PARIS — Before Oxford Hills parents, educators and observers got a chance to address the board of directors during a special School Administrative District 17 meeting Monday night, Chairwoman Natalie Andrews of West Paris announced an investigation is underway regarding physical restraint Superintendent Monica Henson used on a student at Agnes Gray Elementary School.

She did not state during the meeting what type of investigation it is, but confirmed later to WMTW-TV that it is being done by Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Following the conclusion of that investigation, Andrews said a meeting will be scheduled for public input on the situation.

“The timeline for the public meeting is that it will be scheduled at its (investigation) conclusion so there is no conjecture,” she said. “As soon as it’s been taken care of we will let the public know.”

Earlier on Monday, the Maine Education Association issued a news release containing statements from three educators who work at the West Paris school and witnessed the restraint. The three, along with the Oxford Hills Education Association, have asked that Henson be suspended pending the outcome of the DHHS investigation, but the board did not take action on that request.

Brenda Record, who is an educational technician at the school, described the September incident between the sixth-grader and Henson. Record said she was talking with the student, trying to calm him down, when Henson approached them. Henson “told him to ‘Get in the office – now!’ because he was talking to me loudly. He said ‘No, I’m not going to the office, I’m not calling my parents – I didn’t do anything wrong.’

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“That’s when she got behind him, he pushed back, she grabbed him by the arm and tried to drag him into the office,” Record said. “He was screaming ‘get your hands off me!’ and tried to pull back. That’s when they fell onto the floor with Monica on top off him. She fell on top of him.'”

Michael Mayberry, food service director for SAD 17 in Paris, speaks Monday to the board of directors in support of Superintendent Monica Henson. Nicole Carter/Advertiser Democrat

According to MEA, educators reported the interaction between the student and Henson to SAD 17 directors in September, when the incident occurred, but the board did not launch an investigation.

Record said when “we saw that the School Board wasn’t doing anything about the continued misconduct of the superintendent, the person who is supposed to be a leader of our district, we knew we had to file an official complaint with DHHS so something could get done.”

THE DISTRICT REACTS

During the public comment period early in Monday’s board meeting, nine people stood to say their piece about Henson.

Michael Mayberry, food service director for the school district, was the first to speak.

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“I’m here today to express my support for Dr. Henson,” Mayberry said. “In my experience she has been a consummate professional, a kind and patient mentor, a firm and fair administrator and, most importantly, a kind human being.

“When I first heard the issues raised at last week’s board meeting, I was frankly taken aback. None of the portrayals provided by the speakers jibed with my personal experience with her. I respectfully request that the board listen carefully to the much softer voices of reason, which are difficult to hear over the din of misguided outrage. We need to come together as a community to support our common mission and support Dr. Henson and realize our mutually shared vision of where we can take this district when we work together.”

The speakers who followed Mayberry had different perspectives. One encouraged the superintendent to resign. A student from Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School warned the board that the district is heading in a destructive direction.

“We believe the leadership is failing us and hurting us students,” Jasmine Wells said. “I believe we were misled by the promises made … I believe, along with the majority of my classmates, that we are being used as social media props and being used for publicity by the leader of this district.”

A teacher from Agnes Gray, Rebekah Arnsten, had strong words, at times voiced through tears, about the statements Henson has made about the school and its staff recently.

“It is so hard to be told and be presented to the media that I am textbook against authority,” Arnsten said. “You do not have the right to tell people how I am feeling. It is not acceptable, and to sweep us under the rug, and to tell me that I am against my new authority at my school? I don’t get it. You don’t know me. You haven’t been to my classroom. Where is the proof that you have that I am not listening?”

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Arnsten went on to acknowledge that her fourth-grade son was one of the students involved in the cafeteria incident that resulted in the physical restraint of another student, and questioned how the whole school could be so radically changed in one day.

The last speaker was Eric Bennett of Oxford, the father of the student at the center of the controversy.

Oxford Hills School District directors listen Monday night to Eric Bennett about his son being restrained by Superintendent Monica Henson at Agnes Gray Elementary School in West Paris last September. Despite a district statement that Henson had called both parents of the student on Sept. 9 following the incident, Bennett said he was never contacted. The board held its emergency meeting at district offices in Paris. Nicole Carter/Advertiser Democrat

“My concern is safety,” Bennett said. “I found out a week ago that my child was involved in this incident. As far as I’m concerned, every teacher shows up every day to do their job, and my son says he loves them. The principal was pushed out of her position, and my son absolutely loved her.

Eric Bennett of Oxford addresses SAD 17’s board of directors Monday night. Bennett’s child was involved in a physical struggle with Superintendent Monica Henson early in the school year. Nicole Carter/Advertiser Democrat

“Us, as citizens or parents, if we’d made a decision like this, we’d be behind bars. I feel that the principal that was there, should be there. It hurts me to hear these teachers cry. We teach our kids that school is a safe environment. We’re not setting a very good example. My ex-wife got an email saying everything was fine. I never even got a phone call. My son was huddled down in a corner and was silenced.”

One of the three educators who filed the complaint with DHHS, told the Maine Education Association that the episode that is the subject of the complaint all happened minutes before Henson was to be interviewed by WMTW-TV.

Record said the same, and that as she and other educators tried calming down kids who had witnessed the restraint “because of couple of them were crying hysterically. One of the educators called one of the kids’ mothers because the kid was so upset. We looked outside after the call and Monica was outside talking to Channel 8.”

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Henson was not able to speak for herself during the public comment period Monday, but following last Tuesday’s meeting she provided a lengthy response to the complaints and concerns, noting that she had not received any complaints from teachers or any grievances from union representatives, and that she remains “ready to continue doing the work that the School Board hired me to do.” The full statement can be viewed at sunjournal.com.

Last week, the Oxford Hills Education Association presented the board with a list of 27 complaints against Henson and announced a majority of members voted that they had no confidence in her leadership, which began in July.

She responded in a lengthy email the following day.

Since the Jan. 18 meeting, Henson had forwarded anonymous messages of support to the Advertiser Democrat that could not be independently verified. When contacted Monday morning to assess whether those parties were willing to share their statements with the newspaper, Henson wrote in an email that “we’re nearing the resolution of this. I think it’s good for now.”

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