The future of Superintendent David Thoming’s job is unclear after the New Jerusalem School District board listened to 40 minutes of commentary regarding his controversial comments on social media, but took no action in the closed session that followed.
Thoming has been under criticism since last week after his wife posted a meme that many regarded as a threat of violence on her Facebook page and he commented on her post with another meme that was also seen as threatening.
Nearly 160 people logged into the school board’s Tuesday night Zoom meeting, which included a closed session for a public employee performance evaluation for the superintendent and public employee discipline/dismissal/release/complaint.
People are calling for Superintendent David Thoming's resignation. He has no intention of stepping down.
At issue was whether the board should take any disciplinary action following Thoming’s comment, “It’s what we’ve been prepping for...,” accompanied by a graphic of a man with a machine gun, in response to his wife’s post, which read: “So rioters you say country boys are next. You do realize country boys will sit 30 feet up on a tree all day just to kill something.”
The memes were posted against a backdrop of demonstrations taking place across the county in protest of police violence and systemic racial injustice. Local protests have been peaceful, but in some places across the U.S., demonstrations have led to vandalism, looting and other violence.
A majority of the comments at Tuesday’s meeting came from people calling for some type of disciplinary action against Thoming, including removal from his job. Nearly as many comments were in support of Thoming, coming from people who described him as an asset to the school community and noted that the sentiments expressed in the memes were shared on a private forum had been taken out of context.
At the end of the comment period, and after the three-member board — president Stephen Bogetti and trustees William Koster and Michael Petz — deliberated in a closed session for about an hour, Bogetti said the board would investigate the matter further before taking any action.
“There were many things that needed to be discussed, that were discussed, in closed session. That’s why it took a little while,” Bogetti said. “We as a board absolutely do not condone this at all. We all feel the same way, unanimously, on that.”
Bogetti added that the board would release an official statement on the matter. The statement now appears on the front page of the district’s website.
“It will be out to the public so everybody knows how the board feels and what direction we’re going,” he said.
The two-paragraph statement includes the declaration that “The Board of Trustees, Superintendent, and staff of New Jerusalem Elementary School District condemn both racism and violence.”
New Jerusalem parent Kim Ruiz told the board that she learned about the posts from her son, who had learned about it through his friends.
“As a parent, it’s definitely not something that you want to see,” Ruiz told the board. “It was very well known to me that a lot of kids had just a very, very shocked reaction to see their superintendent post something like that.”
“Accountability for something that could cause reaction, in not only children but parents as a whole, I’d love to see that,” Ruiz added. “And because there hasn’t been, the stance has been, basically, ‘I stand behind what I say’ — it’s just unacceptable to me, and to a lot of people.”
Delta Charter High School alumnus Ashton Maxwell, Class of 2018, called for Thoming’s resignation. He said the posts didn’t strike him as racist.
“But I do find there is a double-standard. If a student were to have done that, and they have in the past, they would be reprimanded, and they were,” Maxwell said.
The speaker who followed him, who identified himself only as Ashton, said that the posts weren’t overtly racist, “but unfortunately, what we’ve found with high-profile cases where folks have called 911 over Black folks just doing simple things, a lot of times it’s this irrational fear and hysteria that’s based on really racist stereotypes. I think that the whole idea of labeling protestors as violent is deeply offensive, and I think also that plays on racist stereotypes.”
Pamela Houston, a parent of Delta Charter students, said the original post and the reaction of those who endorsed it in the initial comments offended her. Houston noted that her sister, Gina Pettis, was the first to object, and those who immediately came to the defense of the post included school and district staff.
“When you’re in a certain position it makes everyone feel that it’s OK to comment and post on those things, when that’s not OK. It’s not OK when you’re in a school that’s diverse, or not diverse.
“That’s like antagonizing someone. You say something and then you get people hyped up when you put stuff out like that, to want to do something.”
Houston added that the post aggravated a political climate in which the prospect of Black Lives Matter demonstrations in town prompted businesses to board up their windows, which she called a reaction of fear based on prejudice.
“There still has not been anything violent in any of the protests that we have had to deal with,” Houston said. “I’m on Twitter. I’m on Snapchat, Instagram, every social media thing you can think of I’m a part of, and I haven’t seen no one posting anything about ‘the country boys are next.’ So like where did that come from?”
Grace Quinn, a 2018 graduate of Delta Charter High, said the superintendent’s actions on social media should draw at least a reprimand by the board. She said it shouldn’t be considered a partisan or political issue.
“A lot of my frustration comes from the fact of, I think a lot of us realize there are standards upheld at DCHS and other branches of the New Jerusalem School District of zero tolerance for violence and zero tolerance for bullying, and I think that in a way the posts by both David and Traci Thoming glorify violence,” she said.
“Wherever these students are, they’re held to the standard of not promoting violence and not promoting any sort of bullying at all. Whether or not it’s a racial issue, whether or not it’s a partisan issue, they’re all held to the standard and I believe 100% that staff and faculty should be held to the same standard that the students are held to.”
Thoming’s supporters described an administrator who cares deeply about a multicultural school community and whose comment contained no racist remarks or threats of instigating violence.
“I am 100% behind Mr. Thoming,” said Susan Taylor, whose children attend New Jerusalem and Delta Charter schools. “He is the most unprejudiced person I’ve ever met. I’ve been to his home. He has a very diverse crowd there all the time. He does a lot for all the kids. I just don’t understand why everybody is trying to do this to him.”
Jacqui Valle, whose son, Elias Gamez, was a popular student at Delta Charter High, said the Thomings had been supportive of her family during Elias’ three-year fight against Hodgkin lymphoma. Elias died in April 2019, and the Delta Charter High football field was named in his honor.
“I’m hurt by all of this, but I do believe that the meme that was posted on a personal page was taken out of context,” Valle told the board. “I know Mr. and Mrs. Thoming on a personal level. They are great people. They are not racist in any way. They have helped my family tremendously and they have helped other families as well.”
She added that misunderstandings and assumptions surrounded the brief online statements and comments.
“I do also believe that because emotions are high and because we are living in scary times, is why all of a sudden we’re questioning each other,” she said. “All parties, we’re all hurt and affected by everything.”
Steve Dulkevich said he had only positive impressions of the Thomings.
“I think the post was really misconstrued. I think a snowball effect happened and this just grew entirely out of proportion,” he said.
“I have four kids that go to the school. I feel they are perfectly safe. I’ve known the Thomings for 13 years, my oldest daughter started in kindergarten and just graduated this year. I have seen nothing but honesty and integrity from them. I see them go above and beyond every day for this district.”
Heather Smiddy, who has four children at Delta Charter and New Jerusalem schools, emphasized that the posts were not made in reference to any person or place in particular, but just rural communities in general.
“His response to that was simply saying, ‘I’m going to protect my household if that need should arise,’” she said. “Does that make me afraid for my children at the school? Absolutely not. On the contrary, that would make me feel confident in the fact that, if somebody were to come out there to the school, which is also in a rural area, to threaten my children, I would feel safe knowing that there was somebody there that wasn’t afraid to take care of the circumstance, whatever that may be.”
She asserted that the original conversation had nothing to do with race.
“What it has snowballed into is a political conversation about his political beliefs versus other people’s political beliefs,” she said. “He didn’t do anything wrong at the school. He simply spoke his own political views on his personal Facebook page, which somebody else grabbed a photo of and shared.”