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Pine Crest Alumni Describe Hank Battle's Feared Group of Student Advisors

In last month's cover story about Hank Battle, the former president of Pine Crest School who was placed on administrative leave after a tumultuous three months, we mentioned a growing sense of fear among the teachers who thought that Battle might take away their jobs. One of the things they worried about was the fact that Battle was meeting, more or less in secret, with small groups of students. The teachers heard he was asking them to evaluate the teachers -- perhaps influencing whose contract was renewed.

Now, for the first time, two graduated seniors who took part in Battle's morning "president's internship" class have come forward to dispel some of the myths.

Evan Kelman, now a freshman at NYU Tisch, confirms that he was a part of the group, which he jokingly referred to as a "secret police force" because of the misconceptions it inspired among friends and faculty. A friend of his, Zach Doniger (who was voted "Best Looking" in the senior superlatives) was also a participant.

At first, says Kelman, he and a small group of students met with a "headhunter or recruiter," who he says may have been George Conway of Heidrick and Struggles. "A little while later we actually met Mr. Battle in the library," says Kelman. "He was nothing like I was expecting." Kelman says that there was some confusion over why the previous president, Lourdes Cowgill, was leaving mid-year.

Battle "was really nice, really friendly, very upbeat, asking all of us questions," says Kelman. "There were around ten of us, including four of us seniors" who joined the morning meetings, which started at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday and Thursday and were officially called an "internship."

Doniger bought into the anticipation as well. "I was kind of sucked into the excitement of the change that Mr. Battle was proposing to everybody. I really fell for it more than most people did. I went to a lot of meetings and spoke on his behalf," Doniger says.

As the weeks went on, the students in Battle's exclusive group began to take heat from their classmates for decisions they say they had no part in making. 

"People knew we were meeting with him in the morning. They had this idea that we had some sort of power over him that we really didn't," says Doniger.

They felt they were making their teachers nervous, because they were perceived to have some power over whose contract was renewed. This was hard on Kelman and Doniger, who stressed to New Times that they love their teachers and did not want to cause any harm to the school. "I really want to stress how great the school is, and how much teachers care about us. I'm so thankful for my teachers and everything they taught me," says Kelman.

Doniger agrees: "We all loved the school, and when Mr.  Battle came to the table with a lot of ideas that we thought would better the school, that's all we wanted to do. When it started scaring the teachers who had been there for 20 years... we started getting uneasy."

In reality, says Kelman, there wasn't much negative talk about teachers in the morning meetings. "I only remember one day when he started to talk about teachers," Kelman recalls, "and he might have gone down a list of names alphabetically, and anyone with experience would just contribute. He only had time to name a couple of teachers, and basically the kids were very positive. There wasn't much negativity, because we like our teachers."

Still, the teachers worried, and it fell on the students to reassure them in a bizarre reversal of roles. "We literally had to talk to the faculty. We were put in the position where we would have to speak to teachers and comfort them, though we didn't know what the outcome would be" says Doniger.

The students say that Dana Markham, Battle's vice president of academics and the current acting president, sat in on some of the meetings. "She kept to herself in the meetings," says Doniger. "We all knew she had a lot of experience at the school and we had a lot of faith in her, so she made us more comfortable."

The students' admiration turned to resentment when they started to feel like Battle was using their feedback and influence for his own personal benefit. Doniger describes one day, which was recounted multiple times to New Times as a rumor by anonymous sources, when Battle invited the group to organize a football game.

Doniger explains, "He called myself and a few other people to plan a football game on a Saturday afternoon. He said he had an important person to the school coming on Saturday, who was very active and athletic. So we assumed she was a potential PE coach."

Students later heard that the woman was a Pine Crest mother whom Battle was trying to impress. A student who participated in the game that day says he was disappointed, because "Little did we know, we were spitting game for him and being his wingmen when we thought we were playing football."

Doniger also started to feel uneasy about discussing teachers in the meetings, and the resulting rumors: "At the end of the day, we were an exclusive committee that ended up looking like the bad guys, but the decisions had already been made by Mr. Battle."

The students felt like they were being ignored, despite the special privilege of the internship and the fear they inspired among teachers. Kelman recalls, "In the first or second meeting, he hinted that Barack Obama or the first lady might be the graduation speaker, and if not, it could be Bill Gates, Jeb Bush, or someone like that. He asked us for suggestions. At the end, we found out it was an actor I'd never heard of (Tyrese Gibson). He made the announcement on the television [network at the school] without even telling us."

"The biggest problem was because he never spoke to the faculty, he created such a scare," says Doniger. "It created a lot of resentment from our friends themselves. They'd ask, 'Why are you guys in this group, firing this teacher?'"

But both students maintain that they didn't have much influence when it came to Battle's personnel decisions. "We did not get anybody fired," say Doniger and Kelman, almost in unison. "He wasn't listening to us, and most of us were saying positive things."

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Stefan Kamph
Contact: Stefan Kamph

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