Speas on administrative leave as HVA gas reaction probed

Following what Knox County Sheriff’s Office stated was an intentional gas leak Wednesday, March 29, at Hardin Valley Academy that led to in-school issues Thursday, March 30, principal Dr. Rob Speas has been placed on administrative leave while Knox County Schools’ officials investigate the incident and its aftermath.

KCS superintendent Dr. Jon Rysewyk appointed long-time KCS administrator Michael Reynolds to take over as interim principal. He began Monday, April 10.

Reynolds — former principal at Farragut High School and most recently at Knoxville Central High School, from where he retired in 2018 — also is the husband of former HVA principal Sallee Reynolds, who led the school when it opened in August 2008 until her own retirement four years ago.

“District leadership will continue to support the school and work with Mr. Reynolds during this transition,” Rysewyk stated in an announcement sent to all HVA parents Wednesday, April 5.

KCS Communications chief Carly Harrington confirmed Sunday, April 9, Rysewyk has called for an internal review of the events on March 30.

The March 29 incident, in which a contracted janitor allegedly intentionally turned on two gas valves in the school’s chemistry lab, was discovered the following morning, March 30.

Knox County Sheriff’s Office quickly zeroed in on a suspect, Jay Riley Kostermans, 23, who admitted to the crime in KCSO documentation claiming it stemmed “out of anger over a dispute with his mother.” He was arrested and charged with felony reckless endangerment and also was terminated from his employer, Duncan and Sons Building Maintenance.

While students ultimately were dismissed early, around 1 p.m., HVA parents raised many questions in the aftermath of how the incident was handled, both on social media and with area news outlets.

Some also addressed Knox County Board of Education during its Thursday, April 6, meeting, including parents Katie Prothro and Anthony Parker.

“The administration’s questionable decision-making that day, as well as the lack of transparency regarding those decisions, has led many to have a lot of questions,” Prothro said. “Our school narrowly avoided being another tragic statistic and our lives, an unfathomable nightmare. The Board has a huge responsibility ... if protocol was followed, then I have lost faith in whatever protocol was in place to protect our students.

“Training during times of crisis has become absolutely necessary,” she added. “It has shaken the confidence of many, including our students.”

“There is a common theme here tonight, among the parents who have spoken tonight: policy and procedures,” Parker said. “What were the policy and procedures that happened that day? Were they followed? Were they the best policies and procedures?

“There was a gas leak this week at Northwest. It was handled very differently; why was that?” he added.

“My ask for the school board — is for an independent audit — lets fix the policies and address them … that’s what every one of us elected you to do.

“I want crisis management taught to every principal; they need to follow up with that; when I went to the school, it looked like Beirut. … I’ve been in a management situation where I’ve had to manage a crisis that was scary and it was pathetic. It was a bad experience on the school system.”

Parker explained his personal timeline of March 30.

“I dropped my daughter off at that school about 8:30 a.m. or so. Later, the e-mails (from the school) came out. I trusted the school system — that was our mistake; we will be more involved in the future to make sure that doesn’t happen

“At 9:30, or (9:30)–ish, my wife texted me, (and suggested) I reach out to the (nearby Karns) Fire Department to contact them directly, and I confirmed (with them) no one from the school system had called,” he added. “They dispatched, (and) at 10:30., they recommended the school be evacuated. I know that, I’ve seen the information, I was told that — it did not happen.

“At 11:30 I picked up my daughter, and that’s when it looked like Beirut. NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) guidelines for gas leaks were not being followed. How do know that? Because I have done it.

“Lastly, you need to look at the number of times the principal that was there has refused to allow assistance from the fire department. It’s public record.”

In a follow-up e-mail interview, Parker further elaborated. “This is what we need answered: A) is there a protocol? If so, was it followed?” ... Why was it handled differently (than) other schools this year?

“My last ask is that every administrator have annual crisis management training. “Unfortunately, in the environment we live in this is a must.”