By MARINA WATERS
The decision to reinstate the Gray Elementary School teacher who was dismissed for insubordination and unprofessional conduct following complaints about physical contact with students was somewhat of the shot heard around Washington County. But during The Washington County Board of Education’s May 4 meeting, it seemed the community’s voice was heard above all else.
Seven community members came to the jam-packed conference room to voice their opinions on the board’s decision to reinstate Jennifer Collins who (in a slim 5-4 vote during the school board’s April 6 meeting) was voted by the nine-member board to be reinstated for the 2017 to 2018 school year without any further penalties. Parents, concerned county citizens, veterans, and teachers were the ones standing at the podium before the school board and the director of schools this time. But it was the voice of one particular community member who—after revealing herself as the mother of one of the children involved in the case—rendered the longest applause of the night from the crowd.
“By this time, I’m sure that each board member is familiar with me if not personally, then by my initials ‘RW’,” mother and Gray Elementary School teacher Rebecca Weems said. “I am a teacher at Gray Elementary but more importantly, I’m a mother to my son.”
After saying her only involvement with the case was as a mother, Weems spoke on the board’s decision and how she felt they reacted to her son’s discomfort.
“While I’m glad some board members have had positive experiences with Mrs. Collins, both as teachers of your children and as a coworker, these personal interactions should have never been brought to light because not only does it raise questions about your ability and willingness to be impartial, you’re also negating the experience my son had.
“You have negated his words. You have negated his tears. You have negated his feelings. You have negated him.”
Three other Washington County mothers, Kara Battel, Beth Fletcher and Jennifer Lauren, also addressed the board with their concerns.
“The board code of ethics states in Article I Section I, ‘I will at all times think in terms of children first, always determining other important things according to how they effect the child, his education and his training.’ As a mother, I try to teach your students, my kids, to be honest, keep your hands to yourself, treat others with respect and treat yourself with respect,” Battel said. “When something doesn’t seem right, a little off-kilter, tell someone. And if you ever hurt someone physically or emotionally, say you’re sorry.”
“I ask each of you, do you feel your decision is in alignment with the code of ethics?”
During the meeting, board member Todd Ganger asked Washington County attorney Tom Seeley if the board could take another vote on the reinstatement of Collins. Seeley said a board member on the prevailing side of the motion—Mary Beth Dellinger, David Hammond, Keith Ervin, Annette Buchanan or Philip McLain who voted to reinstate the teacher—would have to bring the issue back to the board. Only one of those board members discussed the decision during the meeting.
“I voiced my opinion. I vote the way I feel like I needed to vote,” Ervin said. “And it probably don’t agree with most people out here tonight, but I’ve not changed my way in 12 years. So I’m going to vote the way I feel like I need to vote.”
Collins was dismissed in November 2016 on the grounds of unprofessional conduct and insubordination after reportedly receiving multiple warnings from her principal. Collin’s insubordination was also a component of the case community members discussed at the school board meeting.
“No one disputes the insubordination,” Lauren said. “They dispute the severity of her physical contact with students. However, her insubordination shows that she is unwilling to be instructed, led or to develop professionally. She is so unwilling to take guidance that she would put her entire school, staff and profession in a poor light. Not malicious, just unwise.”
Tennessee Code Annotated 49-5-512 lists the dismissal, suspension, hearing and appeals process for a tenured teacher and states that any party dissatisfied with the decision rendered by the board shall have the right to appeal to the chancery court within 30 days after receipt of the dated notice of the board’s decision.
During the April 6 meeting when the board voted to reinstate Collins, Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton recommended that the board uphold the 5-4 vote the board made in November to terminate the teacher.
“This decision tells me that adults come first. It is our charge in this community to create, preserve and protect safe environment conducive to learning,” Halliburton said at the April meeting. “I’m concerned that students will be reluctant to come to their principal to report a teacher is mistreating them or violating them. This is a very difficult thing for me to say.”
Halliburton had no comments during Thursday night’s roundtable discussion. The Herald & Tribune also reached out to Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton through phone call and email but was unable to reach her for comment.
Seeley also said that according to the Tennessee Code procedure, Halliburton has done everything within her power to address the issue.
“There’s no real legal precedent for the director to appeal the board decision,” Seeley told the Herald & Tribune. “And so the question that’s never really been decided in Tennessee is ‘does the director have the right to appeal the board?’. Usually you’d have to go to get board approval to file suit. And so most likely, this matter would have to be brought back before the board and the board would have to authorize Mrs. Halliburton to appeal their decision—which, based on what has happened, is probably unlikely.”
Seeley said Collins has received notice of the board’s decision of reinstatement. The board has 30 days to appeal the decision.