New principal praised at Arthur-Lovington

ARTHUR — When the Arthur-Lovington School Board voted unanimously this week to accept the high school principal's resignation, the community had already showed signs of moving on.

It's a process that will take some time.

On Jan. 18, then-principal Brian Hatfield, who'd been on the job for less than two years, was arrested on domestic battery charges following what witnesses described as an ugly altercation with his wife outside an Urbana convenience store.

The news rocked this tight-knit community near Amish country, where the churches outnumber chain restaurants 10-1.

It led to Danny Powell's speedy appointment as interim principal.

It was a popular choice. Seemingly everyone here knows Powell from his dozen years as a substitute teacher at what, before a merger two years ago, was known as Arthur High School.

In the words of parent Julie Kinert at Wednesday's school board meeting, the new principal has been "a healing agent."

The arrest

About 1:20 a.m. on Jan. 18, Hatfield, 42, of St. Joseph, and his wife Jessica Hatfield, 35, had an argument in the parking lot of the Circle K at 1809 N. Cunningham Ave.

Urbana police Lt. Bryant Seraphin said witnesses told officers that Hatfield allegedly struck his wife, choked her, then threw her in the back of the vehicle and left. One of the witnesses called 911.

When a sheriff's deputy stopped the vehicle on Interstate 74 near the St. Joseph exit, the deputy saw a bump on Jessica Hatfield's head and blood on her face and in her hair. She was seated behind Hatfield. She told the deputy that Brian Hatfield hit her. She was checked out by paramedics then taken home. Brian Hatfield was taken to the county jail.

Seraphin said Hatfield told an Urbana officer that he and his wife had been out earlier for dinner and had been drinking prior to getting into an argument at the Circle K. Hatfield said she slapped him first, she fell down, then he picked her up and put her in the car.

On Jan. 21, the state's attorney's office filed two counts of misdemeanor domestic battery against Hatfield. Three days later, a judge lifted the no contact order that had been put in place on Jan. 21. He's due back in court March 14.

Hatfield did not return a call left on his answering machine. His attorney, Andrea Bergstrom of Urbana declined comment.

Strong support

A week after the incident, Hatfield was out at Arthur-Lovington High School. Superintendent Travis Wilson said Hatfield offered his resignation.

By the time of the next board meeting, Powell had settled in nicely as interim principal. Wednesday night, he charmed the board and audience members into frequent laughter.

He brings decades of administrative experience to the job from his time working in the Villa Grove school district.

Only two people spoke up during the public comments segment of Wednesday's meeting. Both of them wanted to thank the school board.

"Mr. Powell is exactly what the Arthur-Lovington high school needs," said Kinert, the parent from Lovington.

Questions abound

Arthur is a proud, peaceful town of 2,288, a community with nearly as buggies as cars on the streets.

Drive down Vine Street, the main drag, and you'll see mostly churches and craft stores, with an accent of Amish. Signs bearing yellow ribbons show the town's support for those serving in the military.

Bob Doan, a former Villa Grove principal who now serves as Arthur's director of economic development, said the town may seem more religious and conservative than it actually is, because of the Amish influence.

"We do have a lot of churches. I don't know if that means we just can't get along with each other," he joked.

More than religious, Doan said, Arthur is civic-minded, and expects officials to work closely with taxpayers.

At White Dog Guns on Vine Street, employee Kristin Rice said the town supports the new principal, a friendly, familiar face to many here. But Rice believes Hatfield "should have been replaced" earlier.

She said some in Arthur wonder why he was ever hired in the first place.

"He should have been checked out when they hired him," she said, referring to two orders of protection sought by Hatfield's then ex-wife in 2001 in Champaign County Circuit Court.

The first one Melissa Hatfield asked for was never granted. The second, which was granted, was dismissed at her request after seven months, court records show.

Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the State Board of Education, said Hatfield has not been sanctioned by the state board, adding that an order of protection would not necessarily be a disqualifying point for the state. Individual districts set their own standards, he said.

An outsider

Wilson, the school superintendent, noted that Hatfield "hasn't had his day in court yet."

But the board addressed the concerns of Rice and a growing number of other residents in a statement announcing Powell's hiring as interim principal.

"Please also know that if there had been any knowledge or facts that would have suggested to district administration any safety issue for students or other members of the school community, they would have acted immediately to remove that risk," the statement read. "At no time prior to recent media reports did the district have knowledge of any such risk."

"Hindsight is 20/20," parent Tod Brewer said of the town's reaction to learning about the orders.

Still, many here had questioned Hatfield's leadership style. Doan said the close-knit community needed an administrator who worked with students, faculty and parents, suggesting it didn't have that in Hatfield, a resident of St. Joseph.

"One of the problems was: that person we had did not live in the community," said Doan, who never referred to Hatfield by name during an interview with The News-Gazette.

"He was a tough guy to get to know," Doan said. "You should want to get to know people, even if you're not required to."

More changes coming

Wilson said the board and administration have functioned well during what has been a stressful time for all.

On top of the administrative turmoil, the district is about to expand — again. The successful merger with Lovington High School two years ago is now being followed by a merger with Atwood-Hammond.

Though Arthur is located in Douglas County, the majority of students at the new school will come from surrounding counties Moultrie and Piatt.

The new district will encompass a whopping 252 square miles, Wilson said.

Come fall, the high school will have a new name. The board decided last week to let the students name it.

"The board has had a lot of work to do, but everything is going really well now," Doan said.

News-Gazette staff writer Mary Schenk contributed to this report.

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