Did ROWVA board discuss challenged book in private? Attorney General's office is reviewing

The ROWVA School Board hears a report from Principal Adam Seaney during its meeting March 21. That night the four-person board added Amber Fleming as a fifth member. The board is expected to add Heather Godsil and Emily Bean to fill the final two seats on Monday, April 18.
Tom Martin
Galesburg Register-Mail

ONEIDA — The Illinois Attorney General's Office will issue an opinion as to whether the ROWVA School Board violated the Illinois Open Meetings Act during a closed session Nov. 15, 2021.

Based on high school teacher Traci Johnson's resignation letter alleging the board discussed in private removing the book "The Hate U Give" from the classroom, The Register-Mail filed a Request for Review from the Attorney General's Public Access Bureau March 16.

'The Hate U Give':ROWVA keeps book out of classroom, but in school library"We will conduct a review of this case and issue a non-binding determination," wrote Jane Sternecky, assistant Attorney General, Public Access Bureau.

Among the items the bureau requested from ROWVA is a verbatim recording of the closed session. All public bodies are required to record closed meetings.

"The Hate U Give," is a novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, according to its author Angie Thomas' website. The story is about a 16-year-old who witnesses her friend shot and killed by police. The American Library Association listed "The Hate U Give" as one of the 10 most-challenged books of 2017, 2018, and 2020 due to profanity, and it was thought to promote an anti-police message.

ROWVA School Board:What happened in ROWVA? School board splinters over masks, transgender issues, book ban

Register-Mail asks AG to review closed meeting

In its request for review, The Register-Mail alleges the board discussed whether to remove "The Hate U Give" from the classroom, a discussion that should be held in open session, as it was two months later, in January, when the board voted 4-2 to remove the book from the classroom.

That's the same action the board directed the administration to take on Nov. 16, 2021, the day after the meeting in question. 

In her resignation letter Jan. 24, Johnson wrote: “I do not regret standing up against the board making a curriculum decision in closed session and then twisting it around to make it seem like the book had not been banned from the curriculum; use whatever term from the thesaurus you choose, the book was removed from the curriculum without even an investigation.”

Johnson was one of two teachers using the book in the classroom. She had decided to stop using the book when complaints came forward in early November. Rebecca Weitekamp continued using "The Hate U Give" until she was directed by ROWVA High School Principal Adam Seaney to stop using the book.

Seaney received his orders from Jim Haynes, then board president, rather than superintendent Joe Sornberger.

This is the email from ROWVA Board President Jim Haynes directing Principal Adam Seaney to suspend teaching of the book "The Hate U Give."

ROWVA Board president directed principal to suspend book Nov. 16

A Freedom of Information Act request from The Register-Mail revealed the email from Haynes that requested the book be removed. 

"Mr. Seaney, as a result, with the board discussion, the evening of Nov. 15, 2021, the majority are in favor of the following request: "1. Suspend the use of the book, ‘The Hate You Give' within the curriculum due to ‘controversial’ language."2. All directive of instructional coaches come from the building principal."

Haynes goes on to explain in the email the intent is to review the issue during a board retreat Nov. 29, 2021.

“Our goal is to provide clarity in board vision which will allow the district to operate without distractions with those guidelines,” Haynes wrote.

Since the board didn't discuss the book in open session Nov. 15, The Register-Mail believes the discussion that built the consensus to remove the book occurred in the closed session portion of that Nov. 15 meeting.

ROWVA resignations:Superintendent, two board members, teacher resign from ROWVA School District Thursday night

ROWVA attorney says book was part of personnel discussion

The school board's attorney responded April 8 to the request for review.

Attorney Steven M. Richart wrote that the ROWVA School District denies the newspaper’s allegations and said the board was discussing personnel, which is one of the topics the Open Meetings Act allows in private.

Richart is an attorney at Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn, with offices in Peoria, Arlington Heights and O’Fallon. The district did have an attorney from the firm in the Nov. 15 closed session.

“The board properly discussed specific employees and students during its closed session meeting on Nov. 15, 2021, and discussions of the book directly related to the performance of specific employees,” Richart wrote in the April 8 response to the Public Access Bureau.

ROWVA Superintendent Joe Sornberger

The Register-Mail previously reported that Superintendent Joe Sornberger left the closed session Nov. 15, which means Sornberger’s performance could have been discussed. Sornberger has accepted the superintendent position at Jasper County Community Unit School District near Effingham.

Attorney: Board's discussion Nov. 15 was proper

Attorney Richart writes: “Therefore, the board’s discussion squarely fit into the allowed exception for the discussion of employment and performance of specific employees in a closed session meeting under OMA Section 2(c)(1). In sum, the enclosed closed session recording demonstrates that the entirety of the board’s discussion on Nov. 15, 2021 — including the board’s discussion of specific employees’ performance in handling the book controversy — remained squarely within the relevant OMA exceptions and was proper.”

Attorney Richart goes on to argue the board did not take final action with regard to “The Hate U Give.”

Richart recognizes the email from Haynes to Seaney Nov. 16 and notes that “Haynes indicated that these items would be further reviewed at the board’s upcoming retreat.”

Richart concludes “The board did not violate OMA when it entered closed session during its Nov. 15, 2021, meeting. After your review of the enclosed records, the district requests a finding to this effect and the dismissal of Mr. Martin’s Request for Review.” 

As of Tuesday, the Public Access Bureau had yet to listen to the recorded closed session.

Sternecky said cases such as these can take months before the bureau issues a decision, but she hopes to have a decision in the coming weeks.

Leaving ROWVA:ROWVA High School principal approved for job in Galesburg School District

What led up to Nov. 15 book decision?

In its response to The Register-Mail's allegation, attorney Richart summarized what happened prior to the Nov. 15 closed session.

Two freshman English classes at ROWVA High School used "The Hate U Give" as part of the curriculum during the 2021–2022 school year, Richart writes.

Emails show that "The Hate U Give," was also taught during the 2020-2021 school year at ROWVA High School, but The Register-Mail is not aware of controversy over the book during that school year. 

Richart writes that Johnson and Weitekamp chose the book as part of an effort to include diverse perspectives in the curriculum.

Around early November 2021, writes Richart, Principal Seaney began hearing concerns regarding the appropriateness of "The Hate U Give."

"Specifically, a board member and a parent came forward to him with concerns about the book’s generalizations of law enforcement, the use of the “N” word, and the amount of vulgarity. At the Nov. 15, 2021, board meeting, several parents came forward during public comment to express their concerns about 'The Hate U Give' being taught to their students."

Among those speaking against the use of the book was Amber Fleming, who in March was appointed to the board to replace Rob Kalb, who resigned Feb. 10. Kalb had voted in January to keep "The Hate U Give" in the classroom. He told The Register-Mail "If the board were operating as it had for first 14 years of my tenure, I would not have needed to resign my position in spite of my family needs." 

ROWVA School Board Vice President Scott Lake shakes the hand of new board member Amber Fleming March 21 while John Kuelper applauds the appointment. Emails show Lake recommended "The Hate U Give" be suspended from use in the classroom.

Board member: Suspend use of book, Harvard bias test

An email from board member Scott Lake to Haynes Nov. 7, raised concerns about the English department and suggested actions the board took days later regarding "The Hate U Give."

Lake wrote that he was amazed to find out that both Joe (Sornberger) and Adam (Seaney) had administered the Harvard test to our students in the past and they condone the reading material that is being used," Lake wrote.

The Harvard test is a reference to a survey Johnson used as a pre-reading activity about biases in preparation for the book "The Hate U Give."

"I am not willing to allow this to just pass and go back to business as usual," Lake wrote to Haynes. "How do we continue this discussion as a board of education? Does it fit for closed session? Here are my thoughts on next steps:

"• Suspend use of the Harvard Implicit Association Test until a review can be completed to confirm fit use in high school English class and maintaining student privacy/security.

"• Discontinue use of “The Hate U Give” in our English classes. Mrs. Johnson has taken it out but Mrs. Weitekamp is still using it.

"• Suspend our instructional coaching positions. Repurpose the available time toward our COVID learning loss recovery activities.

Haynes responded later Nov. 7.

“Thanks for the feedback," Haynes wrote. "I believe we can talk about personnel in closed session. Not sure on curriculum.”

Two days later, Lake followed up with more urgency.

“I want to be aligned on how to proceed with my concerns for our English curriculum and also a discussion with the BOE for proposed changes to our instructional coaching positions," Lake wrote Nov. 9. "Were you going to talk with Joe (Sornberger) about this or do you want me to contact him directly? Can we have a call sometime today?”

The FOIA request did not turn up a further response from Haynes.

The ROWVA 208 administrative office is located at 303 N. Joy St. in Oneida. School Superintendent Joe Sornberger and high school/junior high Principal Adam Seaney will leave the district June 30 to take jobs elsewhere.

Johnson explains use of Harvard tests

In a response to concerns about the Harvard test, Johnson explained the lesson. Here are some excerpts of an email she sent Nov. 2, 2021.

“I wanted to send out an email to clarify an assignment we did yesterday in Advanced English 1. I was made aware of a screenshot (by a student) labeled as part of an assignment I gave yesterday, and the question in the picture was not a part of the assignment,” wrote Johnson.

Johnson went on to explain: “The lesson was a pre-reading activity for the novel we were going to begin titled 'The Hate U Give.' I taught this novel last year as it allowed us to cover several reading and writing standards using a book that engaged the students. Mr. Seaney actually observed the lesson in question last year, and Mr. Sornberger took one of the surveys as well.”

Those references to Seaney and Sornberger were included in Lake's email to Haynes about changes needed in the English department.

Part of Johnson’s walk through of the lesson included a survey on the Harvard site.

"I instructed students to take two of the bias tests on the Harvard site that I took from a training on how to talk about diverse perspectives in the classroom. … 

"I walked student through the website … . Students began taking the surveys, and a couple of students chose to take one on sexuality. I instructed students to go back to Classroom and click the link to get back to the menu where they should click on an appropriate topic. I reminded them several times to raise their hands if they were getting questions that they didn’t think they should be answering so that I could redirect them to the appropriate place on the website.”

In the email, Johnson announces she had decided against teaching "The Hate U Give." 

"I respect each of you and your students a great deal, and I don’t want you to be in constant fear that I might be promoting something that does not align with your values," wrote Johnson. "We will begin “The Great Gatsby” on Friday instead."

Johnson wrote about how some parents perceive she's incorporating her values into the lessons, which, she explains, is not correct.

"One of the first things I learned in my education courses was to keep my own values out of the educational process, but I think there is a misunderstanding that I am doing the opposite. … My goal is for every student to feel safe and welcome here, no matter their beliefs (or how those beliefs might contradict my own). I truly apologize if your child came home last night and expressed concerns about the content of the lesson. I never want a student to feel uncomfortable in my classroom."

New board member:ROWVA Board adds new member to fill first resignation

Parent accuses teacher of using students as pawns

Two days after the Nov. 15 board meeting where several people spoke to the board against teaching with “The Hate U Give,” a parent sent an email to Johnson accusing her of using her “students as pawns.”

“Yesterday, which was one day after the (board) meeting, (student's name is blacked out) came home and said you took time during freshman writing to address the class and inform them that you’re disappointed in their parents for speaking at the board meeting," the parent wrote.

"You didn’t show up to speak at the meeting … Instead, you displayed an immense lack of comprehension of the situation and appropriateness. How? By taking time in class to express your contempt to students about parents not agreeing with you. I see that as you using your students as pawns."

The parent then said he was offended by critical race theory being taught. 

"Parents like me that are not in the slight bit racist nor homophobic and that does teach his kids to treat everybody as a person are very offended by CRT (critical race theory). It appears to try to solve the problem of racism by calling all whites racist: inherently, systematically and therefore sometimes unknowingly. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Johnson refuted the allegations in a return email to the parent Nov. 17. Principal Seaney is copied on the email.

“I said nothing of the sort in class. … I was very cognizant that I didn’t say anything about the board meeting as that would be completely unprofessional. I think you need to speak to (the student) again to clarify as the accusations in here are completely false."

Board member wanted to post survey lesson publicly

Board member John Kuelper had an exchange of emails with Johnson Nov. 3 after Johnson's lesson that included the Harvard survey.

ROWVA Board Secretary John Kuelper

"I would like to have a verbal conversation with you about his topic," Kuelper wrote.

Johnson would agree to meet with Kuelper only if Principal Seaney and union representatives also were there. 

"Thank you for the offer to discuss this verbally, but after my interaction with a board member yesterday, I do not feel comfortable with that," Johnson wrote. "I would be happy to speak about it with a union representative and Mr. Seaney with us on Monday though."

Then Johnson refers to Kuelper's plan to make the survey from her lesson plan public.

"I understand this is not the timeline you want, so if you feel the appropriate thing to do is share my lesson to the public to get their feedback, I would really appreciate it if you provided the context with it.

"I honestly feel that this is not solely about this lesson, but about me and the values that people think that I have. I have gotten a reputation that I’m leading some sort of movement. My goals, which are aligned with the state policy and federal ELA teaching standards, are to make sure students are respectful to one another at all times. That is not the current reality with our students, and there is work to do. I will never apologize for fostering tolerance in my classroom," Johnson responded.

Kuelper responded again Nov. 3, complimenting Johnson and then explaining his plan to post her survey publicly.

“You are a great teacher," Kuelper wrote. "The best at ROWVA and in my opinion one of the best in the area and entire state.

“My plan to post the survey publicly was to get a reaction" Kuelper continued. "Preferably from other board members, yourself, and our administration. I wanted to know that we as a district could reflect and improve moving forward.”

Kuelper then pledged his support to Johnson.

"I will leave you with two thoughts," wrote Kuelper. "Both of which I think has been brought to light by this assignment. Perception is reality. Our parents’ perception of this survey is not the real truth, but to them it is. And secondly is being secretive. If we wouldn’t be comfortable giving the same lesson to a students’ parents then maybe we should reevaluate. I’m not saying your are being secretive, please refer to my first thought. 

"We can get through this, and I’m willing to be behind you 100%." 

Teacher responds to complaints about book

The other teacher, Weitekamp, who was then still using the book received emails.

One parent said his/her son did not like the book because of all the profanity. 

“I started to reading it myself to see what he was referring to and noticed it has a huge amount of profanity and sexual content.”

“It’s unfortunate that this book gives the impression that police officers are bad and they go around shooting everyone for no reason. I don’t see where it was mentioned the kid that was shot should have followed what was asked of him by the police.”

Weitekamp on Nov. 7 attempted to quell some of the concerns in an email. The destination of the email is blacked out.

"I understand how some of the language and situations in this novel can be off putting for some students. As an English department, we decided to add more culturally and socially relevant books to our curriculum last year. ….

"We feel this novel gives insight and valuable perspectives into various social issues the nation is currently facing. Before reading the novel, we discussed the Black Lives Matter movement and how/when it was created. This novel covers a range of relevant topics for the students to learn about and explore through our discussions: race, identity, interracial dating, political activism, grief, friendship, wealth disparity, police brutality, stereotypes, addiction, and the media’s depiction of Black Americans."

Teacher confides to board president she will resign

Johnson in an email to Haynes Nov. 17 wrote that the board would have to make a big statement to get the community back on board. 

“It’s scary how quickly things disintegrated. I truly believe you are the man who can put things back together. I won’t be bringing a group of teachers out the door with me. I think ROWVA is still an amazing district, and I think that many teachers can continue to thrive and be happy and help our students if they are encouraged to do so. 

“For me, I think the problem is that once word started to spread that I was pushing an agenda, parents formed opinions about me without really knowing me. Those opinions spread to their children.”

Getting the district to move forward is a tall order, and I know there are times when it might not seem worth it. But every student that walks through those hall is worth it. Keep fighting the good fight. You are a good man, Jim Haynes.”

Haynes wrote back to Johnson after she intimated that she would resign.

"I hate to see it come to this," Haynes wrote. "I truly believe this is a small group lashing out."

Four months later Haynes resigned, March 10, citing division among the board. Board member Melissa Shepherd joined Haynes in resigning, leaving three empty board seats.

Johnson resigned in January and her husband, a high school social studies teacher, Chris Johnson, resigned in March. Elementary School teacher Rebecca Brown, also one of two union representatives, resigned in March.

In addition to Superintendent Sornberger's resignation effective June 30, High School/Jr. High Principal Adam Seaney was approved Monday for a job in the Galesburg School District. 

In addition to appointing Amber Fleming to the board in March, the board interviewed 11 candidates for the other two board seats and has two candidates, Heather Godsil and Emily Bean, on the agenda to be appointed at the Monday, April 18, meeting.

The board is seeking a new superintendent and will close the application period on Monday and begin interviews in late April. 

Timeline ROWVA action concerning ’The Hate U Give’ 

This timeline was part of Superintendent Joe Sornberger’s report to the board Jan. 18 before the board voted 4-2 to remove the book classroom use.

● In early November, Mr. Seaney heard concerns from a board member about a book being read in freshman English class. The Board Member had concerns about the appropriateness of the book, “The Hate U Give.” The concerns focused on the book's generalization of law enforcement, the use of the “N” word, and the use of vulgarity. 

● In the same timeframe, another parent reached out to the freshman English teacher with the same concerns as the board member. 

● At the November School Board meeting, several parents spoke out about their concerns regarding the book, “The Hate U Give.” 

● After the completion of the November, 2021 Board Meeting, a directive was emailed to Principal Seaney by the Board to suspend the use of the book, “The Hate U Give” at ROWVA Jr./Sr. High School. 

● At that time, Mr. Seaney told the freshman English teacher that the book was suspended by the Board due to vulgar language via Board directive. The English teacher abandoned the lesson and moved onto another book. 

● At the December Board meeting, a community member in the “Recognition of Visitors” portion of the agenda, addressed the Board about the suspension of the book. His concern was that the suspension of the book was not an action taken in open session but a directive given by the Board after closed session at the end of the meeting. 

● At the end of the December Board meeting, the Board discussed the concern from the community member regarding the suspension of the book in open session. It was determined that the Board would take action at the January Board Meeting to discuss the future of the book. 

● Today, please think about the implications of banning a book. A Google Search will show you what that can lead to on a national scale.