Sunday, August 14, 2022

Marching band acclaim and fallout in Morton


UPDATE 3/6: School Board members approved the hiring of Tim Gray for the head band director job, beginning with the 2019-2020 school year, the Peoria Journal-Star reports.
UPDATE 12/14: Steve Stein reports in The Peoria Journal-Star that the statement from the board reported here was amended as of Thursday, December 13. Mr Neavor will remain a music teacher at Morton High School instead of being reassigned to another school, and the board will have no more public comment about this incident, Mr Stein wrote. “We are putting this situation behind us and moving forward together,” a statement from the board was quoted as reading. “To maintain the focus on the students, we’ve decided this will be the last statement on the marching band director position and related matters. We are pleased to have this matter resolved.”

The Morton School District 709 school board, near Peoria, Illinois, expects the resignation of Jeff Neavor as head band director at Morton High School at the end of this school year, a resignation the board requested after Mr Neavor admitted to engaging in an inappropriate personal relationship with another district employee over whom he had supervisory responsibilities.

Morton Marching Band on Sept. 29, 2018, “Through an Eternal Spring” (Voxitatis)

Dozens of community members—parents, students, alumni—attended a board meeting Tuesday night, and all of them spoke in support of the leadership Mr Neavor had injected into the award-winning, nationally-renowned band program and of the positive impact he has had on their lives and the lives of their children in central Illinois. They asked the board to reinstate Mr Neavor as head band director, testifying that since being a teacher is about the students, he has been a successful teacher because he has so many successful students.

Mr Neavor “is the reason I learned to treat others with respect, whether I received it first or not,” one senior student told the board. “He is the reason I pushed myself to be the best performer I can be, and I can say without reservation that Neavor is the reason I am empowered to not only be in four extracurricular activities and work a job but to lead in those areas with insight and confidence I could have only learned from him.”

As Morton’s marching band is among the best in the nation, I have had several personal experiences with the program, including an interview with the band’s three drum majors in 2008, when the work of Mr Neavor was first starting to take hold. I wrote this on October 21 of that year after that interview.

Six years ago, when Jeff Neavor’s marching band at Morton High School just outside Peoria finished next-to-last at the Bands of America Super-regional in St Louis, he and his assistant directors came up with a five- to eight-year plan to build a top-class marching program at the high school. Last Saturday at that same competition in St Louis, the group joined a short list of about 20 Illinois high schools in being selected for the finals at a Bands of America regional competition.

Of course, there’s a lot more to marching bands and music programs in general than just the scores—and the Bands of America organization, now known as “Music For All,” has its fair share of detractors in the marching community—but it cannot be denied that performing in NFL dome stadiums, in front of the same, large audience as some of the top music programs in the country, provides an experience that students carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Ten years later, the band program still produces champions among the students. Mr Neavor would undoubtedly deflect any credit for the program’s success onto the hard work put in by students, along with masses of parents and other community supporters. I count myself among those supporters, having sent the band $500 to help pay for their trip in January 2009 to perform at President Barack Obama’s first inaugural parade.

But educators (and many students) know full well, deep down, that the success of any organization that steers the adolescent development and maturity of 185 students every year is due to the teachers. Take a good teacher, put him in any school, with any group of kids, and the same national renown would be brought to that school.

In this post-#MeToo era, though, organizations like school districts are hyper-sensitive to the legal exposure a sexual harassment lawsuit would bring. It is unlikely the action will be reversed in Morton. Normally the board wouldn’t comment publicly on personnel matters like this one, but in order to avoid the spreading of misinformation, Board President Jeffrey M Neeley decided to speak about the incident.

“The board of education is proud of the accomplishments of the band program—this includes the efforts of very talented band students, staff, parents, and administration, who have worked very hard to create and maintain an award-winning program. We acknowledge that Mr Neavor has been successful in leading this effort for many years,” he began his remarks.

However, this past year, he admittedly engaged in an inappropriate personal relationship with a female employee over whom he had supervisory responsibility. … He has engaged in actions which the board believes demonstrate poor judgment, unfitting for someone who leads an important program in our school district. Contrary to some comments that have been reported, the district’s effort to seek applications for the 2019-2020 school year band director position has nothing to do with Mr Neavor’s marital status. … We have employees who are single, separated, divorced, and married, who continue to be very valued employees of the district.

The administration’s action to post a band director position was fully supported by all seven board members after careful consideration and extended discussion on the matter. It was motivated only by Mr Neavor’s behavior, which was a violation of board policy. This behavior has reflected poorly on the band program and the district, and it has placed the school district at legal risk. Throughout the process, legal counsel has been consulted and has provided guidance with regards to both the district’s potential exposure to sexual harassment and other complaints as a result of Mr Neavor’s behavior, and matters related to his rights as a tenured teacher under the union bargaining agreement.

Mr Neavor was informed in writing by the administration in early August that all seven board members intended to move in a new direction after the school year. He was given the opportunity to resign the band director position, effective at the end of this school year. If and when a new band director is hired for the new school year, Mr Neavor will be assigned to another teaching position in another school building, beginning next fall. In the meantime, the board expects that Mr Neavor will continue to serve in his current role for the remainder of this school year.

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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