Ryan Siebe is no longer the principal at Farragut High School, and the news took attorney Herb Moncier by surprise. And he’s not the only one, since new principals are typically assigned at the end of the school year to give them the summer to get situated.
But Knox County Schools announced Siebe’s promotion to secondary school staffing supervisor last Friday, swapping him out for former Bearden High principal John Bartlett, who spent the past year in the Andrew Johnson building working as supervisor of secondary education. This gives Bartlett barely a week to settle in at Farragut before students report to class for the new school year, but given the 10 years he was principal at Bearden and considerable experience before that, he is expected to make a seamless transition.
At first glance, Farragut would seem to be a dream assignment. The school’s braggadocios web page fairly screams its accomplishments:
FHS in the News
But there is another side to the Farragut story, one that Moncier knows all too well.
He represents Mark and Candace Bannister, parents of Will Bannister, a 16-year-old sophomore at Farragut who killed himself April 17, 2017. The Bannisters have sued Knox County Schools (lawsuit here) and named Siebe as one of several individual defendants whom they accuse of driving their son to suicide by bullying, harassment and neglect. Moncier has a particular interest in Siebe’s whereabouts.
“It seemed a little strange,” Moncier said. “I filed a public records request for information with regard to Siebe’s tenure as principal at Carter High School and any matters that have been submitted to the superintendent or school board during that time. Evidently a number of complaints had been filed against him at Carter, and nothing was ever done about it there, either.”
Moncier has also requested documents generated during Siebe’s three-year tenure at Farragut.
Will Bannister was a tall, slender, gregarious boy with a striking mop of bright red hair. He had been named “Most Unique” in his eighth grade class at Farragut Middle School, probably as much for his individualistic sense of fashion as for the strong sense of justice that led him to take public stands when he felt other kids were being wronged – like the time when he protested girls not being allowed to wear leggings to school by showing up for class in his base layer pants to prove the point that there were different rules for boys and girls.
Despite having the loving support of a strong, educated family – Mark Bannister is a physicist; Candace Bannister is a recently-retired second grade teacher; Will’s older brother Brooks and his friends always included Will in their activities – Will became one of three Farragut students who took their lives during the 2016-17 school year, causing widespread grief, anguish and soul searching among the school’s 1,700 member student body. Since that time another student and two recent Farragut graduates have ended their lives, as well, and answers haven’t come easily. Siebe served as Farragut principal from 2016-19.
Situated in the most affluent corner of Knox County, the community relishes Farragut’s status as one of the state’s highest-achieving public schools. Pressure to achieve is intense.
Back in 2013, two top Farragut students made national news when they joined a homegrown rebellion organized by teachers who were protesting former Superintendent James McIntyre’s over-reliance on high-stakes testing and draconian teacher evaluations. McIntyre lost the confidence of his school board and has since departed to the University of Tennessee to run the Leadership Academy he founded to promote those methods. Siebe was a “fellow” in the inaugural Leadership Academy Class of 2010.
Will would have been a member of the Class of 2019, if he’d lived long enough.
When that class gathered for its graduation ceremony at Thompson Boling Arena this spring, they were treated to a Senior Recognition handout celebrating the new graduates’ many accomplishments, including helping the school become one of only six high schools in Tennessee to be awarded a STEM school designation. One way of achieving the STEM designation was the number of students enrolled in advanced mathematics and science courses.
One of the allegations in the lawsuit is that Will was placed in a super-accelerated Advance Placement geometry class without the knowledge or consent of his parents his freshmen year (the year before Siebe’s arrival at Farragut). He struggled, and even though he had made good grades in eighth grade AP math courses, he had to spend so much time with his assignments that his other classwork suffered. He was placed on anti-anxiety medication that spring.
“The Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System yields higher scores for schools that place students into higher-level courses in order to increase the students’ growth scores that are a major component of the school’s assessment,” the suit says.
Near the end of the school year, Will and his parents were frustrated to learn he’d again been placed in the highest-level math class for the following year. The placement stood, over the protests of his father, with the stipulation that he could transfer to an intermediate-level Algebra II class if he couldn’t cope with the material after a few weeks.
They were also frustrated when Will kept getting punished for inconsequential acts:
In April 2016, he got caught with a pill bottle full of baby powder and was suspended for a day, despite the fact that it was not a banned substance. In May, he was suspended for two days for picking up a box of pizza that was meant for yearbook staff only (after he’d been invited to partake by a yearbook staff member). No one else was punished.
Siebe arrived at Farragut in August 2016, just in time for a controversy over transgender students being forced to use restrooms that aligned with the gender on their birth certificates (this is Tennessee state law). Will took the side of the transgender kids. The leggings controversy came soon thereafter. By then, Will had been labeled as a redheaded troublemaker.
“Will’s perceived gender and sexual orientation and his support of LGBT rights continued to cause Will to be targeted and treated differently by school administration, in violation of KCBOE harassment policy J-120,” which prohibits harassment of and discrimination against students, the lawsuit says.
In November, Siebe got a “tip” from an anonymous source in the sheriff’s office that caused Will and his locker to be searched. Nothing was found, and Mark Bannister asked Siebe not to single Will out for discipline.
In December Will fell asleep in class. Siebe called the Bannisters in again. He said he had “suspicions” about the cause of Will’s drowsiness, but refused to state them (Will had a part-time job, was on anxiety meds and had tons of homework – who wouldn’t be sleepy?).
In December, Will was seen with a baggie containing 29 little white pills that turned out to be a non-narcotic dietary supplement he’d bought from another kid. Will submitted to a drug test and came out clean, and the Bannisters hired attorney Jeff Whitt. Will was forced to attend night school at Karns, but wasn’t provided with the materials he needed to finish up the semester. The student who sold the pills wasn’t questioned, heightening Will’s sense of being unfairly treated. After a long, tense hearing he was suspended from school for 90 days (an administrator arbitrarily tacked on another 10 days to keep him from returning to school with only two weeks left on the calendar).
This meant Will wouldn’t be eligible to return to school until the following fall semester, and he suffered greatly over being cut off from the group of friends he’d known since kindergarten.
Will wasn’t given the materials he needed to finish up the semester, but was forced to attend night school at Karns, which consisted of computer lab work. The family appealed the decision, but they were unable to get a timely hearing date.
Ultimately, the Bannisters lost the appeal, even though the pills were not an illegal substance and Will had bought them for his own use, not to sell. The seller wasn’t questioned until much later.
In February, Will finally got some good news. Interim Superintendent Buzz Thomas had accepted the advice of Deputy Law Director Gary Dupler and cut Will’s suspension in half, clearing him to return to Farragut on Feb. 17. Will was assured that he’d have a “clean slate” upon his return and was relieved and happy to be able to go back to school and be with his friends.
In a paper he wrote for English class on Feb. 10, he said, “Overall, maybe things are beginning to look up. I feel happy now like I matter.”
But the first day of his return to Farragut, Siebe visited two of Will’s four classes, something that had never happened before. The following day, Siebe visited Will’s other two classes, which ratcheted up the boy’s anxiety and made him lose hope of ever being normal. On April 13, Will’s parents took him to see his pediatrician to ask if he could have a higher dosage of anxiety medication.
The Bannisters wouldn’t know about the paper Will had worked on in English class until several weeks later. An April 6 creative writing assignment had been returned to him by his English teacher (one of the defendants named in the lawsuit) because he had not formatted it correctly – he’d been suspended when she instructed the rest of the class in formatting.
Will shot himself in the head in the family’s downstairs rec room on April 17. And that’s when his parents found a draft of the April 6 essay that said, “I’m scared for myself that I might do something actually harmful for others… I’m really messed up. There’s no way I’m going to finish.”
One chair in the section reserved for the Class of 2019 at their commencement ceremony was empty, save for a graduation gown draped over the back and a photograph of a boy with flaming red hair on the seat. It was a tribute arranged by a group of Will’s friends, who had asked the Bannisters for permission to stage the memorial.
Candace and Mark were moved to tears by the offer.
“All of a sudden those boys just showed up, wearing pink. They were carrying flowers,” Candace Bannister said. The boys also put a cap and gown out for Spencer Schultz, who died by his own hand three months before Will.
And why were they wearing pink?
“Pink – icy pale pink – was Will’s favorite color. I tried to tell him that redheads don’t wear pink, but he had his own ideas. Those boys carried us through a very tough time in our lives. There are adults that won’t step in in the face of such grief, but those boys did. We gathered together and we made it through a year.”
Notes: Candace Bannister retired from teaching after Will’s death. She has attended every school board meeting. No date has been set for a trial in the Bannisters’ lawsuit. Knox County Law Director Bud Armstrong’s office represents the defendants. He said Thursday he cannot comment about ongoing litigation. Friends of Will and Spencer have started a petition on change.org here.