Oxford Hills School District board Vice Chairman Jared Cash of Norway, center, reads a statement Wednesday evening announcing that Superintendent Monica Henson of Auburn has been put on paid administrative leave while under investigation for improperly physically restraining a student in West Paris last fall. Chairwoman Natalie Andrews of West Paris, and Director Robert Jewell of Paris are seated next to Cash in the board room in Paris. Nicole Carter/Advertiser Democrat

PARIS — News that Oxford Hills School Superintendent Monica Henson was placed on administrative leave by the Oxford Hills school district board of directors Wednesday evening was met with support by members of the community.

The embattled leader of eight-town Maine School Administrative District 17 is the subject of investigations by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Oxford County Sheriff’s Office concerning allegations that she improperly physically restrained a student at Agnes Gray Elementary School in West Paris last September while filling in for Principal Elizabeth “Beth” Clarke.

Henson did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

Asked Thursday to confirm its investigation, DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell wrote in an email: “The department has received two complaints regarding an incident that occurred at the Agnes Gray Elementary School in September 2021. The department is unable to provide further information as the allegations are currently under investigation.”

After their vote Wednesday night, the school board issued a statement to the Oxford Hills community saying, “Over the past few weeks, we have heard the many voices, the many different perspectives about issues concerning Superintendent Henson’s leadership of our school administrative district. We continue to receive texts, emails, and calls, and we are sorting through all the varied communications.

“This effort requires time to conduct a proper and complete investigation, a thorough consideration of the issues presented, consultation with our legal advisers, and careful deliberation of all that we have learned. We ask for your understanding as we gather and evaluate all the relevant information.

“As the School Board, we are accountable to you and committed to resolving the matters before us with integrity. In fairness to all parties involved, including Dr. Henson, she will be on paid administrative leave while the board works to a resolution.

The statement concludes by saying, “Please know we take very seriously our responsibility to place the best interest of our students at the center of this process. We promise this mission is first and foremost in our minds. We express our sincere gratitude for your patience as we do our work.”

Henson, of Auburn, was hired for the position in July 2021.

Monica Henson, superintendent at MSAD 17. Submitted photo

Questions emailed Thursday to school board Chairwoman Natalie Andrews of West Paris and Vice Chairman Jared Cash of Norway were referred to the district’s legal counsel, Tom Trenholm of Drummond Woodsum for review, according to Andrews.

Cash responded that Trenholm would confer with MSAD 17 Chief Academic Officer Heather Manchester for a coordinated response.

On Jan. 23 the Advertiser Democrat made a request under the Maine Freedom of Access Act for documents related to the administration and school board’s responses and actions to the physical restraint complaint.

On Jan. 24, Henson acknowledged the request and communicated that an answer would be provided by Feb. 5. However, when Andrews was asked to confirm that the request would be completed by that date, she said it had been referred to legal counsel.

The alleged incident occurred Sept. 9 when Henson was addressing a group of students who had misbehaved at lunch at the same time she was expected at a television interview with WMTW-TV outside of the school about bus driver shortages, according to witness statements forwarded to DHHS.

Ashley Rowe of West Paris, the mother of the boy involved, filed a complaint with the Sheriff’s Office last week after she learned the details of the incident at last week’s board meeting. She said she was never given a full account by Henson.

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The altercation was not made public until Jan. 18 when Oxford Hills Education Association President Jeni Jordan presented the school board with a list of 27 concerns about Henson’s leadership and reported that members had taken a vote Jan. 11 expressing no confidence in her as superintendent, a move that empowered Agnes Gray staff to speak about what they saw.

The following day Henson provided a lengthy written statement, noting that a no-confidence vote is a sign that an administrator is doing the work they were hired to do.

Jordan issued a statement Thursday supporting the vote to put Henson on leave.

Oxford Hills School District board Chairwoman Natalie Andrews of West Paris and the district’s lawyer, Tom Trenholm, return to the meeting room Wednesday night in Paris after the board voted to place Superintendent Monica Henson on paid administrative leave. Nicole Carter/Advertiser Democrat

“We believe the board made the correct decision last night to put the superintendent on paid leave. Everyone in our community, but most importantly our kids, need to know that schools are safe places. Everyone in our schools, including students and staff, deserve to be treated with care and respect. We expect the board to await the outcome of the DHHS investigation before proceeding with further action.”

Eric Bennett of Oxford, the boy’s father, said Thursday that he’s relieved by the board’s decision and that the matter is being investigated.

“The decision they made to suspend her but her being paid, I don’t think is right,” he said. “But the fact that she’s not in the schools at the moment and my son and other students and the staff can breathe again, is a better atmosphere.”

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Bennett expressed gratitude that the community came together, but he believed that staff and students weren’t being treated fairly and that Henson didn’t “deserve to be in that position.”

“It takes a special person to be a school teacher,” he said, “and I support the teachers and former principal at Agnes Gray,” an apparent reference to Clarke, who resigned because of ongoing health concerns, according to an announcement by Henson on Dec. 14, 2021.

The community support Bennett referred to is a Facebook group, Viking Voices. It was started Dec. 30, 2021, by Alexa Mann and Alexa Baumgardner, parents concerned about the abrupt firing of their children’s middle school basketball coach. After successfully rallying their coach’s reinstatement, the page focus shifted to overall community support for schools, teachers and students. The momentum of Viking Voices has been swift and loud, growing to 2,000 members as of Thursday.

They rallied when they heard about the alleged problems with Henson.

“This group has allowed the Oxford Hills community to come together and start a meaningful dialogue,” Baumgardner said. “It is people coming together who have not had personal contacts until now.”

Viking Voices is hosting a peaceful assembly for the community to show its support for teachers and students from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday outside Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School grounds on Main Street in South Paris. Organizers expect a big turnout despite the weekend storm and ask attendees to wear the schools’ green and gold colors and include only positive messages on their signs.

“There is still a lot of work to be done, we are not going to stop here,” Baumgardner said. “Our community, students, parents, staff and taxpayers are not willing to wait for the investigation to resolve this issue. We want Dr. Henson permanently removed from our district.”

Megan Smith, left, and Heather Brown, both of Norway, stand Wednesday in front of a message they painted on property Brown owns on outer Main Street in Norway. “We hope that people driving past will get a feeling of community pride and know there is support for them,” Brown said. The Oxford Hills School District is embroiled in a controversy involving Superintendent Monica Henson. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal


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