Hopewell teacher’s hearing in Day 2
by JOYANNA WEBER, Banner Staff Writer
Jan 31, 2013 | 2603 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A hearing to determine whether the dismissal of former Bradley County Schools teacher Susan Elliott will stand began Wednesday.

Impartial hearing officer, attorney Dale Conder Jr. of Rainey, Kizer, Reviere and Bell PLC of Jackson, will listen to additional testimony today to determine whether the charges for dismissal warranted the school system’s action. ­

Charges for dismissal stemmed from a July 23, 2012, incident leading to allegations of domestic assault by Elliott and an investigation conducted by the school system.

The legal charges against Elliott were later dropped and Cleveland resident Greg Grammer, who had filed the initial claim, was arrested for filing a false report. Although the legal charges against Elliott have been officially dropped, charges for dismissal stated the Cleveland Police Department stood by the initial arrest. Arresting officer Julius Porter was the first witness called to testify during the hearing on Wednesday.

Specific charges base the dismissal on incompetence, unprofessional conduct and neglect of duty. Chris McCarty, an attorney representing Bradley County Schools, said Tennessee Code Annotated gives specific definitions for these terms.

Charges for dismissal also list reasons based on peer comments and concerns during a school system investigation conducted by Sheena Newman, supervisor for Elementary Education.

Details for these charges, based on interviews with teachers at Hopewell, were listed as not developing and using lesson plans, falling asleep during a teacher training event, spending classroom time shopping on the Internet, refusing to teach social studies, smoking on school property and disrespecting another teacher in the presence of students.

Hopewell Elementary School Principal Tim Riggs chose the teachers and he was present for the interviews. Newman said the teachers said Elliott seemed forgetful and was not following plans developed during grade level team meetings to ensure similar material was being taught. Documents outlining what teachers said in these interviews were submitted as evidence during the hearing.

Attorney Virgina McCoy, representing Elliott, objected to many of these documents, saying they contained second-hand information. These objections were overruled and the documents were included. Specific dates for many of the events that brought concern were not included in the documents, according to McCoy.

Newman said parents and students were not interviewed as part of the investigation.

“What the director (Bradley County Schools Director Johnny McDaniel) based his decision on is that it’s not just the unprofessional conduct that we discovered to have occurred in July of 2012, it’s also that conduct precipitated an investigation in which it was uncovered this is someone who is not respected by her peers and has not been respected by her peers for quite some time,” McCarty said.

“The problem with the allegations made by the administration is they are not going to be able to prove unprofessional conduct,” McCoy said. “The problem is this incident on July 23, 2012, does not meet any of those statutory causes for dismissal.”

McCoy said the event happened during the summer when Elliott was not serving in a classroom.

“It had zero connection to the Bradley County Schools system,” McCoy said.

Charges for dismissal based on the police report from the reported July 23 incident state Elliott allegedly told her young son to bite Grammer. Elliott said Wednesday her son was having some issues with biting. During her testimony Wednesday, Elliott said she did not know when her son bit Grammer. She commented that she was sure it was before she was trying to get Grammer to leave.

Elliott said Grammer started acting strangely and she tried to get him to leave.

McDaniel said the incident caused him concern.

“If a teacher would put their own child ... in a compromising or dangerous situation and not take the right precautions to protect that child … I have to trust 25 children to be under her care and I want to make sure I have someone I have full, unwavering confidence in to the best of my ability,” McDaniel said.

McDaniel said Riggs had brought concerns about Elliott’s work with the fourth-grade teacher team before the July 2012 incident.

During Newman’s testimony, she said Riggs had told her Elliott had been “one of his best” teachers.

In January 2012, Riggs asked Newman to do a teacher observation for Elliott because he thought something had changed.

Newman observed the classroom and offered advice to Elliott. Newman said she did not routinely observe teachers, but did so at the request of the principal.

“From my perspective, some of her personal issues and problems have affected the quality of her work with the school,” McDaniel said.

McCoy asked why, if there were concerns, the teacher was not put on an improvement plan. Newman said no formal plan had been put in place, but support was being given.

Hopewell teacher Robin Campbell said she had seen a change in Elliott over the past several years. She said the teacher became isolated and there were some days when other fourth-grade teachers would barely see her.

She said Elliott did not always follow agreed-upon lesson plans developed by the group to ensure all the students were receiving similar instruction.

The proximity of changes in behavior and Elliott’s divorce were explored during the hearing.

During her testimony, Elliott’s mother Theresa Calfee said the divorce did not affect her daughter more than it would any other person.

In regard to the classroom issues, McCoy stated Elliott does use lesson plans and keeps the information online and available to parents.

Calfee said her daughter often worked on lesson plans on Sundays.

Elliott’s sister, Sarah Weatherford, who is also a teacher, said they would often work on plans together and discuss fourth-grade instruction. Weatherford teaches fourth-grade at Park View Elementary School.

“She was one of my biggest influences to begin teaching in the first place, so I definitely looked to her when I began teaching fourth grade,” Weatherford said. “We spent several nights planning at her house.”

McCoy said Elliott has taught social studies. She also said Elliott has not smoked since 2006, and never smoked on school grounds.

“What this may be is that the cafeteria workers were smoking by her room and whoever is reporting this is smelling the smoke from the cafeteria workers,” McCoy said.

The principal was made aware of this issue. Riggs is expected to testify in support of Elliott on Thursday.

McCoy said Elliott has had some of the highest scores for fourth grade at Hopewell, and parents have requested their students be in Elliott’s class.

Internet use will not be able to be proven, McCoy said. The attorney commented a substitute had used the computer and saved shopping sites into Elliott’s computer favorites list.

“It’s pretty obvious to us these last few things that have been added to this charging letter were added simply to pad out the charge,” McCoy said. “And to try to make Ms. Elliott look like an incompetent teacher, when she is in fact an extremely competent teacher.”

Parents of Elliott’s former students also gave testimony. Parent Jeremy Fox said he had spent a lot of time working with his daughter outside of class to help in math. He said when his daughter had asked for additional help from a support teacher in the classroom, she was told she did not need the extra help.

Grandparent Mildred Hammonds said her granddaughter did very well in Elliott’s classroom, making the honor roll for most of the year. Hammonds said after an incident in which another teacher allegedly accused her granddaughter of cheating, the student was given extra math help by a different teacher, and her grades saw a decline. Hammonds circulated a petition asking parents to support Elliott.

“I think it would be a very bad mistake to lose someone who is so good with kids,” Hammonds said.

McCoy will bring the rest of her witnesses during the hearing today, which began at 9 a.m.