A conversation with Oxford’s superintendent, school board president
By James Hanlon
Leader Staff Writer
“Truth is our friend. We are not afraid of the truth,” Oxford Superintendent Tim Throne told The Oxford Leader in an interview along with School Board President Tom Donnelly at the Oxford Community Schools offices this past Monday.
The school district administration is balancing a lot right now: making sure every family is taken care of, every kid can see a counselor, making sure food is still distributed while the school is closed and figuring out how to reopen safely, all while grieving and cooperating with the investigation.
“Everybody’s desire to rush to figure out what happened, what didn’t happen, how about the fact that we’re rightfully making sure that this community goes through a grieving process, including ourselves,” Donnelly said. It’s tough to do that, because, we’re a school district. We have to reopen.”
Donnelly called the reopening of the middle and elementary schools a “homerun.” He had the opportunity to visit Clearlake Elementary when it reopened Friday, lining up with teachers high-fiving students as they came in. “Parents decorated the hallways. It was just amazing.”
Districts from other communities that have been through similar tragedies have reached out, offering advice. “One of the things we heard loud and clear from everybody we spoke to was get your kids back in your buildings as soon as possible,” Throne said. Because that was such a clear message, they put all of their resources into supporting students, parents and staff to get ready for that step.
Meanwhile, Throne has recommended a third-party review. This would be a broad-scope “blue ribbon commission” that would look far beyond the criminal investigation into all the systemic factors that were at play on and leading up to the events of Nov. 30.
Some have misunderstood the purpose of the review. “I think people took my remarks as a third party coming in to make sure the (criminal) investigation was handled correctly,” Throne said. “I don’t have any doubts that the investigation is and will proceed correctly.” The district has fully cooperated with the sheriff’s and prosecutor’s offices in handing over evidence, even as they come across new information, they said.
“We want a review of how did we get to where we are today, and why did this happen,” Throne continued. “Are there policy changes at the national, state and local level that we can do to try to make an environment where this doesn’t happen again? It’s not an independent review of the actual investigation.”
That doesn’t mean evidence from the investigation will not be included in the review process, but the question they are trying to answer is much larger.
“It would be another tragedy,” Throne said “if the only thing other school districts learn from what happened here is what to do when this type of event happens.” Over the years, schools have been expected to do more and more, and it raises the question, just what are their responsibilities?
“What is being asked of our educational institutions? If we really want to answer the question how do we stop this from happening again? That’s not just a very small question. It is a question that involves a whole bunch of stuff.”
The committee would be made up of experts from all sectors. “It has to be beyond the school, the classroom,” Donnelly said. “It has to be as a society, what are we doing?”
The review process has not started yet. The school board still needs to accept the recommendation. (The board met Tuesday night, after the Leader went to press.)
In response to the $100 million lawsuit filed against the district by the parents of a student who was wounded in the shooting, Donnelly wants to be clear, “That family or any family that’s hiring an attorney, that does not make them in opposition to us. We’re family. We’re Oxford. And first and foremost, our hearts go out to that family. We grieve for them and with them.”
But addressing some of the accusations made by attorney Geoffrey Fieger, Donnelly maintains that district has been “100 percent transparent, forthright” with the investigation. “Notice that no one in the county is saying we’re withholding information. They have access to anything and everything.”
They are not destroying information either. “I would prefer that Geoffrey Fieger and his team be honest, use accurate information,” Donnelly said, noting the lawsuit wrongly named an individual who no longer works for the school. That individual has had threats made against them as a result.
“Those accusations are false. And they’re hurting our community. And they need to stop. Because they cause us to expend more energy in places we don’t have time for. We’re working hard to heal our community, to get through this grieving process and every time something like that incites anger, violence, our threats go up.”
Throne does not know when the right time will be, but he promises there will be a time to respond, specifically, to the allegations made within the lawsuit. “I hope that our staff and the people of Oxford get the same level of responsibility and accountability of these lawyers and of some press that they’re asking of us. I’m not sure when and how, but I can tell you I’m going to press for that too.”
Given everything that has happened, Throne announced Monday his intention to pause his retirement plans. His last day was supposed to be Jan. 21, 2022.
“I remain solely focused on responding to this tragedy,” he said, “and I am committed to making sure our students, families, and staff are fully supported during this difficult time for our community. Now is simply not the right time for me to leave.”
This will help the administration make a smooth transition by allowing the board more time to find a replacement.