HANOVER COUNTY, Va. -- Some families and advocacy groups in Hanover have called on county leaders to reconsider the people they put in charge to make policy decisions for the school district, while others have defended the leadership and direction of the school board.
Peggy Lavinder, a Hanover mother of three, said she remains worried not only for her children but for others across the school division. She believes recent decisions and changes to the school board were not representative of all students and families.
“It strikes fear into my heart," she said. “There are hundreds, if not thousands, of people in Hanover who feel the way we do.”
Lavinder, who also serves as secretary for the Hanover branch of the NAACP, agreed with an open letter the NAACP sent to the Hanover Board of Supervisors and Hanover School Board Monday. The Board of Supervisors is responsible for appointing School Board members as Hanover is one of the only localities in Central Virginia where voters do not elect their School Board representatives.
The letter claimed the last three school board members were removed by the Board of Supervisors in a "non-transparent process" after those members supported changing the names of schools that were named after Confederate figures.
"We've seen a pattern of the lack of transparency of the process of the appointed School Board and the lack of logic and the explanations of why a change in those seats were necessary," Lavinder said.
The most recent example was Supervisor Canova Peterson's appointment of John Redd to represent the Mechanicsville District on the School Board. Redd's predecessor, Daniel Sterling, voted in favor of renaming Stonewall Jackson Middle School and Lee-Davis High School in 2020.
"It is true that Mr. Redd was not happy with the renaming of Lee-Davis and Stonewall to Mechanicsville and Bell Creek. He was one of many alumni and residents of eastern Hanover County who felt that the name changes should not take place until such time as the schools are relocated. I was of that same opinion," Peterson said. "He has questioned, as I did in a Board of Supervisors meeting, the decision to use the John Gandy name for our new combined elementary school in Ashland. The School Board has adopted a policy that no new schools should be named after people, and this would appear to be in conflict with that policy."
An email Redd sent to a member of the Board of Supervisors in July 2020, and obtained through open record laws, said in part, "The voices of social change have resonated loudly and their threats to burn, deface, and disrupt have intimidated many public officials." Redd added, "Weak leadership will allow anarchists to destroy everything our country was built upon."
The NAACP's letter also claimed Redd was unwilling to separate his religious beliefs from policy decisions, which Redd disputes.
“That's not what public schools are for. That's not how they serve a public, diverse community," Lavinder said.
Currently, the Hanover School Board faces a lawsuit filed by the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union for not creating a bathroom and locker room policy to accommodate transgender students. The ACLU claims the board's refusal to adopt a districtwide policy violates state law which requires all Virginia school districts to do so.
The board sought free legal assistance from a religious liberties group Alliance Defending Freedom to fight the suit, a move that drew criticism from some as the Southern Poverty Law Centerdesignates Alliance Defending Freedom as an anti-LGBTQ hate group.
Emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act showed Redd expressed his views on transgender policies and transgender students multiple times to Peterson in the months and weeks leading up to his appointment.
In November 2021, Redd communicated to Peterson he disapproved of former board member Sterling to create a policy that would allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity. He said Sterling should be replaced and offered to "step up" to represent the views of the Mechanicsville District.
In March 2022, Redd "checked in" with Peterson to say Sterling did not hold a "Christian, conservative worldview." He added a group of "discontents" aimed to impact children with "destructive ideologies."
"Isn't it a shame that so much school administration time and money have been directed to so few; seems to me, those students with transgender issues might be better handled by mental health professions," Redd wrote in an email.
Then in May 2022, weeks before the Board of Supervisors voted 5-2 to accept Redd to the School Board, Redd told his now fellow board members the "Chrisitan conservative voting margin" would strengthen in July. Redd officially took office on July 1.
Some parents spoke in support of Redd's appointment.
“I believe Hanover is generally conservative. I’m conservative, no problem saying that, and I support a conservative candidate. I want a conservative candidate. My children have never had a problem. My kids are patriots," said Danny Harvey during public comment.
Redd declined an interview with CBS 6 but sent a statement that reads:
"I believe God created two genders, male and female. I believe transgender is a life choice or lifestyle, not a gender. All humans are given free will by God to live as they see fit; so, as a Christian, I am to accept and respect all people, without regard to their gender, their lifestyle, their religion, their race, and their political views. However, I am not called to condone, celebrate, or promote all social behavior. Please hear me, my personal beliefs do not nullify my compassion for parents and students affected by the social and emotional issues introduced by gender dysphoria."
When asked if he would allow his religious views to influence his decisions as a public servant, Redd replied, "My role as a school board member dictates that I treat all children equally, regardless of their race, religion, or sex. I intend to do that."
Peterson said he stood by his decision to appoint Redd and agreed he would represent all students.
"It is true that he openly proclaims his Christian faith. Being a person of faith, whether it be Christian or other, is no impediment to serving our community justly," Peterson said.
In response to NAACP's letter criticizing Redd, School Board Chairman John Axselle said, "Only Mr. Redd can speak for himself in his individual capacity as a School Board member. However, on behalf of the School Board, we collectively believe that each School Board member takes their sworn oath seriously and works to meet the needs of all students to the best of our ability."
Some parents have also raised concerns about the separation of church and state. The Establishment Clause "provides a legal framework for resolving disagreements about the public role of religion in our increasingly pluralistic republic" according to the National Constitution Center.
Some legal experts have said a recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of a New York school coach who prayed with his team on the field could allow for more public expression of religion in public forums.
Dr. Todd Gathje, a Hanover parent and Government Director with the Family Foundation, echoed the sentiment.
"As recently demonstrated by the U.S. Supreme Court decision (Kennedy v. Bremerton School District), it clearly goes against First Amendment principles to subject teachers or public school officials to retaliation or punishment for simply expressing a religious viewpoint in the public square--and Hanover County is no exception to those principles," Gathje said.
Meanwhile, Lavinder said thousands of parents have signed a petition for Hanover County to adopt an elected School Board in an effort to get a referendum on the ballot. She said the last effort fell short with 3,536 signatures, but advocates plan to launch a new initiative this coming fall.
"It's time for a change. It is time to say this can't work," Lavinder said.