and you can read it right here.

Let’s start with the sound system in the Grants Pass High School Library. The wall speakers are normally used for showing videos to students. Using these speakers with 12 microphones resulted in a terrible echo in the room. Calls to “speak louder” only caused the echo to get louder.

The hearing began with the school district attorney Nancy Hungerford explaining the basis of the allegations. The allegations were supported by a report prepared by former Grants Pass Police Chief Bill Landis who now operates Pacific Consulting and Investigations.

Next, Rachel delivered her response to the allegations. It was very eloquent and well thought out. She went through the allegations point-by-point. We heard how the Oregon Revised Statutes define political activity and how her video did not constitute political activity as defined by state law.

We also learned about the “Heckler’s Veto.” Explains the First Amendment Center: “A heckler’s veto occurs when the government accepts restrictions on speech because of the anticipated or actual reactions of opponents of the speech.”

In this case, what we learned was that the commotion originally occurred a week after the I Resolve video was posted, which proposed that school bathrooms and locker rooms be segregated based on the students’ anatomy. The complaints were caused in part by the district superintendent who sent out an email asking to hear from anyone who had been offended by the video.

The board members had an opportunity to question Rachel as well as the district’s attorney.

Richardson asked, “Does the district have a policy that talks about when we put people on administrative leave?” Attorney Hungerford replied that the “Oregon Revised Statute says that the superintendent of the district for any cause that the superintendent believes is warranted may place an employee on paid administrative leave.” Richardson then stated, “So we have no policy?” Hungerford answered, “There is no policy because the statute delineates that responsibility as being a superintendent.”

A motion was made to support the superintendent’s recommendation to terminate Rachel, followed by a brief discussion. Richardson pointed out errors in the private investigator’s report and concluded no violations of school policy occurred. DeLaGrange said, “It’s hard for me to see how allowing this administrator to stay will not make some group of our students feel less safe in our schools, whether that’s real or their feeling. Our top priority is to make sure all students are as safe as possible, so that’s why I am accepting the superintendent’s recommendation.” Board member Todd Neville noted, “I don’t feel that due process was handled on the lowest level before it came to this, where it is now.”

Following the discussion, the board had a rollcall vote. Board members had to state “yes” or “no” to cast their votes. When it came to Kuhlman, he held up a document he wanted to discuss. Nelson pointed out to him that it was time to vote.

Could Kuhlman follow the hearing? Could he hear what was going on? It didn’t appear so to me.

The district’s counsel Bill Ransom spoke to him briefly away from the group. When he came back, Kuhlman cast the deciding “yes” vote.

Rachel Damiano had been officially fired.

There was a 30-minute break before the next hearing began. The audience was visibly upset with the decision – some mad, some in tears and some livid. Twice I heard someone say, “they’ll never pass a school bond after this.” I guess we’ll see about that.

At 5 p.m. the board began Katie Medart’s termination hearing. She was represented by a labor union attorney because she was a teacher. Katie also presented a well-crafted response to the district’s allegations.

Katie’s attorney did a masterful job elaborating on Katie’s testimony and offering a mini-course on free speech protection for school teachers. He explained, “The credible evidence shows that the reasons asserted by the superintendent through his counsel are false and simply a pretext for the real reasons the district has recommended to you that Ms. Medart be dismissed: her free expression of ideas and beliefs.” He then summarized past district behavior when it had attempted to restrict the speech of district employee Ryan Clark. He closed with strong words to the board about the consequences of supporting the superintendent’s recommendation to terminate.

During the question and answer period, Neville asked the district attorney, “Speaking of freedom of speech, did you say a staff member does not have First Amendment rights while on the job in the classroom?”

Attorney Hungerford answered, “Yes, they’re not allowed to decide what curriculum they’re going to teach. They are governed by both state standards and local standards and local policies in terms of what’s produced in the classroom. They don’t have the ability to divert and tackle some other topic if they’re teaching math and claim they can spend a whole classroom period teaching some other subject. They have a job to do, which is to teach math. And the courts have been pretty clear about the facts that the First Amendment doesn’t protect students in the K to 12 range.”

Neville countered with “I don’t think there’s any allegation that Ms. Medart, while she was teaching, engaged in anything other than instruction. She went to school; she did her job. She did not engage in this speech when she was doing her job.”

The hearing officially ended, and it was time for the board to take action once again. In a surprising twist, Richardson made a motion to “not support” the superintendent’s recommendation to terminate Katie. This meant that a “yes” vote would reject the teacher’s termination. Board member Kuhlman asked at this point, “Is this situation different from the first situation?” Following a brief discussion, Neville seconded the motion and a discussed ensued.

Richardson read a prepared statement into the record. To summarize the discussion, Richardson stated that any violations of school policy were too minor to warrant termination. Board member Debbie Brownell stated, “I believe the investigator. He has at least five different reasons for termination, and any one of them would be adequate for termination in my view.”

Richardson then addressed Brownell: “Debbie, I find it disconcerting that essentially your position is that any information from the investigator is correct and true even though clearly some of those items are point blank just false.” Brownell responded, “I don’t think this should be a debate, so I will not respond to what I feel [are] misconceptions from your department.”

Richardson then continued the discussion. “I think it would be good to review that the district had a policy in 2008. That policy AC read ‘all restrooms, dressing rooms, and locker rooms will be segregated by gender at birth. The district will accommodate any individual needing other arrangements.’  Many of the complaints that came in were from individuals who work[ed] for the district under that policy that is now causing substantial disruption to the district. In 2015, the district policy was changed to read ‘the district will maintain separate male and female restrooms, dressing rooms and locker rooms. The district will accommodate any individual needing other arrangements.’

“In 2019, that language was removed. These types of changes are generally driven by the state. It’s not because our local community necessarily wants to make that change, but they are state laws that we have to follow. I’m having a hard time when we’re transitioning to these new things that are coming at us finding that it instantly becomes a substantial disruption to the school when actually what their speech was advocating for represents our policy back in 2008. Any response?”

There was dead silence in the room.

Nelson broke the silence by asking, “Thank you. Are there any other comments from the board members?”

Richardson then said, “I also would like to note that the disruption that is said to have occurred at North [Middle School], that four possibly five of the employees that filed those complaints are not employed at the school that’s being disrupted. To the extent they use social media to further that disruption should merit attention from the administration.”

Nelson then asked Richardson, “How much disruption has this caused to the district leadership in spending time away from their responsibilities to deal with the investigation and the accusations that have been placed before them?”

Richardson responded that “I don’t think we have policies for that. The policy relates to the disruption of the school and the educational process. I’m not happy to be here, but [in] the First Amendment it is called ‘freedom of speech,’ but it really should be called ‘freedom to offend.’”

The audience applauded at this point.

The discussion ended, and Board chairman Nelson repeated the motion to the board. He explained the difference between this motion and the motion of the prior hearing. Kuhlman then asked, “I am trying to figure out free speech and where does free speech fit into this case. More so than the previous case?”

Nelson explained that they both cases had similar violations of policy.

As the rollcall vote continued, Kuhlman said, “I can’t get the answer I need, so I’m abstaining.” Nelson pointed out to him that members need to vote “yes” or “no” on this type of matter. The vote progressed and was 3 to 3, when it came time for Kuhlman to cast the deciding vote. Kuhlman asked to speak with the district’s attorney. After a discussion among the attorneys, the motion was repeated, and Kuhlman was asked to vote. He said, “I guess I have to vote no.” The motion failed 3-4, and the meeting continued.

A new motion was made by Brownell and seconded by DeLaGrange to support the superintendent’s recommendation to terminate Katie Medart.

At this point, there was little more to be discussed. Katie Medart was fired by a 4 to 3 vote. Board members voting to terminate Katie Medart included Nelson, Brownell, Kuhlman and DeLaGrange. Board members voting against termination were Neville, Wilkins and Richardson.

At the hearings, I saw firsthand what happened from my privileged position. I was reminded of the responsibility of journalists to report the news as it happened and avoid adding opinions and comments. Details matter – especially when two careers were terminated.

I plan to do more firsthand reporting in the JoCo Eagle News Forum and in future print editions of the Josephine County Eagle.

Richard Emmons is the Publisher and Editor of the Josephine County Eagle. jocoeagle.com/