About 100 students, parents and community members gathered behind Hilton Head Island High School on Thursday morning to rally in support of Principal Amanda O’Nan, who was placed on paid administrative leave Tuesday as the district investigates allegations that she had sex with a former sheriff’s deputy on school grounds.
A group of students from the high school organized the rally after hearing that Interim Superintendent Herb Berg placed O’Nan on leave and asked the State Department of Education to do an independent review of the allegations.
“When somebody is willing to fight for their students, I think that it’s only fair that the students fight back for her when we get to things like this,” said Hilton Head High Senior Zach Waters.
Waters, along with most of the parents and community members at Thursday’s rally, said he wants to see O’Nan continue her duties as principal while the district conducts its investigation.
“If the behaviors that she’s being accused of are true, we don’t condone that. But we’re still standing with her until this goes through the due process and this investigation has run its course,” Waters said.
Audrey Clayton, a parent and president of the school’s PTO, echoed the sentiment, saying O’Nan was “pulled from her position prematurely.”
“The students, and I think a lot of the parents, feel very strongly that her presence is needed at the school,” Clayton said Thursday.
O’Nan has served as the principal of Hilton Head Island High School since 2006 and is well-regarded for the school’s success, including raising its graduation rate by more than 20 percentage points and expanding its international baccalaureate program. The school has been recognized in recent years as one of South Carolina’s best high schools for both its academics and its athletics.
Hilton Head Island Town Councilman David Ames, who was in attendance at Thursday’s rally, said he has worked with O’Nan for 10 years and has witnessed how she has transformed the school.
“I think it would be a tragedy to lose such a natural leader, in my opinion,” Ames said.
A “Stand with Ms. O’Nan” petition — created Wednesday night on Change.org — had more than 1,500 signatures as of 10 a.m. Thursday.
Supporters are advocating for a “distinction to be made between Ms. O’Nan’s personal life and professional career throughout this investigation” with a goal of “rapid reinstatement of Ms. O’Nan to her position as principal,” the online petition states.
Despite the petition’s large support, district spokesperson Jim Foster said O’Nan will remain on leave until the district’s investigation is completed.
“We absolutely support people’s First Amendment rights to express their opinions, but those opinions will not affect the district’s personnel review,” Foster said Thursday.
Superintendent Berg’s decision to place O’Nan on leave came less than a day after The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette reported that in June 2018 former Staff Sgt. DeJuan Holmes admitted to sheriff’s office investigators that he had an affair with O’Nan, had driven her around in his squad car and had had sex with her inside the school while on duty.
Holmes’ admission came as part of an internal affairs inquiry that he avoided in 2016 by resigning when the allegations first arose. When he tried to reapply for his job in early 2018, he was told the completion of the inquiry was required before possibly regaining his job.
The Packet and the Gazette do not typically write about allegations of affairs, but both parties are or were in unique positions of public trust and the accusations include claims that they abused their positions and used a public school building and public equipment to do so.
O’Nan denied both the affair and abusing her position with the school in 2016 when her then-husband Chris O’Nan first made the allegations. When asked about Holmes’ admission Monday, O’Nan declined comment.
On Tuesday night, O’Nan shared a Facebook post made in support of her reinstatement and wrote: “I’m going out on a limb by speaking when I’ve been told to refrain from comment, but I’ve never been one to shy away or back down ... If you wish to share your opinion I suggest you email the Board and Dr. Berg, not (the high school’s assistant principal) Joe Skirtich.”
When asked if the district told O’Nan not to talk about the allegations or investigation, Foster declined to comment.
Foster also declined to provide any details about the investigation until a conclusion is reached, he said. It is unclear at this time how the long the investigation will take.
The district’s administrative regulations state that employees are “expected to set the kind of example for students which will serve them well in their own conduct and which subsequently contributes to an appropriate school atmosphere.”
District employees can face disciplinary action, including dismissal from employment, for “behaving in any inappropriate manner to the extent of adversely affecting the employee’s ability to perform his/her work,” according to the regulations.