Despite a barrage of questions from the community at a school board meeting this week, first-year St. Regis Superintendent Janet Hanson refuses to tell anyone why the district’s principal has been placed on administrative leave – including the principal herself.
“It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen,” attorney Lance Jasper said Friday.
Even as next Thursday’s opening day of school at St. Regis neared, Hanson placed Tammy Demien on indefinite leave with full pay and benefits on Aug. 6.
The district has hired what Hanson called a neutral third party from the Montana School Boards Association to investigate an unspecified complaint against Demien.
The superintendent said Friday that because of confidentiality concerns she can’t address personnel situations in public.
“All I can tell you is that the school has procedures that are followed when a complaint arises,” Hanson said.
One of those procedures is that “all individuals are given a notice letter that states the cause of the leave,” she added.
Demien, beginning her third year as principal in her hometown, retained Jasper after what she described Friday as an unceremonious escort from school grounds 12 days ago.
In the presence of school board member Charlee Thompson, Hanson read a statement informing her she was being placed on administrative leave, Demien said.
“I asked if she could be more specific and she said no,” Demien said.
Hanson remained tight-lipped at the special board meeting Wednesday night, which Demien and Jasper attended. Others in attendance said Hanson cited reasons of confidentiality for the protection of all parties involved until she received further direction from the school boards association.
An investigator from the Helena-based association will start looking into the case next week, an MSBA spokeswoman said.
Jasper described Wednesday’s meeting as at least 50 “livid” people demanding to know what was going on. Even after Demien waived her right to privacy, the question went unanswered.
John Cheesman, who stepped down from the school board after a total of 27 years this spring, was there. He said he was one of those who recruited Demien two years ago to come to St. Regis from St. Ignatius, where she was principal for two years.
“I’ve known her since she was a 3-year-old kid and I was sure she could do the job for us,” Cheesman said, adding he suspects it’s “one board member and a teacher that are pulling this stuff all together.”
“The thing I don’t understand is how you can lead her to the front door and tell her to leave and (she’s) not welcome back and then don’t charge her with anything or accuse her of anything,” Cheesman said.
Jasper has received no response in two letters he’s written to the school district demanding to know just that. He said litigation is a definite prospect.
“It’s absolutely illegal,” said Jasper. “It’s a violation of her due process. It’s an absolute slam-dunk violation of not only her contractual rights but her constitutional rights.”
More mystifying still, he said, is that Demien barely knows Hanson, and she has a spotless track record wherever she’s worked.
“She has been a public educator for 31 years, she’s won teacher of the year awards in Arizona,” said Jasper. “In 31 years, she’s never had so much as a write-up or even a negative word about her.”
Demien was raised in St. Regis, where she graduated from high school in 1977. She taught seven years in St. Regis and 20 in a school system in Chino Valley, Ariz., before returning to Montana four years ago to become principal at St. Ignatius.
“She’s a follow-the-letter type person,” Jasper said. “I call her a dream client because she’s never done anything that would jeopardize anything.”
Demien said on the day she was placed on leave she was directed to have no contact with school staff and to take no part in school activities. She was to turn over her keys and to box up her personal items and haul them away.
She said when she returned to the school after loading the boxes in her car, Hanson told her “I’m going to walk you to your car and you’re not to come back.”
“I’ve never been treated like this in my whole life,” she said.
The hard part, beyond missing the first day of school for the first time in 30 years, is that Demien doesn’t know the nature of the complaint against her.
“For 10 or 11 days I’ve run through every scenario. You know how your mind works,” she said. “My counselor said not to speculate any more because I’m making myself crazy.”
Hanson replaced the retiring Patrick Lowe as superintendent this summer. She has a background in private schools and spent the past two years as principal of Turning Winds Academic Institute, an alternative school for troubled teenagers near Troy.
The new superintendent staunchly defended her decision not to reveal the nature of the complaint against Demien.
“The thing is, people want information before the process is completed, and the process is confidential,” Hanson said. “When the process is completed, the matter will be resolved, which may also be confidential.”
Meanwhile, she’s confident she can lead the school while it’s without a principal.
“I am a certified principal and superintendent, and I’m perfectly capable of doing the teacher supervisions, evaluations and whatever needs to run in the school,” Hanson said.
At her behest, the board approved additional hours for someone else to handle discipline. The money for that, more than $13,000, will be taken from money in the general budget that had been targeted for a half-time Spanish teacher.
Hanson said the school advertised for the teacher but couldn’t find a qualified candidate. St. Regis will use online resources for Spanish classes instead.
Asked if the person who’ll take on discipline duties is on the teaching staff, Hanson replied, “That hasn’t been identified or contracted. We’re working with the union in good rapport to provide a smooth, seamless start of school.
“It’s an outstanding group of people here, I’ll tell you. The staff at this school and the school board at this school are an amazing group of people.”
As for the banned principal – “I just have to wait, and that’s the hard part,” said Demien, who said she and her family have been devastated. She recently bought a house in St. Regis with her husband and was anxious to help break in a staff that is dotted with several new teachers this school year.
“I enjoy the kids,” she said. “I’d just like to work this all out, get some resolution, and get on with my life.”
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.