Visitors attempt to attend teacher’s appeal hearing

Benny Westcott

About a dozen people attempted to enter the Sweet Home School District office Wednesday afternoon, April 13, to attend an appeal hearing for Tina Tressel.

Tressel was terminated Nov. 8, 2021, after failing to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination or to submit a religious or medical exemption.

However, the session was never planned to be held in-person.

“We continued to send out information to our employees saying that this is not taking place on our property, we are not hosting a meeting, and that this is a Zoom-hosted meeting,” Sweet Home School District Superintendent Lisa Riggs said. “And in fact, those that were participating weren’t even in the district office.”

Even Yael Livny, the Oregon Department of Justice assistant attorney general who oversaw the meeting, did so remotely, as that department has been doing during the COVID-19 pandemic for the last two years, Riggs added. All information and documents regarding the hearing indicated a virtual session.

Tressel said that when the district emailed her to inquire about her availability, “I said I wanted it in-person, open session, just like the board meetings, with Zoom links in case some of my [legal] counsel couldn’t be there.”

District Business Manager Kevin Strong had written to Tressel to inform her that the district office would not be hosting the meeting in-person. Her counsel, Beaverton-based Ron Vrooman, replied that they would report there that day, anyway.

When people arrived at the district office’s locked back door at around 1 p.m. Wednesday, district staff, most prominently Director of Student Services Thad Holub, told them they were not to enter the building, as there was no meeting in the boardroom.

At that point, the civilians, some of whom carried video recorders, argued that they should be allowed inside. The police were called and two officers arrived on-scene, Police Chief Jeff Lynn among them. Before 1:30 p.m., the crowd was convinced to leave.

“We were advised by school district administration of some individuals who had arrived at the location, apparently to either attend or disrupt a potential meeting that may have been scheduled at some point,” Lynn said.

“The meeting wasn’t here, and based on the demeanor of the individuals, the administration was not allowing them into the building.”

“The district staff has a right to do that, and they made that decision,” he continued. “We’re just here to try to keep the peace, negate any issues and let everybody proceed with their day.

“I don’t think the individuals (attempting to enter the building)were happy, and quite honestly I’m not even sure who they all were. But they did not come into the building, and they subsequently left the property. So from my standpoint, it worked out perfectly.”

The Zoom hearing began at 1:30, and Tressel and the contingency of people joined it virtually from the VFW Hall, where the group had walked or driven after leaving district property, Tressel said.

Ultimately the meeting wasn’t what many participants thought it would be. According to Riggs, Livny said that the meeting was to determine when all parties could meet again and to estimate the eventual hearing’s length.

“I do believe that every party thought that was to be the hearing, and it wasn’t,” Riggs said.

“I feel like they did what they wanted to do and stalled it, so they didn’t have to go through it,” Tressel said “I didn’t get to share my thoughts.”

Her ultimate goal, she added, is exoneration.

“I feel like [the district] basically called me for slander for insubordination and neglect of duty,” she said. “I wasn’t insubordinate to my job contract, and never neglected my duties.”

She called the district’s moves a “defamation of character,” and still questions the school board’s decision to terminate her.

“This is all wrong,” she said, citing what she believes to be a “COVID lie.”

As of Sunday, April 17, COVID-19 has caused 987,000 deaths in the United States and 7,443 deaths in Oregon, according to the New York Times.

Of the district, Tressel said, “What they’re doing is depriving everybody of oxygen and playing this stupid game when behind closed doors, when nobody’s looking. None of them are doing what they say they’re supposed to be doing, in every building.

“There are some people that are really scared of [COVID-19]. I get it. A lot of people do believe all of this, but I don’t. I believe there’s a lot of bad stuff happening, and we’re being lied to.”

Riggs said the district feels fortunate that during the mandate, masking issues and state requirements, only one employee had to be terminated. However, she called that termination unfortunate.

“There are other districts that have many more and were not able to accommodate all of their staff,” she said. “We care about our staff and students’ health and safety, but because we had two ways to verify people could continue to work and have accommodations, we were able to do that.”

Riggs said that when someone in the district is terminated, it is part of the state of Oregon’s process to hold a review hearing regarding procedures. But she wasn’t sure why some thought the meeting would take place in-person on district property.

“Every email shared that this was on Zoom, so I can’t speak on behalf of why they didn’t understand that,” she said.

Tressel’s future hearing date has yet to be determined.