Leigh Hauter wanted to teach his eighth-grade English class how to write letters that would get a response.
He succeeded. The response was a reprimand in his personnel file.
The fuss began with a letter one of Hauter's students wrote complaining about the quality of lunches served at Manassas Park Intermediate School.
"The food is cold by the time you get it to your table," the student wrote.
"And the hamburges are about the best things they have. But even those aren't real hamburge meat."
The letter, which asked officials to "please try and do something about my school lunches," was addressed to the Virginia Department of Education, which launched an investigation.
"The letter embarrassed them," Hauter said of school administrators. "They needed someone to reprimand. They couldn't reprimand the student, so I was the one."
"This had nothing to do with embarrassment," responded Jimmy R. Stuart, superintendent of the 1,400-student, 94-teacher school system of Manassas Park, a predominantly blue-collar community of 7,000 adjacent to Manassas in Prince William County.
"There are guidelines, chains of command," Stuart said.
"This child had a complaint and it dealt with something local. So why not address it in the school?"
Hauter, 37, told a School Board grievance hearing Thursday night, at which he unsuccessfully sought to have the reprimand removed from his file, that he wanted his students "to see that writing is important and could get real results."
He said that 17 of the 21 students in the class have been identified as at risk to drop out, and that he was attempting to motivate them with the assignment to write letters on topics of their choosing. Hauter said he did not review all of the letters that were mailed, and could not remember if he read the one that led to his reprimand.
Hauter, who has been a teacher for five years and has one year remaining on his teaching contract with Manassas Park, told the board he had no right to censor the students' letters, citing the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech.
School administrators saw the issue differently.
"Your reasoning that a teacher giving an assignment has no right to advise students as to its content, or to give direction concerning its destination (in this case) is not educationally sound," Assistant Superintendent James W. Moyers Jr. wrote Hauter on April 8. "A teacher has the responsibility to give whatever direction is needed . . . . The crucial issue here seems to be that your lesson objectives were not in agreement with the general educational philosophy of the school system."
Moyers said the student's complaint "logically should have been addressed at the local . . . level."
In an interview, Hauter said that when he saw how enthusiastic his students were when their letters were answered, he posted the responses on a bulletin board, under the heading "Writing Equals Power."
Hauter said he discussed his success with the school's principal, who responded, "Oh, so you're the one," he said.
About the only thing that Hauter and the board agreed on Thursday night was that the letter in question was poorly written. Kathleen Mehfoud, the attorney for the School Board, said the letter was "unacceptable" not only because of where it wound up, but also because of its poor grammar, spelling and punctuation.
Hauter said he is concerned because the reprimand in his personnel file will become a permanent part of his record and could affect his teaching career. But school administrators noted there were a number of harsher penalties that could have been imposed. "This was not an attempt to get rid of the man," Moyers said.
Almost lost in all the fuss was the subject that started it: lunch.
Administrators said state investigators found nothing wrong with the food at the school and invited interested parties to try it for themselves.
But Sharon Pettus, a special education teacher at adjacent Manassas Park High School, said yesterday that just this week she saw mold and freezer burn on some french fries served at the school.
Superintendent Stuart challenged her statement, saying he had received no complaints.
As for Hauter, he said that letters -- not lunches -- were his concern. "I have no opinion on the school lunches," he said. "I bag my lunch."