HANOVER COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) – Emails obtained by 8News show that a Hanover County School Board member reached out to a top legal strategist for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) a week before he tried to set a meeting between the board and the organization.

A month later, the school board approved a plan to have ADF, which some have classified as an “anti-LGBTQ hate group,” review the district’s policy regarding the treatment of LGBTQ students.

On March 16, 8News filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking all of the county’s school board members’ emails concerning ADF since Nov. 21, 2021.

Although key details in the conversations were largely redacted – blacked out – by the school district, the emails shed some light on how the board and Alliance Defending Freedom came together.

The emails do not account for possible phone calls, text messages or other communications between the board and organization.

What is ADF and its link to Hanover’s school board?

Alliance Defending Freedom is a conservative Christian legal advocacy and training organization based in Arizona seeking to secure “generational wins that change the law and culture,” according to its website.

These goals include “ensuring the law respects God’s created order for marriage, the family, and human sexuality.”

In March, Hanover’s School Board voted 4-3 to allow ADF to review the board’s equal educational opportunities policy, which concerns the rights of LGBTQ students and more. Board Chairwoman Ola J. Hawkins, Vice Chair Bob Hundley and school board member Sterling Daniel voted against the proposal.

The decision came after the board voted last November not to adopt policies, as Virginia school divisions were required to under legislation passed by the state legislature, allowing students to use bathrooms and school facilities aligning with their gender identity. A month later, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia filed a lawsuit on behalf of five transgender students against the school board.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) added ADF to its “anti-LGBTQ hate group” list in 2016, saying the organization has spread “known falsehoods” that demonize LGBTQ people. Among several examples, SPLC points to a national campaign backed by ADF to pass laws that would prevent transgender students from taking part in sports on the teams that align with their gender identity, specifically in Arizona and Idaho.

Ryan Bangert, senior counsel and vice president of legal strategy at ADF, strongly disputed SPLC’s designation and said ADF is one of the U.S.’s most respected and successful U.S. Supreme Court advocates that has worked “to preserve the fundamental freedoms of speech and religion for all Americans.”

He also called the Southern Poverty Law Center “partisan” and “scandal-ridden,” claiming it has presented “false claims and gross mischaracterizations,” citing reports critical of its “hate map” and a federal judge’s opinion in 2019 that argued the list doesn’t “depend upon objective data or evidence.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center declined to comment on Bangert’s statement.

Emails reveal a timeline

Records show that Hanover School Board member John Axselle first emailed Bangert at Alliance Defending Freedom on Feb. 7, 2022. Most of the email, including its subject line, was blacked out by the district when we received the email through a FOIA request.

Hanover schools spokesperson Chris Whitley said the email and an attachment Axselle sent were redacted because they included “attorney-client material,” showing that Axselle had formally reached out to ADF a month before the board’s narrow vote to start considering the organization’s legal advice.

“Thank you in advance for your assistance with this matter,” Axselle writes to Bangert in one of two sentences not blacked out.

The email exchange between Axselle and Bangert — seven emails in total from Feb. 7-8 — is the only one between a school board member and an ADF employee in the records shared with 8News.

Board member Axselle’s Feb. 7 email to Ryan Bangert, senior counsel and vice president of legal strategy at ADF. (Email provided to 8News by Hanover schools after Freedom of Information Act request)

In one email, Bangert tells Axselle, the board’s Beaverdam District representative, that he received his message and “will review promptly and revert.” Later that night, Bangert sends another email asking Axselle if they could speak the next day.

Emails show that Bangert set up a call between himself, Axselle and his colleague Jon Scruggs, senior counsel and director of the Center for Conscience Initiatives with ADF, for the afternoon of Feb. 8.

Bangert’s email to Axselle on Feb. 8 setting up a phone call for 4 p.m. ET that day. (Email provided to 8News by Hanover schools after Freedom of Information Act request)

It’s unknown whether the phone call occurred as ADF and the school board declined to discuss the emails and declined 8News’ interview requests. But Axselle sent an email to Chairwoman Hawkins and Vice Chair Hundley less than a week later with the subject line, “Meeting with ADF.”

“ADF contacted me and they can meet with us Friday, February 18, 2022, at 5:00 PM, if that is good for us. This is going to be a Zoom meeting,” Axselle wrote in the Feb. 14 email. “Please let me know if this is good for the Board and I will confirm with them if you like.”

“I’ll work with Ola to notify the board of the plan to conduct a called closed session meeting Friday; our goal will be to confirm that as early as possible tomorrow morning so that the appropriate legal notice can be posted,” Hundley replied 37 minutes later.

According to the school board’s online agenda, a closed session meeting did not take place on Feb. 18 but one was held on Feb. 22 to interview “prospective candidates for employment” and for “consultation with legal counsel pertaining to probable and pending litigation,” including the ACLU lawsuit.

Board chair Hawkins’ email to school board attorney Lisa Seward on March 3. (Email provided to 8News by Hanover schools after Freedom of Information Act request)

Emails also show that Lisa Seward, the Hanover school board attorney, sent “research” to the school board and school Superintendent Michael Gill on March 2, six days before the board voted to allow ADF to advise it on its policy.

Seward’s entire email, apart from her salutation and “thank you,” was blacked out by the school division. The next day, Chairwoman Hawkins thanked Seward “for the research and update” and “detailed information.”

Hanover residents and parents ask for answers

Hanover County residents critical of the idea of bringing ADF on as legal advisors contacted school board members before and after the vote, the emails show.

Most were thanked for sharing their input but were provided little to no details or answers to their questions, including two residents who received similarly worded responses from Hanover County School Board member Robert May.

May emailed the South Anna District residents that the board voted “to engage Alliance Defending Freedom for legal review of Policy 7-1.2 at no cost to HCPS” and that he believes it “does reflect the ideals of the Constitution of the United States.”

Axselle’s email to board chair Hawkins and vice chair Hundley. (Email provided to 8News by Hanover schools after Freedom of Information Act request)

One resident emailed Chairwoman Hawkins twice before the March 8 vote, repeatedly asking her how the school board and ADF came together.

“I certainly hope this School Board, that is also planning to sign a Proclamation of Equity at the meeting tomorrow night, would not go out and ask for their assistance,” the resident wrote in the second of two emails to Hawkins on March 7. “So, I will ask again: How did the Alliance Defending Freedom come to be involved with the School Board? Did they approach HCPS, or did someone from HCPS contact them?”

Hawkins did not respond to the second email, records show, but did reach out to Vice Chair Hundley about the message and told him to let her know what he thought about the email.

“I believe we should get some advice from Mike and/or Lisa on this one,” Hundley wrote on the morning of March 8. “Since it’s a closed session topic, we may not have to divulge that, but we should ask first.”

Not long after that email, Hawkins and school board attorney Lisa Seward exchanged emails that were almost entirely redacted.

Most school board members did not respond to requests for an interview for this story, but those who did declined to speak and pointed 8News to Chairwoman Hawkins for a statement on behalf of the board.

Vice chair Hundley’s email to board chair Hawkins concerning an email from a parent she received. (Email provided to 8News by Hanover schools after Freedom of Information Act request)

“As you may know, we are actively involved in a lawsuit with the ACLU of Virginia. It is not the School Board’s practice to comment on pending litigation,” she wrote in an email. “Therefore, I do not have anything further to add to this other than what has been discussed and shared publicly.”

Hawkins and Bangert refused to answer questions about whether the board approached ADF or the other way around.

“The Hanover County School Board is committed to carrying out the critical task of providing excellence in education for their students while adhering to the law and advancing a culture that demonstrates dignity and respect for all students and staff who are part of the community,” Bangert said in a statement. “We look forward to serving the board by providing legal advice that accomplishes these goals.”

Christopher Berg, an Atlee High School parent of two, has been vocal about the board’s refusal to adopt the statewide policy last year. At a recent school board meeting, he spoke out against a possible change to the county’s student code of conduct that the district says clarifies its position on protests and walkouts.

After Berg claimed the change would be “unconstitutional” and called it “un-American,” Hanover schools discipline hearing review officer and Seward agreed that as it was proposed the potential change to the code would not violate students’ First Amendment rights. A William & Mary law professor specializing in freedom of speech told 8News that the change could be construed “as a blanket ban on protests and demonstrations,” as it was written, and a potential legal challenge was not out of the question.

In an interview, Berg told 8News that his youngest child, a nonbinary ninth-grader named Em, was suspended earlier this year for three days after taking part in an unapproved walkout protesting the board’s policies on transgender students in the county. Berg said Em has been harassed and bullied at school by students.

He said he believes the possible change to the code of conduct, which the board has yet to vote on, and ADF’s involvement in the school district only makes matters worse for transgender and nonbinary students.

“It really kind of feels like they’re just continuing to push more and more against the trans kids of Hanover County and kind of demoralizing those students,” Berg said. “That’s obviously the reason why the students got really upset and have started protesting. That was just yet another middle finger at the students.”

8News reporter Jakob Cordes contributed to this report.