The Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board is launching an investigation into the termination of Jacob Grout, former Harwood Union High School (HUHS) boys’ varsity hockey coach.
Grout was fired on February 17, 2021, after the HUUSD administration discovered that Grout had texted his players a profanity-laden message containing complaints about parent interference with coaching.
Many members of the community believe the decision to fire Grout was a mistake. Grout himself condemned the administration for failing to properly investigate the case before making the decision. In an earlier interview with The Valley Reporter, Grout said: “When I found out that the principals never saw my full text message and made the decision anyway, that hit a nerve in me bad. It felt like my message was altered to make me look bad. Just to know that that happened, whether it was intentional or not, the fact that there was no investigation into the situation makes me angry.”
Despite public outcry on social media and a petition signed by more than 1,300 people asking that the district reinstate Grout, no action had been taken by the district until the night of April 28.
That night, the HUUSD Board considered multiple options to address the controversial termination. Initially, the board made a motion to invite Jacob Grout and all parties involved in the termination, including district administrators, to attend a meeting and clarify details of the termination in public.
However, the motion to hold a public meeting about the termination failed in a weighted vote of 83.45% to 16.55%, with 12 board members voting against it and only two board members voting for it. Some board members voted down the motion because they did not believe it was within the board’s responsibility to investigate this conflict.
“I feel like the administration did their job. This is micro managing,” said Brian Della Mura, Duxbury. “I will not be supporting this. It’s incredibly distracting from the work the board should be focusing on,” said Jeremy Tretiak, Waitsfield.
Others voted down the motion because they believed a public hearing could be damaging and divisive for all parties involved. “It’s an incredibly destructive motion,” said board chair Torrey Smith, Duxbury. “It’s almost the worst possible route we can take. It does not create a safe space for anyone involved. So many people have already been hurt by this. It sounds like it would inevitably devolve into a witch trial of old.”
Smith urged the board to consider launching an investigation instead of hosting a public hearing about the termination. “If the board feels like it absolutely needs more information, I think the best way to do it would be to do an investigation and to pay for it. We would have somebody who’s a third party doing the interviews. They would have skills, expertise and professional experience to know how to ask questions in a kind, compassionate and humane way. How to collect information and report it appropriately. We would not be creating an opportunity for people to call each other liars,” said Smith.
However, even Smith said she would rather the board not meddle in the administration's decision to terminate Grout. “While my strong recommendation is that the board not get involved in this and not second guess our professional’s decision-making here, if the board absolutely feels that we need more information, I can only recommend an investigation that is impartial, third party and thorough.”
Ultimately, the board made a motion to hire a third party to complete an investigation into the termination of Jacob Grout. This motion passed, though the board was split, with seven board members in favor of an investigation and six board members against it. The weighted results of the vote were 51.25% to 43.55%.
Kristen Rogers, Moretown, voted in favor of the investigation. “What is the point of a school board that oversees everything, when a coach, who Brigid can hire and fire at will, can’t even feel like they can appeal to us to be heard. That’s what I have a problem with. This board has been silent,” said Rogers. “He feels like he was wrongly terminated, and we’re just saying, nope, we’re going to zip our mouths. That’s wrong.”
Theresa Membrino, Fayston, also voted in favor of the investigation. “This is an excellent way to defend our administration the same way we did a year ago,” said Membrino, referring to an investigation the board launched against Superintendent Brigid Nease after she’d been accused of failing to respond adequately to a racist incident in school. “If it turns out the fact finding goes the other way, it’s a great way to find closure and make peace with the district.”
Tretiak, Waitsfield, was not convinced that the investigation was a good idea. “We’re sending a bad message here in terms of how we relate to our administration,” said Tretiak. “The difference between last year’s investigation is that we were looking to clear up issues with our superintendent, who leads the district. Here, we’re talking about spending about five times as much as the annual salary of the position we’re looking at, just to get answers that I think will be divisive regardless of the outcome.”