West Clermont selects principal for the new high school amid pushback from the students

Amelia High School student Reagan Baker speaks before the West Clermont Board of Education about how Stephanie Weber, Amelia's principal and contender at one point to be principal of the new West Clermont High School, saved her life.

By Brett Milam

Students and residents packed the March 13 West Clermont Board of Education meeting as Superintendent Dr. Keith Kline announced his recommendation for the principal of the new high school, in a decision that was met with some student opposition and walkouts.

Amelia High School student Reagan Baker speaks before the West Clermont Board of Education about how Stephanie Walker, Amelia's principal and contender at one point to be principal of the new West Clermont High School, saved her life.

Amelia High School will merge with Glen Este High School to form the new 2,000-student West Clermont High School in the fall of 2017.

Randy Gebhardt, a principal for the last five years at Waynesville Local Schools in Warren County, was recommended as the new principal by Kline, with all members of the board of voting in approval.

Students and residents were limited to three minutes to speak in front of board members and Dr. Kline. Those who spoke were not allowed to mention school employees by name, but there was a name everyone had an interest in discussing anyway: Stephanie Walker.

Walker started with the district in 1997 as a special education teacher and moved up the ranks as principal at Amelia Elementary and then Amelia Middle School.

That’s the connection – that she’s been with students since elementary school – Walker has to the students who packed the board of education meeting March 13 and then stormed out when she wasn’t announced as principal.

“We really wanted her,” Amanda Devine, a student at Amelia High School said after the meeting. “She’s done a lot for us. She goes above and beyond.”

A Facebook page, “Walker for West Clermont,” was created with more than 300 likes to push for Walker.

Devine said the new principal, Gebhardt, isn’t from the district.

“We’re basically stuck with this guy,” she said. “I hope they further include the community. It’s like what they want and we had no say at all.”

Another name also kept cropping up throughout the meeting: Bob Walker, the former principal of Glen Este High School, who many said had been placed on administrative leave.

Scott Spicher, West Clermont Local Schools communication director, declined to give a comment to The Sun on whether Walker was placed on administrative leave or not.

The search for a principal

The Hamilton County Educational Service Center was given the job of leading the search over the Clermont County Educational Service Center, a decision that also didn’t seem to sit well with students or residents at the board meeting.

Kline’s involvement was screening initial applicants, interviewing the finalists and making a recommendation to the board of education,  Spicher said in response to criticism on Facebook.

The process started with the goal of identifying a leader who could raise the bar on academic performance and successfully bring the high schools together, Kline said in a news release, as well as set a strong vision for the future.

In the release, Kline said the focus has been on making the process as “transparent and balanced as possible.”

HCESC received 32 applicants, Kline said, with Bill Sears of HCESC and himself narrowing the candidates down to eight. Three rounds were then used to narrow the search further. The first round was a committee interview process involving three teachers, one parent and one student from each of the high schools in mid-February.

On Feb. 27, the applicants were narrowed further by a committee comprised of Gary Gardella of HCESC and four members of the District Office Executive Team and one building principal.

From that committee, Gebhardt received five recommendations, Jeff Damadeo, interim principal of Glen Este High School, received four, Stephanie Walker, Amelia High School principal, received one and the other candidate received zero, Kline said at the meeting.

That process narrowed the field down to the two finalists Damadeo and Gebhardt.

The final round had each of the two final applicants prepare a presentation on their priorities for the first six months as principal of WCHS.

Criticism on social media

In a March 3 Facebook posting, West Clermont Local Schools, with its social media run by Spicher, responded to the criticism it had been receiving over the principal search by saying:

“We appreciate that everyone has an opinion and they feel strongly about one candidate over another. I can tell you that both Principals at our current high schools applied for the job and went through the same process equally. We understand your disappointment in the fact that the
person you wanted was not named a finalist.

“This was a very fair, and extensive process that was conducted by an outside third party to avoid the look of any impropriety. Both sides of the district had an equal say in the process.

Now is the time to unite as Wolves so we can make the new high school the best it can be.”

The lawsuit against Gebhardt

One of the controversies around Gebhardt was a lawsuit from 2011 brought by a gay student at Waynesville High School.

The student, Marverick Couch, sued Wayne Local School District and Gebhardt stemming from a April 2011 incident.

In the lawsuit brought by Lambda Legal, a national organization advocating for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people, Couch alleges that he wore a t-shirt to school bearing the message, “Jesus Is Not A Homophobe,” in response to a National Day of Silence, a student-led annual event to draw attention to “the harms caused by bullying and harassment directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.”

The complaint alleges that Gebhardt, principal at the time, told Couch to remove the t-shirt or turn it inside out, to which the student complied with the latter directive. Couch wore the shirt again the next day and this time Gebhardt said he would face suspension if he didn’t remove the shirt, the complaint said.

“It is the position of Wayne Local School District Board of Education that the message communicated by the student’s T-shirt was sexual in nature and therefore indecent and inappropriate in a school setting,” the board said in a letter to the plaintiff.

The position of the lawsuit was that the Couch’s First Amendment rights had been infringed upon.

On May 21, 2012, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, Western Division, in a consent judgement – a settlement agreement between two parties in a lawsuit – ruled in favor of Couch against Wayne Local School District and Gebhardt.

The court ruled that the student was “expressly permitted to wear the ‘Jesus Is Not A Homophobe’ T-shirt to school when he chooses.

Additionally, the school and Gebhardt were ordered by the court to pay $20,000 to the student in damages and attorney fees.

“For me, the shirt means I am looking for acceptance,” Couch said to WCPO at the time. “I want to be supported by the school, by my friends, by everybody. I do get picked on now and again, called faggot, queer.”

Devine said the selection of Gebhardt and this lawsuit worried the LGBTQ population at the school.

In responding to that criticism, West Clermont said on its Facebook page that all candidates were “properly vetted before they moved on in the process.”

“As is always the case there are many more facts around those kinds of claims than what is reported in the media,” Kline said about the lawsuit at the meeting. “I’m satisfied with the resolution. I am also satisfied with Mr. Gebhardt’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

This process has always been about finding someone who genuinely cares about kids, Kline said.

After the board approved the personnel agenda, many of the students and residents walked out.

“You guys wanna leave?”, “Biggest mistake ever made,” and “You guys will be up for election” were among the things shouted at the board.

Setting the bar high with academics

One of the lead reasons Gebhardt was chosen was the expectation that he would set the bar high with academics.

“Under his leadership, Waynesville High School has been ranked as the highest performing high school in Warren County, in the top 5 percent of highest performing schools in the state, and the top 10 percent of the highest performing schools in the county,” a news release said.

“We are proud to welcome Mr. Gebhardt to West Clermont,” Tammy Brinkman, president of the board, said. “Mr. Gebhardt’s leadership, student-centered approach, and commitment of high academic achievement is exactly what we as a board were looking for as we open the doors to the new high school. We believe Mr. Gebhardt is the right choice to unite our community as Wolves and lead us to new academic heights.”

Students: No voice in the process

Students, like  Devine, one of a number of students who spoke at the board meeting, said they felt like they didn’t have a voice in the process.

Devine was on the student transition team, meaning, in theory, she, along with almost a dozen other students were supposed to be the “leaders” of their respective schools in talks with the administration in the search for a new principal.

And when she spoke to the board, Devine mentioned that she had been allegedly blocked by the West Clermont Local Schools Twitter page.

“This is not only restricting my freedom of speech, but also my ability to see important information about my district,” she said.

Devine added, “The current state of our district has embarrassed me. Without us there would be no community. We are tired of not being heard.”

Spicher confirmed to The Sun that Devine had been blocked, saying if there is anything deemed “inappropriate or inaccurate” on their feed, then the student or parent could be blocked.

“We just can’t let anything go on our Twitter feed,” Spicher said, adding that Devine will be brought back to the social media platform.

After her speech, Devine received the first of a few standing ovations that evening from those in attendance.

“Those students obviously feel passionate about Mrs. Walker,” he said. “Mrs. Walker was given due consideration.”

Kline said teachers, students, parents and the board of education were involved in the process since the fall on “input on the characteristics our stakeholders wanted to see in the first leader of West Clermont High School.”

“We didn’t talk about that,” Devine said, after the board meeting March 13.

Instead, Devine said the student leaders, who were put together to figure out how to best merge the schools, met every Tuesday essentially as a class about leadership.

“I spent so long preparing to do this and I didn’t feel like I got to do anything,” Devine said.

Board of Education elections in November

Three seats on the board of education will be up for grabs in the November election, and students and residents in attendance mentioned that fact repeatedly.

Kelsey Moseley, the second student to speak at the meeting, asked why the HCESC was hired in the first place.

“I would like to first remind the board that some of your seats will be up in the coming election and me and my fellow students will be eligible to vote,” she said.

Amelia High School student Reagan Baker received the next standing ovation. She said Walker saved “my life more times than I can count on my hands, more time than I can count in the cuts on my arms.”

“I understand that she has done this for many people and I hope I speak for all those mentally disabled, physically handicapped, anger-issued, family-issued people here when I say nobody else will care that way, nobody else can care that way,” she said. “Honestly, she is the mom for us who don’t really have moms.”

She continued, “We’re all scared, we’re all afraid.”

The new high school building will officially open its doors on Aug. 30, 2017.