Editorial – IWCS owes answers on ex-teacher

Published 4:48 pm Tuesday, July 25, 2023

School administrators have a tough job when it comes to sensitive personnel matters. 

On one hand, a person accused of wrongdoing has some legitimate expectation of privacy while an investigation is conducted. On the other, many stakeholders, especially parents, have a legitimate interest when their children’s safety has likely been compromised.

Isle of Wight County Schools appear to have flunked that balancing act in the case of Andrew Henson, a former Smithfield High School Teacher of the Year who lost his teaching license after resigning when evidence surfaced of an alleged sexual relationship with a student.

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Our Stephen Faleski broke the story last month after an alert citizen stumbled on Henson’s license revocation during an unrelated review of public records. Several weeks later, IWCS officials remain silent on their handling of the matter, including the critical question of whether Henson’s students or their parents were notified of his alleged misdeeds at the time administrators became aware of them. 

Henson resigned on Feb. 18, 2022, eight days after one of his former students told school administrators of the alleged affair. A record of the Virginia Board of Education’s March 22, 2023, licensure hearing states that the student, who’s now in college, gave IWCS screenshots, pictures and messages from her time as an SHS junior during the 2019-20 school year to corroborate the “existence and nature” of the relationship.

A partially redacted incident report from the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office states the relationship may have begun as early as the student’s freshman and sophomore years at SHS, where Henson taught world history and sociology. He was not charged criminally.

According to public records, Isle of Wight County Schools conducted its own investigation into Henson and provided a summary to the School Board by memorandum on April 21, 2022. Based on that memo, former Superintendent Jim Thornton filed a petition on May 16, 2022, seeking the revocation of Henson’s teaching license.

The School Board conducted a closed-session hearing on the petition on Aug. 11, 2022, accepted Thornton’s petition and forwarded the matter to the state.

Five months later, a state investigative panel voted unanimously on Jan. 27 to recommend the Board of Education revoke Henson’s license. 

 Faleski asked administrators specifically whether any parents or students of Henson were notified in 2022 when officials learned of the alleged affair.

“The school division does not comment on specific personnel or student matters,” IWCS spokeswoman Lynn Briggs responded.

We’re not picking on Briggs, a top-notch public-relations professional who can only release information that’s authorized by the superintendent or school board, but the division’s response is wholly inadequate.

Even though more than a year has passed since Henson’s departure, administrators owe stakeholders a detailed explanation of their handling of the matter, including whether parents of Henson’s students were notified. We’re left to assume that they weren’t, as the matter surely would have become public knowledge. With Henson long gone, his interest should be the least of the school division’s considerations.  

While it should never be a factor in deciding what to disclose and when, embarrassment is often a motivating factor when public officials keep important information hidden from the most important constituencies they serve.

In this case, we hope IWCS didn’t conceal the information to protect its own reputation. Certainly, it’s embarrassing for the school division to have honored as Teacher of the Year a man who would soon resign without fighting very serious allegations of misconduct. But there’s no evidence that administrators knew of the allegations at the time that award was given. People understand that on campuses with hundreds of kids and adults, misbehavior will sometimes occur. School administrators are usually judged more on their handling of an incident than on the fact that an incident occurred.

In the Henson case, important questions linger about IWCS’ actions. Administrators and, if necessary, the School Board, should work quickly to provide answers.