HANOVER COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — The Hanover County School Board does not believe its chairman violated federal law when he shared a student’s information with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) using his personal email account.
The assertion, first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, was made in a Sept. 19 letter responding to the county Board of Supervisors’ request for information and documents following accusations made against a school board member.
The supervisors’ request for records would require the review of 4,900 emails and cost $12,747.50, the school board’s legal counsel wrote in the letter to county attorney Dennis Walter.
The Hanover County Board of Supervisors discussed its options to remove a school board member on Sept. 14 after revealing accusations that one improperly handled a student’s personal information in violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
The supervisors were careful not to identify any specific school board member apart from saying it involved a “longtime appointee” and discussing emails sent to ADF.
But in the Aug. 31 letter to the school board, obtained through a public records request, the supervisors shared that the accusation was made against Hanover County School Board Chairman John Axselle III.
“The Board has been informed that John Axselle, the School Board representative from the Beaverdam District, sent a series of emails from his personal email account between February 7, 2022, and February 8, 2022, to Ryan Bangert with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), and that the email thread may contain personal information and/or student education records of a current or former student,” the letter reads.
Efforts to reach Axselle and Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Angela Kelly-Wiecek were unsuccessful.
In May, 8News reported on the emails Axselle sent to a top legal strategist for ADF, which included messages from his personal Gmail account, in which he tried to set a meeting between the school board and the organization before he was chair.
Hanover’s school board then 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.
The school board’s counsel wrote to the county attorney that members received a demand letter on behalf of a student that included information “in furtherance of the legal position advanced in the letter.”
The school board’s letter admits Axselle emailed the student’s demand letter from his private account to a representative of ADF, which was still “prospective outside counsel” at the time, but contends exemptions under FERPA allowed him to do so.
“One of those exemptions permits local school divisions to share that information with those deemed ‘school officials’, as that term is defined by FERPA, to include legal counsel,” the letter to the county attorney reads. “The School Board does not believe that Mr. Axselle violated FERPA when he transmitted the attorney’s letter to another attorney in furtherance of obtaining legal advice.”
The supervisors’ requests to access or look over unredacted emails and all attachments Axselle sent to ADF were denied, with the school board’s counsel writing that such a disclosure would be a violation of FERPA.