Union teacher resigns, MS principal on leave
Following an investigation into alleged inappropriate emails exchanged between a Union teacher and a student, one teacher resigned and a principal took a leave of absence as public discourse around the incident continues to grow.
The Union Community Board of Education accepted a resignation agreement Monday morning for middle school science teacher Mark Hookham during a special board meeting at Union High School.
According to Union superintendent Travis Fleshner, the resignation is related to the internal student-teacher email investigation the Telegraph reported on in March.
Monday evening, a crowd of more than 65 gathered at a regular school board meeting. Four community members delivered statements of concern to the board surrounding the alleged incident; some calling for the termination of the Union superintendent and middle school principal who they felt were responsible for systemic negligence in responding to concerns like what had been investigated earlier this year.
On Tuesday, the district announced middle school principal Mark Albertsen is on authorized leave for an undetermined period of time. Union officials could not confirm if the leave of absence was related to the email investigation or the comments made at the board meeting earlier in the week. Union assistant principal Wayne Slack willing be filling in as interim principal while Albertsen is on leave.
The Monday morning board meeting was brief with only a motion and vote being held before the group adjourned one minute later. The board vote to accept the resignation agreement with Hookham was unanimous.
No public comment was heard during the meeting, although a group of visitors in attendance broke into applause once the motion had passed.
Court documents indicate that on March 29 the Dysart Police Department applied for and was granted a search warrant to seize property belonging to Hookham. A Tama County judge ordered the warrant documents to be sealed from the public citing an ongoing investigation by law enforcement officers.
The order says the public discourse around the details of the search warrant could seriously jeopardize the investigation, impede the administration of justice and possibly infringe upon the rights of the victim or the rights of the other persons involved to receive a fair trial without adverse pre-trial publicity.
In the matter of the search warrant, Hookham is being represented by attorney Adam Junaid of Frerichs Law Office P.C. in Waterloo.
Given the Union school district crosses several law enforcement jurisdictions, it is not immediately clear which law enforcement agency is conducting the current investigation.
According to Fleshner, the reason the special session was called Monday morning is the board wished to act as soon as a resignation agreement had been reached. The details of the agreement have not been made public.
At the Monday evening board meeting, four individuals spoke to the school board expressing concerns about the handling of the email investigation as well as what they said was negligence on the part of school leadership to respond to concerns related to issues of safety, harassment and bullying.
Cristen Harmon and Janet Liming each called for reform at the district level and for the termination of Albertsen and Fleshner for failing to respond to the email complaint that was first lodged in December.
Harmon requested the board write a policy requiring all administrative staff to undergo child abuse awareness training and for increased oversight on complaints brought to the school by parents.
She went on to express concern that if the district fell short in properly addressing situations like the alleged incident at the middle school, the community as a whole could suffer.
“It is imperative that we see public disciplinary action against all of those involved (in this case) in order to restore trust in our school district,” Harmon said. “Our reputation will not heal until the public sees change in leadership. I am calling for the termination of the middle school principal and the superintendent.”
Liming, in her remarks, claimed that many former Union female students had experienced grooming behavior within the walls of Union Middle School.
She claimed Albertsen, who has served as the principal at Union Middle School since the mid-2000s, had received multiple reports of grooming behavior in recent years but failed to act on the matter. She also criticized Fleshner for, what she felt is, a personal friendship he allowed to get in the way of professional responsibilities to respond to the email incident.
Liming proposed that the district create a full-time position responsible for teaching and addressing issues related to physical and sexual abuse through all grade levels.
Amanda Scheffler spoke as the parent of a Union middle school student. She described her feelings as she learned about the alleged incident at her child’s school.
“Up until the past several months, I didn’t think the school would ever be a place where I doubted (my child’s) safety,” Scheffler said. “It never crossed my mind that they could potentially be exposed to adults or authority figures who didn’t have their best interests at heart. When I found out there was reason to be concerned, I felt anger, confusion, injustice. My daughter was not involved in this incident. But if I had these emotions, imagine the possibility if it were my child that was involved.”
Scheffler also said she felt there was a disconnect between the community’s desire to protect the reputation of the district and the obligation to act in the best interest of Union students.
“We will be a story of the past and our reputation will be restored in due time,” Scheffler said. “But there will still be a number of students who will not be able to forget this ever happened. They will not forget how they felt. They will not forget how a system failed them.”
Erin Petersen, a mother of three students attending Union, told the school board about repeated instances where she and her husband have reached out to the school for help with issues that have occurred during school or during after-school activities.
She said the middle school email investigation in March was the first time she was made aware of the proper form and procedure for reporting incidents to the school.
“We have received emails when our children were part of incidents, but never once when we brought our concerns to the school administration and principals were we offered this paperwork,” Petersen said. “We have brought concerns to the attention of both past principals as well as the head of administration and got nowhere.”
Following the public comment portion of the regular board meeting, the board proceeded through their agenda but held no additional discussion on the teacher-student email investigation, Hookham’s resignation or the statements made by the four members of the public.
During the meeting, the board approved a recommendation by Fleshner to terminate the contract of a non-teacher coach position. The terminated contract was with girls tennis coach William Henson. Later in the week, Fleshner confirmed Henson’s contract termination was not related to the email investigation happening at the middle school.
In a statement to the Telegraph Wednesday, board president Kevin Sash reiterated the board’s policy as it pertains to public comments at board meetings.
“The board is always appreciative of comments received during public comment,” Sash said. “However, it is not the policy or practice of the board to respond to public comments either at the meeting or afterwards. It also does not comment publicly on confidential personnel or other matters. If the board wishes to discuss or address an issue that was brought forth during public comment, it will either place an item on the agenda at a future meeting or delegate responsibility to the administration to look into a particular matter and report back to the board for consideration.”
The next regular session meeting of the Union Board of Education is scheduled at 6 p.m. April 19.
Board member Jenna Scott of Dysart put out a brief message on her Facebook page following the Monday evening meeting, offering words of encouragement to the Union community.
“I was extremely impressed with the composure and the way everyone handled themselves tonight in the middle of a hard situation for everyone,” Scott said. “It could have been a whole different vibe, and once again, I am, and will always be, Union Proud. Our communities are strong. We are good people. We have amazing staff and students. We will be OK. We will recover.”