Jefferson Superintendent Draws First Amendment Criticism After District Investigates Employees Who Attended Violent U.S. Capitol Rally
Updated on Jan. 12, 2021 at 5:30 p.m.
At least two Jefferson County School employees are under investigation by the school district following last week’s protest of Congress certifying state election results. The two employees in question are school bus drivers Tina Renner and Pamela McDonald. The women are being investigated for possible illegal activity in connection to Wednesday's violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and for “threatening” Facebook posts.
Jefferson County Schools issued a news release over the weekend announcing the investigation.
“Jefferson County Schools fully supports the rights of employees and students to exercise their First Amendment freedoms, including the right to peaceably assemble and to petition the government, but Wednesday’s protests involved violence and other unlawful conduct,” the statement read. “The District is investigating the matter to determine if any employee engaged in any illegal activity.”
Since the district sent the letters, however, there has been an uproar on social media platforms.
Many Twitter and Facebook users have posted strong support for the decision or have shared outrage, citing the move goes against the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
The Jefferson County Republican Executive Committee’s Facebook group issued a statement on Jan. 9 calling for Jefferson County School Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson herself to be placed under investigation for her actions, saying her letter to employees was “a frightening attack on our liberties.”
“On behalf of all Jefferson County Republicans, the JCREC is requesting that the Board of Education immediately cease the violation of the Constitutional rights of the BOE's employees, students, and the citizens of Jefferson County,” the group wrote in a Facebook post. “We are further requesting that Dr. Gibson be suspended pending an investigation of her actions.”
Following the uproar online, Gibson issued a statement Monday saying the individuals in question are under investigation, because she received reports that the employees allegedly published “threatening and inflammatory posts on their Facebook pages” and “had been present at the Electoral protest march on Wednesday that erupted in violence, and had violated our leave policy.”
“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 wrote. “I want to be clear that EVERY[sic] employee has EVERY[sic] right to the politics and beliefs of their choice, so long as their behavior does not cause harm or is illegal. I am seeking to determine whether these employees violated any policy or laws.”
Gibson went on to say no disciplinary action has been taken at this time, and the individuals were put on paid leave pending the outcome of the investigation.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting requested a copy of the letter sent to Jefferson County employees, but the school district did not respond.
The initial news release said the investigation “involves a personnel matter, the District cannot provide any additional information at this time.”
Screenshots of one of the letters, however, have been circulating on social media.
Multiple news outlets such as the Martinsburg Journal and WV MetroNews reported that the employees were to schedule meetings with Gibson for Tuesday, Jan. 12 and that disciplinary action, including termination, may follow.
Jefferson County Schools told West Virginia Public Broadcasting that Renner and McDonald are the only employees under investigation, debunking claims that more employees were being investigated.
As a result of the suspension and investigation, a federal lawsuit has been filed against Superintendent Gibson on behalf of Renner and McDonald. The lawsuit said the actions of the two women were protected under the First Amendment and maintains they did not participate in illegal activity.
Across the country, law enforcement and the FBI have been asking for help in identifying any individuals who were present at the rally last week and who may have participated in unlawful conduct.
Newly elected House of Delegates member Derrick Evans, a Republican from Wayne County, resigned over the weekend — before serving in the Legislature — following his involvement in Wednesday’s insurrection.
He also faces federal charges for his role in those events.
At least five people died as a result of Wednesday’s violence, including one Capitol Police officer who sustained injuries during the attack on the Capitol.