CHARLES TOWN – Jefferson County Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson is investigating whether any school employees committed any crimes while participating in last week’s rally for President Trump that turned violent with some protestors storming the U.S. Capitol over the congressional certification of the presidential electoral college votes.
At least two Jefferson County school bus drivers who attended the large political protest that initially gathered to hear Trump speak near the Washington Monument have been put on paid administrative leave after their Facebook posts and comments placed them at the Save America rally.
Gibson sent Tina Renner of Charles Town and Pamela McDonald of Ranson similar investigation notices last Friday, triggering a federal civil rights lawsuit, stirring apprehension among some school employees, drawing a stormy response from county Republican leaders.
In her letters to Renner and McDonald, Gibson asked the women to attend a meeting with her to discuss their participation in the rally. Depending on what the school system might learn, the longtime school bus drivers could be fired from their jobs, the superintendent wrote.
“I have been provided videos and photographs posted on your public social media pages that collectively threaten and demean public officials,” Gibson stated in one letter to Renner. “These images and statements are a grave concern in our community. In particular, a large number of our children have parents who are federal law enforcement and government officials including several Capitol Hill police who were assaulted.”
A letter to McDonald stated her image at the rally was “tagged” on a social media page that contained “threatening and demeaning statements regarding federal government officials.”
Responding to Gibson’s notice, Renner wrote that she participated in the organized rally but never entered the Capitol or engaged in any violence or illegal behavior. She stated that she walked with others to the Capitol, but she stopped short of the legislature at the reflecting pool on the National Mall. She remained outside of any areas restricted from the public.
Renner stated she left the rally about 2 p.m. with four others she traveled with to take a scheduled bus ride back to Frederick, Md.
“For me, it was a peaceful day, but unfortunately very cold and windy with a safe ride back to Frederick MD,” she recalled.
“I do not condone the actions of those few individuals who decided to break the law,” she continued. “Those who broke the law should be held responsible, but those of us who merely exercised our First Amendment rights cannot be held responsible for the actions of people we do not even know.
“This letter is the absolute truth and I’m willing to provide the facts contained herein under oath,” she concluded.
Renner stated she received approval from her school system supervisor to attend the rally, but Gibson warned Renner that she had failed to report her absence from work.
McDonald accompanied Renner to the rally on the same chartered bus, and McDonald did not see or engage in any violence or wrongdoing, according to Dan Casto, an attorney assisting McDonald and Renner.
Casto is a Charles Town resident who helped form and run a conservative citizens group. Now called Jefferson County Perspective, the group formed in 2018 to respond to citizen opposition against the Rockwool insulation factory in Ranson. The group has since become a conservative watchdog group that aggressively and sometimes controversially weighs in on other local government issues, including sharp criticisms of Gibson and school officials.
On Saturday, Casto wrote to Gibson asking that her requested meetings on Tuesday with Renner and McDonald be postponed. He said the women needed time to obtain legal advice and aid from a civil rights attorney.
By Monday afternoon, assisted by a Union, West Virginia, attorney, Renner and McDonald filed a lawsuit against Gibson alleging the superintendent is trampling their constitutional rights to free speech and political expression.
Filed in U.S. District Court in Martinsburg, the lawsuit maintains that Gibson “has recklessly taken the false and illogical position that anyone attending the rally were ‘collectively’ responsible for violence, as well as ‘threatening’ or ‘demeaning’ public officials.”
By Monday afternoon, Gibson issued both a single-page written letter and a four-minute YouTube video to respond to what she called inaccurate information on social media and to quell unease among county school staff concerned that similar investigations of employees might be underway.
“In this case, the letters that went to the employees referred to their attendance at any potentially illegal activities stemming from the rally and their posts regarding potential defamation and threats against the government,” Gibson wrote. “I understand that in this hyper-political environment, the letters came across to some as a potential threat of punishment for political beliefs. That was neither true nor the intention.”
Gibson said examining Renner’s and McDonald’s social media account was appropriate to ensure the safety of students and their proper role-modeling by school staff.
“However, we also have a very strong measure of due process when we do that,” she said in her video message. “And I will tell you very clearly and very unequivocally that we honor that due process to the letter.”
Renner’s Facebook account this past weekend showed a Jan. 6, at 9:26 a.m. post of a photo of her with two other friends and the comment, “We are on our way to Freedom.”
Two videos of the rally were posted that day after 3 p.m., including one at 4:21 p.m. with the comment: “It’s amazing with all the police force that someone at the Capital [sic] let [far-left activist movement] Antifa in. We couldn’t get anywhere near but a few kids dress ridiculous get inside. Hilarious. Great News Story.”
Over the next two days, Renner posted more Facebook entries about the rally, including photos of people she met there. One photo highlighted her encounter with Will Johnson, a prominent former Democrat who became a conservative African-American radio program host and who founded a pro-Trump political group called Unite American First.
Local, National Reactions
National Republican and Democratic public officials have almost universally condemned the violence and mayhem that occurred when the Capitol was overrun by protestors.
The Trump-inspired rally first gathered at the Washington Monument to hear the president speak. It then spontaneously migrated to the Capitol at the urging of the president.
An informal, leaderless rally continued at the Capitol and escalated into an agitated mob formed by some protestors. The rally then became an insurrection. The participants, some carrying American and Confederate flags, swarmed the Capitol and breached security barriers.
A U.S. Capitol police officer died from injuries directly from the surging crowd, and a protestor who joined the rioting was fatally shot. Three others died from unspecified “medical emergencies.”
While police swept lawmakers into secured locations, some protestors seized the Senate and House chambers and took over the offices of some top legislative leaders. Police and media members were assaulted, and the Capitol was vandalized.
Much of the behavior was captured by participants on social media.
On Saturday, the Jefferson County Republican Executive Committee issued a statement condemning the investigations that Gibson is leading of “multiple” school employees as “illegal actions.”
“The threatening letter that Dr. Gibson sent to the impacted employees is a frightening attack on our liberties,” the Republican leadership’s statement reads. “The Constitution protects the right to free speech, freedom of assembly and the right to freely associate. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the right of public employees to exercise those rights and prohibits retaliation against employees for doing so.
“Dr. Gibson’s attack on those rights has placed the Board of Education at great financial and legal peril.”
While calling Gibson a “Democratic activist,” the elected members of the Republican committee asked that the superintendent to be suspended while an investigation is conducted into her role in leading the review of the school bus drivers.
The Republican leadership committee underscored that Trump won a 54 percent majority of the presidential votes cast in the county during the November general election.
“While Dr. Gibson may not like this, the majority of the children whose education she oversees come from families who support our President,” the Republicans’ statement states.
By Monday evening, about 75 county residents gathered outside Jefferson County Schools’ administration building before a Board of Education meeting to protest Gibson’s scrutiny of the bus drivers’ political activity. Some homemade posters carried at the gathering declared “Resign Bully Bondy,” “No Freedom Speech Teaching Our Kids Communism” and “Someone Should SCHOOL Bondy on the US Constitution!”
Several local Republican leaders at the gathering warned that Gibson’s actions amounted to a rear-guard assault on free speech that should be stopped before more people are maligned and mistreated.
Meanwhile, inside the administration building the school board conducted an online meeting where only one reference was made to the controversy outside by a citizen during a public comment period.
Gibson Receives Support
In a statement issued Sunday, Jefferson County Democratic leaders agreed with the Republican leaders that school employees have a right to participate legally in political demonstrations. However, members of the Democratic Party Executive Committee stated that the possible conduct of school employees at the rally was an appropriate and legitimate personnel matter to review.
“Dr. Gibson’s responsibility and duty is to protect the children and public employees related to the events in Washington D.C. of this past week and are a standard personnel document,” the Democratic leaders wrote. “A full inquiry into whether or not [Board of Education] employees who transport our community’s children to and from school were involved in an attack on our Nation’s Capitol that resulted in the death of and injury of police officers, is within the rights of the superintendent and the BOE.”
“Their conduct and any statements they make about their participation in the events that transpired at the Capitol are valid subjects of inquiry by our Superintendent of Schools.”
The Democrats also said parents have a right to know whether school employees who attended the rally wore masks as a measure to prevent spreading coronavirus infections. The statement noted Washington’s “extremely high” infection rates.
Meanwhile, the Democrats pointed out that no disciplinary action has been taken against school employees who were placed on paid leave after attending the rally. Examining whether employees followed appropriate personnel procedures to attend the rally is also an appropriate matter to review, the Democratic leaders stated.
“This process should occur in the context of a personnel matter between the BOE and its employees, and not in an arena in which a political party makes an attempt to score political points or inflame its base through pure political theatre,” the statement added.
Jefferson County Commissioner Steve Stolipher, an elected member of the Republican leadership committee, called for a special county commission meeting on Friday to address the investigations against the bus drivers.
In a statement, Stolipher wrote that the Jefferson County Commission should evaluate its legal authority to remove any elected school board members who may have been involved in Gibson’s investigations.
Stolipher cited Chapter 6, Article 6, Section 7 of the West Virginia Code that sets out procedures for removing public officials for “official misconduct.” The statute allows a county commission to initiate, by “a duly enacted resolution,” circuit court proceedings to consider arguments to remove an elected official.
Within five days of such a commission resolution passing, a circuit court judge would have to evaluate whether a complaint has sufficient legal grounds, according to the statute. If such a judgment is made, a hearing before three circuit court judges would determine whether the elected official should be ousted from office.
“The proffering county commission or municipal governing body shall be responsible for the prosecution of the removal resolution,” the statute reads.
Any decision made by the three-judge panel can be appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court.