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Hanover School Board member accused of violating federal student privacy law

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Hanover School Board Chairman John F. Axselle III on Aug. 30 discussed the possibility of the Board of Supervisors removing a school board member.

A Hanover County School Board member is accused of violating federal student privacy law and could be removed from office as a result.

Hanover County Attorney Dennis Walter on Wednesday evening gave a presentation to the Board of Supervisors about the legal process to remove appointed School Board members from office.

Supervisors did not name a School Board member on Wednesday, but Board Chair Angela Kelly-Wiecek said at an Aug. 24 meeting that the discussion would be “relative to a longtime appointee.”

School Board Chair John Axselle, who was appointed in 1995, is the longest-standing appointee.

Walter said the public raised concerns about improper conduct by a School Board member including the violation of a federal student privacy law.

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In February, Axselle reached out to the conservative legal advocacy organization Alliance Defending Freedom through his personal email, according to records obtained by The Times-Dispatch. Parts of the emails were redacted due to public record law exemptions.

Allegations of the violation of privacy laws stem from emails sent from a School Board member to ADF, supervisors said Wednesday.

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Supervisor Sean Davis asked Walter on Wednesday if it is a violation of student privacy law to send private student information to ADF, which was a “potential attorney,” he said.

The School Board in March voted 4-3 to “engage” with ADF, a Christian organization with anti-LGBT views. The Arizona-based organization largely wrote the controversial School Board policy passed last month. It requires transgender students to submit a written request to school administration asking for access to the schools’ facilities that align with the students’ gender identities.

Walter said he needed more information on the timeline of events. It was unclear Wednesday if the allegations of violating privacy law were founded.

If true, the violation could result in the federal government withholding funds from the school division.

“I think what becomes very clear to me with very little question is that if someone took information off their county server and transferred it to their private server to send it out, they know that they were doing something they weren’t intended to do,” said Supervisor Faye Pritchard.

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At the meeting Wednesday, Walter also discussed the treatment of speakers at School Board meetings,” and sometimes that involves the possibility of asking law enforcement to get involved,” he said.

At an Aug. 16 meeting, Axselle interrupted resident Wendy Kersey who was speaking at public comment about a local conservative organization that has a significant presence in the local education scene. Axselle continued to interrupt the speaker and asked her to stay on the topic of a proposed transgender policy. The woman was ushered away by a sheriff’s office deputy as she spoke about ADF.

According to Virginia Code, two components must be present to remove a public officer for improper conduct. The officer must have done something that constitutes either neglect of duty, misuse of office, or incompetence in the performance of duties. Additionally, that neglect of duty and misuse of office has to have a material, adverse effect upon the conduct of the office.

Since the Board of Supervisors in Hanover is the appointing authority of the local School Board, the majority of the supervisors would have to go forward with the proceeding, according to state law. Any removal proceeding has to be filed in the circuit court where the officer resides, which in this case would be the Hanover Circuit Court.

Axselle told The Times-Dispatch on Aug. 30 that he did not know anything about the possible removal of an appointee beyond what Kelly-Wiecek said publicly a week prior.

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“I’m being truthful. I really don’t know,” Axselle said on Aug. 30.

Axselle has faced sharp criticism from the community over the past couple of months, including from the Hanover NAACP President Pat Hunter-Jordan, who called for him to resign. She said at a news conference in August that Axselle does not respect women and yells at women in public, referencing the incident in which a resident was removed by law enforcement during public comment.

The supervisors did not take any action related to the removal of a School Board member at the Wednesday meeting. Axselle could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening.

abryson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6945

Twitter: @AnnaBryson18

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