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Lawsuit: Centerville school board OK’d resignation of counselor/coach in closed session
He was accused of inappropriate behavior with student
The Iowa Freedom of Information Council is suing the Centerville Community School District and school board members for not releasing information about the resignation of school counselor who was accused of having “inappropriate behavior” with a student.
Ryan Hodges, who was a guidance counselor, head baseball coach and child abuse investigator for the district, signed a resignation agreement Feb 1.
However, the district’s superintendent told the media Feb. 1 that “the Hodges matter” was “pending investigation,” and the district had “nothing new to report,” according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in Appanoose County District Court.
Under the agreement signed Feb. 1, Hodges resigned effective Feb. 3, but would continue to be on paid administrative leave — which he had been since December — until the board accepted his resignation.
The district and Kevin Wiskus, the board president who is named as a defendant in the suit, signed the agreement Feb. 3. The agreement states that Hodges released the district and its directors and employees from all claims and liabilities.
Randy Evans, the FOI council’s executive director, said in a statement the lawsuit contends the district and school board violated Iowa Open Meetings Act in the Feb. 3 “special” board meeting, which was a closed session, and didn’t provide information to the public following the meeting.
“Iowa law requires the ‘documented reasons and rationale’ (for a meeting) to be made public whenever a state or local government employee is fired or resigns in lieu of termination,” Evans said. “No such explanation was provided about the Hodges’ investigation. The school board never discussed the allegations against him in a public meeting,” Evans said.
“The taxpayers in the Centerville school district and other interested people deserve to know what the investigation found about a key employee at the high school.”
Evans said no information has been released on whether the allegations were founded. It they were unfounded, why did Hodges remain on administrative leave, he asked. If the allegations were founded, was the district prepared to terminate his employment, he asked.
The public needs information, “not more secrecy,” Evans stated.
The allegations against Hodges were investigated by Anne Morgan, of the Great Prairie Area Education Agency, and Appanoose County Attorney Susan Cole, according to a report in the Ottumwa Courier, where a reporter reviewed a copy of the reports provided by the parents of the girl who filed the complaint against Hodges.
Morgan concluded Hodges had been “grooming” a female student with inappropriate texting and conversations, the Courier reported.
“A case could be made” that Hodges was attempting to sexualize the relationship with the teen because of innuendoes, comments and photos/videos contained in text messages, she added.
She referred the matter to a “level 2” investigator, the county attorney.
Cole, the county attorney, concluded Hodges’ text messages were “predatory behavior” and “sexual abuse in the form of sexual harassment.”
She concluded her investigation Jan. 24 and recommended school officials discipline Hodges, who resigned just over a week later.
Centerville Police Chief Tom Demry told the Courier he interviewed the student to determine if her allegations warranted a criminal investigation. He said they did not “at this time. This could change if additional information is gathered or additional people report a crime to us.”
Reason for meeting
The school district, according to its lawyer, does not need to provide information on Hodges’ resignation because Hodges’ resignation was not received in lieu of termination, a discharge or a demotion, which are the only reasons under Iowa law that a “public entity shall disclose the documented reasons and rationale for its actions related to employment,” according to the lawsuit.
The stated reason for the Feb. 3 special meeting was to evaluate the “professional competency of an individual whose appointment, hiring, performance or discharge is being considered” and for “consideration” of a “resignation of employment and release agreement” — which Hodges had signed two days earlier, the lawsuit noted.
The purpose of the meeting wasn’t for an evaluation but to have a closed session, the lawsuit argues.
The lawsuit is asking for the court to order the district and school board to provide the detailed minutes and audio and video recordings of the Feb. 3 meeting to the court, so a judge can review them “in camera,” or privately
The council wants the court to declare the district and each school board member violated the opening meetings law and direct it to comply with the requirements of Iowa Code Chapter 21 going forward for one year under penalty of civil contempt.
The Iowa FOI Council is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization established 47 years ago to advocate for open government. The Gazette and the weekly newspapers it owns are a sustaining member of the council.
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