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April 15, 2022

Rappahannock School Board member says classroom comments violated policy

Rappahannock High School is at 12576 Lee Hwy. in Washington. (Photo by Ben Peters)
By Ben Peters
Rappahannock News
The appearance of a guest speaker in a Rappahannock County High School classroom has forced a teacher to apologize for comments he made that caused a dispute within the school system.

An instructor at the high school in March was accused by a member of the School Board of violating school policy after inviting a senior staffer with former President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign to speak before an eighth-grade class where the staffer was said to have given a politicized talk.

The teacher, John Krob, a long-term substitute who teaches world cultures, invited former Trump campaign Director of Social Media Mike Hahn to speak with the class virtually on March 18 about political campaigns and how the former president’s reelection campaign leveraged digital media to its advantage.

Piedmont School Board member Rachel Bynum later accused Krob of violating school policy since she was told by several people anonymously that during the event Krob said in front of the class: “We’re all Trumpers here.” A person present during the presentation in Krob’s class, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said in an interview they heard the remark.

Krob said in an interview he made the comment to Hahn, not the students, in an effort to make him feel more welcome in the classroom since he was speaking to an audience in an area that historically supports Republicans. “It was made in jest in the sense that … you know, you’re OK in this neighborhood. It’s like going to church or something and somebody says, ‘Hey, you know everybody is a friend here.’ And that was it,” he said.

Superintendent Dr. Shannon Grimsley said her investigation into the matter found that Krob, through his remark, meant to imply that he merely observed students in the classroom were excited to ask Hahn questions about the former president’s campaign. Hahn, who is now the deputy digital director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, was not able to be reached for comment.

Krob, who also works for the international pro-democracy Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), was asked to apologize to the class following the incident and expressed remorse, according to Grimsley.

“I understand there's some people that may have been disturbed by the comment that I made … and I apologize for that — not because I feel bad about it. It’s that maybe I shouldn’t have said it in the classroom,” Krob said he told the class. Grimsley declined to say whether he faces any consequences within the school or whether he violated school policy, noting she is unable to discuss personnel matters.

Information surrounding Hahn’s visit, which was authorized by Rappahannock County High School Principal Carlos Seward, and Krob’s comments were anonymously shared with Bynum by several people. Bynum alleged in an interview that both were in violation of school policy that prohibits “indoctrination in any particular religious or political belief.”

“An instructor claiming that everybody is in agreement about a particular candidate isn’t part of what you do at a public school,” she said in an interview. “... We want everybody to feel comfortable at our school. We’re a public school and need to be welcoming to a variety of views.”

The School Board member took her concerns to Grimsley, who met with Krob and declared that school administration will be attending future speaker events teachers hold, according to Bynum. Grimsley would not verify whether administrators will supervise future guest speakers’ presentations, saying again she is unable to comment on issues related to personnel. Krob said he canceled the remaining guest speaker events in his class for the academic year.

Krob’s class is known for bringing in a diverse array of speakers from across the globe, including a Russian ambassador and a human rights advocate with the United Nations, which Grimsley said illustrates the schools’ commitment to presenting varied viewpoints.

According to the person present for the talk, Hahn said during his virtual presentation to the class that the American Rescue Plan, a sweeping COVID-19 relief act passed by the House of Representatives and Senate and signed by President Joe Biden, was a disaster for the economy. Democratic presidents often oversee and are responsible for inflationary times, Hahn allegedly said.

Krob, who said he’s friend’s with Hahn’s father and has known the former Trump campaign staffer for years, denied that Hahn made any partisan claims when speaking before the class.

“[Hahn’s presentation] wasn't out of place. It is part of the larger context of how all of these people have roles in modern day events and how it fits their interests,” Grimsley said. However, she noted the instructor’s comments to the class were “not appropriate.”

Grimsley said that Krob made clear at the start of class that each speaker that comes before them has their own opinions and worldviews that don’t necessarily reflect those of the school or himself, and that students are given the option to not participate in the class should they feel uncomfortable.

Krob emphasized that Bynum’s allegation offended him, saying that the purpose of his class is to expose students to contemporary politics and religion. “I don’t indoctrinate anybody,” he said.

Grimsley added, “We are committed to making sure our schools are nonpartisan. Partisanship doesn’t have a place – especially with coercive authority that teachers employ … so [it] is not appropriate to make any type of comments that may be for one way or another.”

The incident marks the second time in this academic year that a political figure was invited by a teacher to speak with a high school class and gave a polarizing presentation to students that inflamed some on the left.

U.S. Rep. Bob Good (R-5th District) during a visit in October encouraged a class to rise up in opposition to COVID-19 mitigation measures such as masking, while also spreading other pieces of misinformation and baselessly accusing Democrats of lying about the effectiveness of vaccines.

It also came as Republicans in Virginia and across the nation take aim at what they claim to be politically or ideologically motivated material taught in schools, with Gov. Glenn Youngkin creating an anonymous tip line for parents to report what they view as “divisive concepts” cropping up in classrooms. Grimsley has spoken out against Youngkin’s tip line in the past.

School Board Chair Wes Mills, of Jackson District, said in an email he was made aware of the incident involving Krob and that the administration is “on top of this situation.”

“The class is ‘World Cultures’ and therefore entertains diverse speakers with the intention to give students real-world experience with world dynamics. Mr. Krob has facilitated many of these types of sessions which are of great value to the students,” he said.

Mills continued, “[Krob] prefaces the sessions with a general statement that the world views presented are not those of the school but are important for us to consider as we try to understand the world we live in … Understanding other cultures (religious, political, geographical, ...) and current events is a helpful building block within education … Sadly, I believe the aforementioned event has stifled the students' exposure to an ongoing variety of world views.”

Stonewall-Hawthorne School Board member Larry Grove said that he wasn’t consulted by Grimsley or anybody else in school administration about the incident, only hearing about it third-hand. Lucy Maeyer, of Hampton District, did not return a request for comment.

School Board member Chris Ubben, of Wakefield District, said he had heard of the incident and was “dismayed” with what he termed private personnel matters having been made public.

“That is disappointing and frankly disgraceful that our staff cannot trust in our leadership to conduct themselves in the manner they insist that staff should,” Ubben said in an email. “I will not pretend to or attempt to position myself to make a personal statement at this time as I do not speak for the whole Board and no individual member of the School Board should be doing so at this time.”
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