Kettle Run High School English and journalism teacher Shelly Norden, who ran unsuccessfully for the Fauquier County School Board, said she was escorted out of the school on Nov. 25 and placed on administrative leave for “harassment of colleagues.” She said it was because of a social media post.
Norden said she met on Monday, Dec. 16, with human resources representatives and was told that she could return to the classroom after the holiday break – but she would be reporting to Fauquier High School as an English teacher without any journalism classes.
Norden said, “This new teaching assignment removes me from teaching what I love -- journalism. I’ve been teaching journalism for 15 years ...”
Norden said her suspension had its roots in her bid for the Scott District school board seat, which she lost to incumbent Suzanne Sloane.
Norden said that on Election Day, a disparaging remark had been posted about her and she reposted it with the original poster’s name. The original writer, she claimed, is a school division employee.
Two weeks after the election, Norden said she was accused of harassment because of the post and placed on administrative leave.
Norden’s suspension did not go unnoticed by county officials.
In a Dec. 6 letter addressed to school board members and Superintendent of Schools David Jeck, Board of Supervisors Chairman Chris Butler wrote on behalf of the entire board of supervisors, “… the Board of Supervisors members wish to state their concern and request assurances that any process initiated against Ms. Norden is fair and just and will be conducted in full accordance with appropriate school processes and policies and is not in retribution for activities associated with Ms. Norden’s candidacy for school board. In addition, the Board of Supervisors members wish to express their concern that all allegations regarding activities on the part of Ms. Norden or activities on the part of other teachers or employees of a similar nature are also appropriately investigated and treated in a similar fashion.”
In a follow-up email to the Fauquier Times, Butler said, “I, along with the other board members had numerous constituents reach out to us asking why a teacher with a stellar record and tenure be suspended for a social media post. The board agreed we'd reach out in writing to ask that the process be transparent and fair.”
The School Board responded to the letter with one of its own, signed by Jeck. The Dec. 9 letter acknowledged the communication from the supervisors and stated, “Matters related to school division employees are personnel matters and, per policy, school division employees and board members are not at liberty to discuss. Please know that all employee issues are handled with care and in accordance with school board policies and procedures.”
School division officials and school board members also declined to comment to the Times on Norden’s suspension, emphasizing that they are unable to respond to questions about personnel matters.
Lillie Grimsley, entertainment editor for Kettle Run’s student newspaper, The Chronicle, said that journalism classes have been taught by substitute teachers since Norden was placed on administrative leave. The class, Grimsley said, “has not been a learning environment. We work really hard to produce a paper. We try to do the best we can, but without a faculty advisor, it’s difficult. If we have questions about our writing, there is no one to ask.”
Both the journalism classes and the photojournalism classes are full-year subjects, and both had been taught by Norden.
Kettle Run Principal Meaghan Brill confirmed that the journalism program will continue at the school. As of Dec. 27, there was an English teacher position opening listed at Kettle Run but no mention of journalism classes in the listing.
Grimsley said that she and her fellow student journalists are concerned and would like to see Norden return to Kettle Run. “No one could teach us like she does.”
During Citizens Time at the last two school board meetings, several residents have spoken in harsh terms about the administration’s treatment of teachers. At the Dec. 9 meeting, Denise Schefer claimed, “Teachers do not feel valued. They do not have an avenue to address complaints.” She pleaded with the school board to “give teachers a voice.”
She said that teachers need an impartial third party to report complaints to because their grievances are not being addressed, before adding, “Take Shelly Norden off administrative leave.”
The campaign for school board
Norden ran her campaign for school board on a platform that claimed teachers are not respected. She was outspoken – in person and on social media -- about the fact that her fellow educators were afraid to speak up when they saw problems with administration and that they felt undervalued. She said teachers felt they had no impartial party to talk to when they had an issue.
If Norden had been elected to the school board, she would have had to give up her teaching position.
Sloane won her seat for a second term with 1,866 votes to candidate Mike Hammond’s 1,825 and Norden’s 1,694, according to returns from the Virginia Department of Elections.
The campaign was contentious up to Election Day, Nov. 5, when some voters were handed sample ballots that were marked for Sloane, indicating she was the candidate endorsed by the GOP. The local Republican Party did not endorse anyone in the race, and its official sample ballot showed no endorsement.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Scott Hook said Dec. 27 that the sample ballot question is under investigation by his office. He said he expects the investigation to be wrapped up “within a week or two.”
Bullying among faculty
School Board member Brian Gorg (Center District) said at the Dec. 12 personnel committee meeting that bullying among staff members needs to be addressed.
He asked, “What is our policy? We have had more complaints about it, and I think it is on the rise … Do other divisions have more rigorous policies?”
He added, “Our lack of policies doesn’t help HR deal with specific problems when they come up if we leave things fairly gray.”
He acknowledged that since it was his last meeting as a member of the school board, he is looking to the new board to address the policy. “It is a very long-term issue … I realize I won’t be here, but … Your brand is your people. When we don’t treat each other properly, we are setting ourselves up for a problem.”
In response to questions about Gorg’s comments, Tara Helkowski, school division spokesman, wrote, “As discussed in the personnel meeting, we’re reviewing current policies and language.”
Recently elected School Board member Susan Pauling declined to comment on the situation regarding Norden, but wrote in an email, “I do believe bullying is an issue for some of our students and school employees. Collectively, we need to continue educating our community about the dangers of bullying and trauma …
“I also believe we have to start the conversation as to why some teachers feel isolated and unheard. We owe it to our teachers and school staff to be available and approachable if assistance is needed navigating a difficult working relationship. This shouldn't be seen as an overstep of power, but a reinforcement that the school board wants to see all employees thrive in our school system.
“There have been a lot of ideas presented on how we can better serve our staff. I know in the months to come we have a lot of work to do to improve communication and morale for all our employees.”
Reach Robin Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org