Hilton Head High parents make threat: Reinstate principal or we’ll campaign against referendum

Hilton Head Island High School parents upset over the handling of alleged misconduct by Principal Amanda O’Nan say they will “actively campaign against” the school district’s next referendum, which is tentatively planned for November, if O’Nan is not reinstated.

“While we very much want to support the money going to all of our schools, we don’t feel that we can trust a school board who may not be listening to our concerns for our school,” Carolee Hutton, a parent of a senior at Hilton Head High, said at Tuesday night’s school board meeting.

On Jan. 8, Beaufort County School District Interim Superintendent Herb Berg placed O’Nan on paid administrative leave, reopened a district investigation and asked the S.C. Department of Education to conduct its own investigation into allegations that O’Nan had an affair with a Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office deputy on school grounds.

Berg’s decision came less than a day after The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette reported that former Staff Sgt. DeJuan Holmes had submitted to an internal investigation and admitted to allegations that he and O’Nan had had an extramarital affair, including sex in the school, while he was on duty.

Entering the fifth week of their investigations, the Beaufort County School District and state Department of Education have yet to release any updates or conclusions to the public.

And as the weeks go by, parents of current and former Hilton Head High students are growing increasingly frustrated with the school district and school board.

Audrey Clayton, a parent and president of the school’s PTO, said some Hilton Head High parents are prepared to “actively campaign against” the board’s next referendum, which is in the works for November.

At the last two board meetings, Superintendent Berg asked Kathleen Corley, principal of Red Cedar Elementary, and Rebecca Morillo, principal of Robert Smalls International Academy, to speak about how they are addressing achievement gaps in their individual schools.

In both instances, the principals have emphasized that strong leadership is instrumental to school-wide success.

Clayton said their presentations prove the point that “strong administration (such as O’Nan) makes an amazing school.”

“The thing that (Dr. Berg) has proven to us in the last two school board meetings is that strength comes from above, yet he walked in and damaged what we had (at Hilton Head High) on the speculation and word of someone else, and it just doesn’t make sense,” Clayton said.

“Now how could I even trust what’s going to happen (with a referendum) if they’re not going to put O’Nan back?”

O’Nan was hired as the principal of Hilton Head High in 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, according to state and district data.

In April 2016, however, allegations of O’Nan conducting an extramarital affair on school grounds surfaced when O’Nan’s then-husband, Chris O’Nan, filed a complaint with the sheriff’s office against then-Staff Sgt. Holmes. O’Nan denied both the affair and abusing her position at the time and Holmes resigned in lieu of submitting to an internal affairs investigation.

In an effort to get his job back at the sheriff’s office, Holmes agreed to the investigation over the summer.

When asked about Holmes’ admission in early January, O’Nan declined to comment.

A week after O’Nan was placed on leave, about 100 students, parents and community members held a rally in support of the principal, urging the district to allow her to remain in her position while its investigation takes place. A “Stand with Ms. O’Nan” petition — created at that same time on — had more than 2,600 signatures as of Wednesday.

Despite the support for O’Nan, she has remained on leave for the past five weeks as the district and state investigate the allegations.

Berg said Tuesday that he remained hopeful the dust would settle before a November referendum.

“This personnel issue is going to be resolved and the referendum is not going to be until November, so there’s time,” Berg said. “... I think parents will understand the need for the capital funding and that those things are not tied to a personnel issue or a principal or anything like that.”

Although the school district and board have yet to decide on specific projects for the referendum, building and expanding schools in Bluffton and equalizing schools and facilities across the district will be major components, Berg and district staff have previously stated.

Board chairman Christina Gwozdz said she would ask Hilton Head parents to wait until the investigation into O’Nan is concluded before passing judgment.

“Ultimately that’s going to hurt their community and the rest of the public,” Gwozdz said about parents who say they will campaign against a referendum.

“If we have a well-planned, well-vetted referendum that serves the entire body of Beaufort County School District, I think the citizens will be on board if they want to do what’s in the best interest of the children.”

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Maggie Angst covers education for The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. In 2017, Maggie was named the Media Person of the Year by the South Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club. She studied journalism at the University of Missouri and grew up in the Chicago area.