The road to Sonja Hansen’s home is lined with houses that all look the same. Three left-hand turns off Loveland-Miamiville Road through sidewalk-free suburbia sits the Hansens’ five-bedroom brick house, home of the most infamous lady in Loveland this side of sex-toy merchant Patty Brisben.
Last fall, Hansen led Loveland High School in its stage production of Legally Blonde: The Musical. The play made its Broadway debut in 2007, grossed more than $1 million its first week, received seven Tony nominations and is now in its fifth year on the road. Countless high schools across the nation have done versions of the play, including those in Chillicothe, Marion and New Albany. The Loveland audiences, as they are inclined to do, loved it.
Except, that is, for a few people. Several parents took exception to the snippets of racy content in the play and felt the need to complain to school officials. School officials felt the need to recalibrate their moral compass and send the drama program in a fresh new direction, removing Hansen from her part-time position in December despite never formally reprimanding her.
“It just hit me,” Hansen said during a January interview at her kitchen table, the soundtrack to Les Miserables playing on the stereo in the background. “It was from nowhere.”
How exactly does a drama teacher get fired for directing a play that was kosher in Chillicothe? The play had been approved by one Loveland principal who left and another who took her place. No one had warned Hansen that she was treading onto risky ground. Weren’t school officials aware that Loveland is the home of Pure Romance, one of the nation’s biggest suppliers of “relationship-enhancement products” like “Likety Stiff” arousal cream and the “Mr. Longfellow” vibrator?
Hansen’s productions had never been controversial before — she started her Loveland career by producing a mash-up of Dr. Seuss stories called Seussical. Her Legally Blonde performances were well-attended — they packed the school’s auditorium for six shows over five days. But not everyone was laughing at the show’s playful mockery of clichés and stereotypes, and word spread across town that something nefarious was afoot at LHS.
“I’m a rule follower,” Hansen said that day in January when she proudly stated that she hadn’t cried over the situation for five straight days. “I really follow the rules, but you gotta let me know what they are.”
For all the “misinformation” the district says led to inaccurate media reports about the situation, its leaders fall back on only four documented complaints about the show, the most dubious of which is a line-item list of criticism by an anonymous member of the school staff.
[Read CityBeat Contributing Theater Editor Rick Pender's take on the controversy surrounding the PG-rated musical production here.]
The person who steered the district through the rough waters of high-school-musical-gone-bad is Dr. John Marschhausen, a man of small stature whose practiced formality more than makes up for his friendly-kindergarten-teacher persona. “Dr. John,” as he’s called even in formal settings, is the CEO of Loveland Schools, and he knows how to run his company — so well that next year he’ll run his third school in four years.
Dr. John is movin’ on up to Hilliard City Schools, a 15,000-student district outside Columbus.
Marschhausen leaves behind a community distrustful of administrators in its excellent-rated school district, along with a self-described rule follower wondering why he snatched away an ideal opportunity for her to direct high school musicals where her kids go to school.
“They’ve had director after director and I was gonna stay,” Hansen says. “I wanted to do Shrek in the fall and I’ve already been places, danced professionally and choreographed for various theaters. I had a choice of where I wanted to be, but I picked Loveland High School, and everybody keeps saying, ‘Oh, you’ll get something else,’ but that’s not the point.”
Marshhausen’s departure paves the way for a new leader to determine the future of the school’s maligned drama program, but it will likely take some effort for that person to figure out what’s really going on in “Loveland: Sweetheart of Ohio.”
Welcome to Loveland, Where Cheerleaders Should Wear Long Pants
People in Loveland have some serious school spirit. Dr. Marschhausen frequently expresses his Tiger Pride on the school district blog, and he backs it up by approving out-of-town hotel rooms for the basketball team to use instead of driving to tournament games early in the morning.
Students in Hansen’s drama program were similarly peppy. They wore spirited T-shirts to school with an image of the show’s Chihuahua on the front and the title and run date on the back. Hansen’s productions involved non-acting students who designed costumes, built sets and ran the lights, making the experience much more like a professional theater company than most high school productions.
“It’s not just a Glee episode,” says Kirsten ten Brink, whose freshman daughter performed in Legally Blonde. “It’s one of the wonderful things about drama — it brings all the kids who maybe don’t identify with their school in any other way together. At the cast party the night before the show closed, I was thinking to myself, ‘That is what more schools need more of.’ ”
Students circulated a petition after Hansen’s dismissal urging the district to reconsider, and they used hashtag #bringbacksonya on Twitter to rally support for their estranged instructor.
“All the students love her and she puts so much work into the plays,” one student told WLWT after local news stations trekked out to Loveland to see what all the fuss was about. “They are all rebelling and they’re all tweeting about it and signing petitions and wearing their musical shirts to school.”
The school’s fourth drama director in five years, Hansen set the school’s attendance record with the 2011 production of Seussical, then broke that record with Grease last spring.
Students performed Legally Blonde six times over a five-day run from Nov. 14-18, largely unaware that some parents were up in arms about things like foul language, suggestive dancing and references to drinking alcohol. Hansen met with Principal Chris Kloesz the Friday morning after the second performance to talk about complaints over the show, and the two agreed on a handful of script changes which Hansen then executed in the remaining performances.
Fast-forward three weeks and Hansen was on the other end of the phone when Kloesz told her she had to resign or she would be terminated.
“I said, ‘What?’ ‘Why?’ ” Hansen recalls. “And then I started crying and I said, ‘Instead of talking about this you’re just firing me?’ And he said, ‘Well, I knew that this would be emotional,’ and I said, ‘Shame on you,’ and then he hung up and I hung up.”
The district eventually agreed to let Hansen’s supplemental contract expire at the end of the year and not renew it — she’s still being paid for the whole year but she won’t direct the school’s spring production.
Parents, residents and former Loveland students blitzed the district with emails supporting Hansen — 32 total, 28 of which referenced the fact that the show was formally approved by the administration.
Catherine Ross wrote: “I am sure students in your district are supposed to do their homework. The authorizing body should have done theirs, instead of allowing Legally Blonde to become a platform for someone else’s moral code.”
Carolyn Beaugrand wrote: “This production was given the green light by a Loveland administrator, but somehow she is the only one being made to suffer for the musical’s ‘racy’ nature. Why is she being made a scapegoat to appease the grumblings of the anonymous?”
Elizabeth Simpson wrote: “It is impossible to please everyone, as you well know. But by punishing Sonja for doing her job to the best of her judgment, you are also punishing the students who have so much to gain from an active theatre department.”
Marschhausen had a difficult time managing the feedback and publicity, but by the Jan. 22 school board meeting he had the district’s response outlined: Loveland Schools needs someone in charge of all its fine arts programs, so when problems arise there’s someone to blame other than himself or the principal. He brought in a public relations consultant to meet with school administrators to explain how to avoid giving the press too much information, complete with mock interviews with a fake reporter.
“This is part of a series of steps that (Human Resources Director) Mr. (Chad) Hilliker and I are working on as we learn to operate in the new world of media, of social media, and deescalating a crisis attention before it raises to a level that causes embarrassment to the district,” Marschhausen told the school board.
CityBeat asked Marschhausen after the meeting if there was anything Hansen could have done to avoid being removed. His answer sounded like something a corporate president would say after settling a discrimination lawsuit: “I don’t think looking back at this point is helpful for any of us. We’re trying to move forward and provide the best situation and, as I said, I thank her for everything she’s done and I’d hate to go back and go back over those things.”
CityBeat also asked whether Marschhausen agreed with the parents who think it’s somewhat unfair for Hansen to get the boot when the district admitted it was at least partially at fault.
This time his answer was straight out of the George W. Bush book of semantic twists:
“I’m not sure ‘unfair’ is how I would characterize it. I think it’s ‘unfortunate’ the way the situation unfolded. Mrs. Hansen has my utmost respect and I’ve apologized to her for the way this has all played out.”
Marschhausen replaced Hansen with middle school choir director Shawn Miller, a man who had problems with Hansen in the past.
During a December meeting with Hansen about Legally Blonde, Principal Kloesz brought a list of notes that included a handful of issues with Hansen’s ongoing performance, according to Hansen, who provided the document to CityBeat.
The first issue involved an out-of-place garbage can.
Kloesz’s notes from that meeting state “Problems with custodial staff” and include a pencil-drawn arrow to something scribbled about a trash can. The notes also include a reference to Hansen having, “On-going (sic) disputes with other Fine Arts Dept staff members.” This item has a hand-drawn arrow to the name “Shawn Miller” next to it.
Miller might want to take warning from the district’s seriousness about where its trash cans go. CityBeat analyzed Miller’s available performance reviews, and it turns out he has a similar issue: It appears that Miller is very messy.
Miller hasn’t had a review since 2009, but supervisors have advised him to clean up his office and/or choir room eight separate times over the years, the first of which occurred back in 1998. As of 2006, he was still having the same problem — in his March 23, 2006 review, an administrator wrote, “I will continue to ask Shawn to work on the cleanliness of both his room and the stage area. With so many groups using our facilities these days, it is imperative that he gets this organized.”
The Secret Internal Complaint (or the Infamous Booty Bounce)
Living in the shadow of one of America’s biggest sex-toy companies is one of the cruel ironies that comes with living in a suburb with “love” in its name. Unfortunately, Pure Romance’s pressure-free sales tactics have never been able to free Loveland’s more uptight residents from the American Beauty-esque repression they’ve likely felt since losing their virginity the night they got married.
Marschhausen always did his part to maintain the community’s wholesome nature for these folks.
Back in 2011, Dr. John banned girls from wearing yoga pants to school in an incident locals still refer to as “Yoga-gate.” More than 50 girls protested the ban by showing up wearing the form-fitting pants, which are popular among high schoolers, college girls and hot moms alike.
Seventeen otherwise upstanding students served in-school suspensions for it, and Loveland High made its first appearance on local TV news under Marschhausen’s leadership.
This year’s Legally Blonde situation took Marschhausen’s anti-sexy-student platform to a new level.
Back in January, Hansen described to CityBeat her in-person meeting with Principal Kloesz about complaints over Legally Blonde.
“He had a sheet of paper like a parent or maybe a teacher or somebody had some things written up,” Hansen said. “Bad things.”
No. 1 on the list was “booty bounce.”
“He called them ‘booty bounce moves’ and I said, ‘Can you define booty bounce moves?’ and he doesn’t answer,” Hansen said.
(CityBeat confirmed via Music Editor Mike Breen that “booty bounce” is likely a reference to a popular style of dancing commonly seen in Rap videos.)
CityBeat later obtained a copy of the handwritten notes through a public records request, and they back up Hansen’s account of the critique. They’re titled “LHS Staff Member Notes From Performance (11/16/12),” and they contain numerous other grandma-esque complaints. They are:
1. Booty bounce
2. Skank x3
4. We’ll get him now with our red hot booty
5. Better than making love all night long, Ohh Ohh Ohh
6. Drinking, undergrad, holding your hair back
7. Fell in love after 14 beers
8. Ireland is the land of whiskey and love
10. Man drinking beer while answering door*
12. But I haven’t had my Jager yet
13. Because you jump around showing your panties
14. You’ve got the pom poms, you’ve just got to shake them
15. Song – Is He gay or European? – depending on the time of day, the French go either way
16. Emmit nailed the pool guy
*The list skips from No. 8 to No. 10.
Principal Kloesz used these notes to guide face-to-face discussions with Hansen over problems with Legally Blonde. But the district says no one knew who created the critique — then or now.
CityBeat emailed Brett Griffith, treasurer for Loveland Schools and the person who fulfills public records requests, and asked for the name of the staff member who created the document. Griffith’s explanation: “I asked around to see what else I could find out and what I learned was that the record was in the principals (sic) inbox when he came to work the next day. There was no name referenced of who the record was from.”
Kloesz later told CityBeat the exact same thing: “It was left in my inbox.” CityBeat asked Kloesz if he typically addresses anonymous complaints with employees.
“It depends on the nature of their contract and their employment,” Kloesz said. “And if it’s a list like that where the person is already talking with me about those types of concerns it may be something that may be used to say, ‘Yes, somebody else heard exactly what you’re talking to me about.’ ”
Despite these concerns — and the multiple discussions — Kloesz insists that Hansen wasn’t actually in trouble for Legally Blonde. He says there’s a real reason the district cut her loose but that he’s been told to toe the company line: It’s an HR issue, and the district will not comment.
Kloesz said: “I hope that you respect my position in that, in a sense, as a building principal, I’m middle management so to speak, so when my bosses give me a directive that the answer will be, ‘This is a personnel issue. We don’t want anyone else to be hurt or further hurt by this’ … at that point when I’m told, ‘This is done and over. There’s been a press release — that’s it,’ that’s kind of where I am as well.”
This position might be guided by advice from the district’s lawyers. CityBeat spoke to Paul Tobias, a local employment lawyer, who says employers have all the marbles when it comes to employment cases. Tobias says that if Hansen were a union employee, complaints over a pre-approved musical production would not be just cause for termination. But Hansen was not a full-time, union-protected employee, and the district now says Legally Blonde isn’t the reason she’s gone anyway.
“A lot of bad stuff happens in the workplace, both private and public, and this certainly seems to fall in that category of unjust arbitrary treatment,” Tobias said. “But is it illegal? That’s another issue.”
Is He Gay or Homophobic?
If the “booty bounce” complaint weren’t worthy of inquiry on its own, anyone interested in the perspective of Loveland’s anonymous offended staffer need only scroll down to complaint No. 15: “Song – Is He gay or European? – depending on the time of day, the French go either way.”
The concept of stereotypical homosexuals and Europeans dressing similarly is not funny to this person. Part of the song goes:
“If he wears a kilt or bears a purse/ Gay or just exotic? I still can’t crack the code/ Yet his accent is hypnotic, but his shoes are pointy toed/Huh? Gay or European? So many shades of gray/ But if he turns out straight I’m free at eight on Saturday.”
So. Not. Funny.
One reason the district might have been sensitive to gay subject matter is because the performance included an out, gay student playing the role of a gay character, and a straight student played the role of another gay character. (It could also have something to do with Marschhausen’s experience as a Lutheran Sunday school teacher and growing up with a father who is a Lutheran pastor; Lutherans believe in a strict interpretation of the Bible and have historically believed that homosexual behavior is sinful and contrary to the scriptures.)
Hansen thinks that despite any problems parents might have had with the show’s alleged adult content — a strict interpretation of the school’s code of conduct could easily prohibit most high school musicals — it was the gay subject matter that cost her the job.
“I think that threw the superintendent or principal or both over the edge,” Hansen says. “These kids, the song ‘Gay or European’ didn’t even faze them. There are kids that are gay (in Loveland High). There are kids that are holding hands at the football games. It’s not a big deal anymore.”
Students in the school seem to be supportive of their rare brushes with cultural diversity. Despite growing up in a city that is 93-percent white, Loveland students support LGBT people with a pro-gay student group called the Gay-Straight Alliance, on top of running an anti-bullying campaign called “My Voice, My Choice,” which they promote outside of school through student-created video productions and art projects in the community.
CityBeat asked Marschhausen after the Jan. 22 school board meeting whether the topic of homosexuality in Legally Blonde had anything to do with Hansen’s forced resignation.
Marschhausen said: “It didn’t have anything specifically to do with any sexual orientation. That was not one of the things. That was not one of the complaints that entered into any decision-making process. We get complaints about things on a frequent basis, but some complaints are deemed valid and some complaints aren’t, so that never factored into the decision-making process.”
Marschhausen continued: “I’m not saying that wasn’t one of the complaints that came, but I’m also saying that it wasn’t one of the things that led to this process.”
If Marschhausen is running the public school district according to his own religious values (the Lutherans don’t have a formal stance on yoga pants) some parents are going to have a problem with it.
Eric Ellis is the father of a drama student, and he organized a meeting between Marschhausen and five parents hoping to better understand the district’s reasoning behind kicking Hansen out in such a disruptive manner.
“I’m fine with living in a conservative community,” Ellis told CityBeat, “but I don’t want to live in a puritanical, intolerant community.”
Ellis is also concerned about the bad publicity — going back to Yoga-gate — and he requested a third-party investigation of the Hansen situation, which the school board declined to authorize.
“My opinion is that the school district administration has put the district’s reputation at risk a couple of times,” Ellis says. “They allowed a fairly minor dress code issue to get onto CNN and national news when they made a snap decision. It was kind of this puritanical zeal that I’m seeing in that administration, which is unevenly applied, it seems.”
Emotional About Little Things’
The school district’s only documented complaints about Legally Blonde other than the anonymous staff notes are an email to Marschhausen from a man named Gary Bare, a letter from a parent named Stacia Redslob and feedback from a student whose name is redacted because of privacy laws.
(The district also later received an email from a man named Sam Hicks, who wrote to support the district’s decision in response to all the “flack” it received.)
Redslob’s three-page letter states that her son saw the opening night performance of Legally Blonde, then came home and told her, “Wow, I can’t believe they got approval to do that.”
Redslob went to the next performance to see for herself. Her letter describes extreme disappointment and embarrassment that “children” were allowed to perform such material. Redslob repeatedly uses the word “children,” at one point underlining it for emphasis.
The student’s complaint brought up some other good points, such as, “The words damn, hell and other vulgar words were involved,” and, “Excessive use of the phrase ‘oh my god.’ ”
Bare wrote in an email that he found the sexual references in the show inappropriate and that “at some point the adults producing the musical need to start acting like adults and show better judgement (sic).”
Thus concludes the district’s documented complaints about Legally Blonde.
One might think that Marschhausen’s departure would allow the school district an opportunity to make amends with Hansen and all the parents upset by her dismissal, but that’s not the case.
CityBeat contacted school board president Christine Olsen Feb. 28, the day Hilliard City Schools announced Marschhausen’s hire. She said Marschhausen did an “awesome” job and that Loveland was proud that such a large school district wanted its leader. When asked about his handling of the Legally Blonde situation — and also Yoga-gate — Olsen blamed the media.
“It’s a matter of what people want to call news,” she said, “and it’s unfortunate that this became a story that put Loveland in the headlines — just like yoga pants — when there’s so much good happening.”
Besides blaming the media, social media and people who speak to the media instead of talking with administrators directly, Olsen took exception to being asked about Hansen at all.
“The opportunity to talk about Sonja Hansen and the situation with the drama — I’m being honest with you — we’ve moved on with that,” she said. “We agreed to move on with it as a district. That’s how I understand it. There is some privacy that is not being invaded.”
And as for the parents frustrated by the district’s two main appearances on local TV news during Marschhausen’s tenure?
“I’m not that concerned that these things happened,” Olsen says. “There are priorities to what we need to put our time and energy into. These are people getting emotional about little things in my mind.”
Marschhausen might want to prepare for parents in the Hilliard school district to be emotional if he takes exception to its award-winning drama program — the school recently produced Rent, a musical about struggling artists that includes gay characters and heavy themes like HIV and AIDS.
For all the days Hansen spent alone inside her home agonizing over the district’s mistreatment of her and coping with the fact that she, her husband and three kids will never be involved in Loveland Schools the same way again, she eventually secured a similar contracted drama position at a middle school in another conservative part of town — St. Gertrude School in Madeira.
“So now I’m at a Catholic school,” she says. “Risqué Legally Blonde, and now I’m at a Catholic school.”
St. Gertrude clearly outlined its expectations before hiring her to oversee its young performers version of The Wizard of Oz. Before getting the job, Hansen had to meet with the school’s principal, who happens to be a nun; she also had to watch a movie explaining the school’s expectations and rules; and she met with parents who were concerned about her reputation, which Hansen understood.
“That’s great — be concerned,” Hansen says. “I’ll meet with you. Ask me anything you want. At least they care.”
The St. Gertrude performance will take place this weekend, and barring a grade-schooler mixing in some unsavory flying monkey dialogue is expected to run its course without much chance of controversy.
Then again, that’s exactly what Hansen thought about Legally Blonde. ©