Video of principal wrestling with student causes uproar

Zoe Greszler • Updated Jun 9, 2017 at 2:32 AM

GREENWICH — Harmless fun or a dangerous and inappropriate liability? The South Central school board is facing that question after a video involving the high school principal and a student went viral.  

The video shows the high school principal, Thomas Hellickson, and junior Matthew O’Dell wrestling in the school hallway while a group of students stand around. O’Dell appears to have Hellickson in a choke hold before Hellickson tries to pull his arm off his neck at the end.

The video, recorded on the last day of school by someone who appears to be around the corner, was posted on social media Saturday by Brenda Sage, creating a stir among parents, teachers and students while generating more than 2,000 views during the weekend.

In addition to his duties as principal, Hellickson is serving as acting superintendent while Martha Hasselbusch “is away from the district right now for personal reasons,” he told the Reflector on Friday.

“What kind of example is this to our kids?” Sage, a parent, said of Hellickson in her post. “He is supposed to be a leader to our kids. What kind of leadership is this? Not to mention yet again he was too busy to attend EHOVE graduation since he was SC acting superintendent but yet he has time to wrestle kids in the hallway! Had this been 2 students they would have been taking (sic) to TJ's office for discipline!”

The school board held a meeting Monday night, allowing any who wished to share their thoughts and concerns.


Student-teacher bonding?

O’Dell was the first to address the board, saying he wanted everyone to understand the context of the video.

“It’s not a big deal,” he said. “It’s just a little fun we have in the hallways sometimes. He had no intention of it. I jumped on him and he was talking to the other teacher while we were doing it, just kind of goofing around. It’s just him bonding with us as students and anybody can do it but nobody gives him the time of day because they’re mad that they can’t do what they want.

“I follow the rules and I don’t have any problems with him. I call him a friend — he’s awesome. I’ll sit there and talk to him all the time. And then you have people who break the rules and wonder why they got in trouble and they hate him. They report stuff like this and blow it out of the water and shout ‘Fight! Fight!’ No — it was just a little fun. We walked away and had fun afterwards. It’s just bonding. It’s not something that he should be removed for because that makes me feel terrible that I got him fired for something I did.”

The teen also experienced negative repercussions after the video went viral.

“People are blowing it out of the water, attacking me, a 17-year-old student,” he later told the Reflector. “Thirty-year-old people are attacking a student online on social media. They won’t say anything in person. It’s stupid. He should not be fired. It was just fine and I started it. There was nothing wrong. It was just bonding between teacher and student.”

O’Dell said Hellickson has “never been inappropriate in any way” and said he’s “professional.”

“(Matthew) fools around with him (Hellickson) at practice,” said Ken Johnson, who has coached the Trojans wrestling team for the last 17 years. “I’m the head wrestling coach and I know what goes on and it was completely harmless. There has never been anything inappropriate with Mr. Hellickson.”

O’Dell’s mother, Michelle Ingram, agreed, adding she knew of this incident and “didn’t think anything of it.” She said O’Dell and Hellickson “have gotten along” and wrestle together frequently because her son is in the sport and Hellickson coaches Mapleton’s team. Ingram said she and her son were “hurt” by the misconstrued videos and comments left on social media. 

“It’s not been a big issue at all,” she said. “I think it’s good that they get along. … All it is is a little bit of goofing off on the last day of school. The reason I am here is to back up my son and back up Mr. Hellickson. I know there was bad stuff about the superintendent (Hasselbusch). I’ve never met her but I have nothing bad to say about either one of them.

“I know there are a ton of people who will be pissed off at what I am saying but I’m telling you right now, that isn’t the right way to get things done — to go through social media and post ignorant stupidity about teachers here, other teachers saying stuff about teachers and kids saying stuff,” she added.


‘Highly inappropriate’? 

Concerned citizen Mary Millis disagreed. She said as an “alumni and taxpayer” she is concerned for what she calls “a liability issue.” During her comments to the board, she told Ingram if O’Dell had been hurt she “would have been the first one complaining,” which Ingram refuted. 

“If it was my son I would,” Millis said. “And well, I’m sorry if you don’t. 

“That man that’s sitting there (Hellickson) that’s supposed to be the acting-superintendent if Martha’s not here and that’s how he’s acting in the videos being shown — there’s not just one; there was two. Let me tell you, if that would have been a kid when we were in school, they would have been taken to the office and they would have gotten suspended or a detention and their parents would have been called.

“It’s not a joke, Mr. Principal, Mr. Hellson or whatever your name is …Hellickson … it’s not a joke,” Millis said. “You would cost the village, the school, the district, if you would have hurt him and he would have had to have had some kind of surgery and you’ve continued to do this. There were no mats on the floor. You’re in a hallway and students are just standing there. You sit there now and you don’t even look up. You’re supposed to represent our community.

“You know, this is liability. As an alumni and a taxpayer, it’s ridiculous. I think you guys really need to consider the situation with him as the principal and Martha as the superintendent. We care about our school and the school is going down.”

After the board asked her to address only them, Millis voiced concerns she said she’s had from the beginning and that many in the community share.

“You guys sat there and voted to hire Martha (Hasselbusch) instead of Ben Chaffee,” she said “Look at this school district. Look at what we’re in. We are a mess. We’re a joke to the communities. You, Mr. Hammons (board president Bryan Hamman), you were a ‘definite yes’ to hiring Martha and look, she’s not here,” Millis said. “I’m sorry if she’s sick, God, but where’s she been the other two years? ... Martha’s got one more year and what positive thing has she done? What positive thing has she brought to our school?”

Rumors about Hasselbusch being fired began circulating after she missed the graduation ceremony and a school board meeting. Those rumors were put to rest in a “Reflector Mail Bag” article in Saturday’s issue.

“She has not been fired,” Board member Mike West told the Reflector on Friday. “She called the board and said she had pneumonia and wouldn’t be at the meeting. The board was fine with it and we told her to rest up and take care. Her husband has also been dealing with some health issues.”

Sage said she felt the videos showed a “highly inappropriate” incident that violated school policies.  

“Board policy 3210, the staff ethics policy, that has been violated,” she said. “Also 5630B, use of physical force — he’s definitely violated that. According to the school policy online, he is not to be touching students inappropriately or touching them at all for that matter, even if it is for fun. He’s not our high school wrestling coach — he’s Mapleton’s coach, which is fine. But if he wishes to wrestle the students, OK take it into wrestling practice if that’s how you want to connect with your students. Don’t do it in the hallways at the school, especially during exams. I just really hope you guys do your research into why he thinks this is OK, because it’s not.”

She added if Hellickson wanted “to connect with his students, he needs to find another way to do it and do it in a professional manner” and added regardless of whether parents are OK with it, she feels it is still a liability for the district.


A second video

Sage said there was a second video circulating of Hellickson “being inappropriate.”

“There’s proof that a second student was coming down the hallway, trying to get away from (Hellickson) as he’s chasing him, asking him, ‘Do you want to wrestle?’ and the student says ‘No, it’s not OK. I don’t want to wrestle with you.’ Therefore that’s inappropriate.” 

O’Dell said he saw the incident and said Hellickson “did not chase the guy.”

“He did say, ‘You want to wrestle? You want to wrestle?’ like (Sage) said, but he walked at him because (the student) was running down the hall way and kind of blocked him and just kind of shuffled at him and he was just being fun,” O’Dell said.

“He didn’t touch him at all. The only other one he touched was Blake (Baker) and Blake’s a wrestler and started it with him. That’s how it goes. He’s completely professional but when you see him outside of school, he’s awesome. He likes to joke around and have fun. It’s stupid that people want to do this to him. He has a family and they’re going to ruin his life just because he had fun with a couple of students. Any student could have this relationship with him but they don’t want to follow the rules.”

Hellickson and Hamman said the board was preparing a statement to be released soon, but had no comment at press time Monday night.

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