BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Allegations of adults bullying and harassing students in the Greene County School System are prompting some parents and at least one school board member to question how the system responds to parental concerns.
Two situations from late last semester stand at the center of the now-public controversy: an incident in which a 10-year-old child at Doak Elementary School alleged she had been called names and picked on by Extended School Day Program (ESP) workers and an incident at Mosheim Elementary School in which a 7-year-old child alleged that he had been kicked by Assistant Principal Jennifer Whitson.
In both situations, parents said they felt as though the system left them uninformed concerning measures taken to investigate the allegations.
They also believe the system did not follow its policy in responding to their complaints.
Greene County Director of Schools Dr. Vicki Kirk confirmed this week in an interview that she had received reports of these incidents.
She declined to discuss specifics of the situation when asked about them by The Greeneville Sun.
In declining to do so, she cited advice given by the Greene County Board of Education's attorney because of the manner in which the matter had become "public" and "contentious."
Kirk further stated that she has instructed school administrators to decline to comment as well.
However, she did make several general statements surrounding school system policies.
The director provided the following statement in connection with the incidents:
"When something's reported to us, we investigate it and then we take appropriate action. That action could range anywhere from coaching and teaching the individual on a better way to handle things the next time, all the way up to dismissal.
"I've done both of those things this [school] year; I've done everything in-between.
"We don't always satisfy parents with our decisions.
"We try to do the right thing, but we're always going to have some folks who don't think you do the right thing, or you didn't tell them what you did, so they're not satisfied.
"I don't talk about specific personnel issues publicly, either."
In a later interview, Kirk said the decision is due to liability issues with sharing disciplinary actions and in order to maintain good personnel morale.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, we work things out to everybody's satisfaction," she said.
In the situation at Doak Elementary School, parent Christan Serrianne said her 10-year-old daughter, a fourth-grade student, attended ESP before and after school.
In late October or early November, Serrianne said her daughter alleged that, "[The school employee] called me a baby, told me I need to wear diapers and I needed a pacifier."
When her daughter reported similar accusations the next day, Serrianne said she took the matter to Doak Principal Jennifer Teague, who told her she would look into the allegations.
The following week, her daughter continued to tell her that the same worker, who is a full-time employee, was "picking on her," prompting Serrianne to then contact the school system's Central Office.
There, she said she spoke with Supervisor Kristi Wallin, who said they would resolve the issue and give Serrianne a call back.
According to Serrianne, that call never came.
Weeks later, on Jan. 3, another ESP worker allegedly screamed at her child and called her a "brat."
In this situation, Serrianne said there was another employee of the school who witnessed the incident.
In regard to the second situation, Serrianne said officials held a Jan. 7 meeting with the worker but declined to allow her (Serrianne) to attend or to ask questions of the worker.
Wallin reportedly contacted her later that same day to say that, while unable to discuss specifics about the repercussions to the worker, Serrianne would likely be satisfied by the outcome.
Serrianne said that she again raised her concerns surrounding the first matter she had reported to the school, but felt that officials were "not concerned."
"I never got a response on that whenever I first complained about it," she said. "There was never a meeting between me, [the Doak employee], or [Wallin]. At all."
She said she received a call from Kirk on Jan. 11, during which she again shared her concerns about the employee's alleged behavior.
Kirk set up a meeting with the mother for the following Monday. Serrianne later canceled that meeting, but says she has contacted state Rep. David Hawk, R-5th, of Greeneville, as well as an attorney.
Since these incidents, Serrianne says, she has removed her daughter from the ESP program.
"Her grades have dropped tremendously," Serrianne said. "She doesn't want to go to school anymore. She loved going to school [before]."
Serrianne is calling for the system to remove the employee from the first incident from the school, and is considering moving her daughter to another school if the system does not take this action.
In the situation at Mosheim Elementary School, parent Melissa Bryant said that she picked up her 7-year-old son on Dec. 4.
He is a first-grade student at the school.
He alleged to her that, while he was sitting with his legs crossed and leaning back on his hands in the school's activity center after lunch, Assistant Principal Jennifer Whitson came behind him, told him to sit up, and kicked him in the back.
"I never thought that she had kicked him," Bryant said. "He said his back was still hurting and I looked. There was still a mark on his back."
A picture Bryant showed to the Sun showed a close-up of a thin, pink line.
Bryant took her son into the school and spoke with Principal Wendy Carpenter, showing her the mark. Bryant told Carpenter that, while she did not believe he had been kicked, "something happened."
Bryant requested to speak with Whitson, she said, but Carpenter allegedly declined to call her into the office, saying that she (Carpenter) had been in the activity center.
"I asked her, 'Is there any kind of form that you could fill out when something like this happens? I want it documented that I had a complaint about it,'" Bryant said. "She informed me that, at that time, she had no form to fill out."
Because of the lack of a complaint form, Bryant filed a complaint with the Greene County Sheriff's Department and said she was later told that Det. Mike Fincher had talked to the school about the incident.
The next day, she said she spoke with Assistant Director of Schools Bill Ripley, who told her he would set up a meeting with Whitson.
When Bryant picked up her son later that same day, she said Whitson walked him out to the car and he was crying.
"She comes to my car window and says, 'I want to inform you that I did not kick your child. I nudged him,'" Bryant said.
Whitson turned and walked off, according to Bryant.
Her son then alleged that Whitson had spoken to him in the activity center, in front of his friends, asking him what he had told his mother to make her so mad.
"She kicked the door to demonstrate what a kick was," Bryant said. "It terrified him. He was crying. He was upset, and it embarrassed him in front of all his friends.
"That should have never happened. She should not have kicked a door to demonstrate what a kick was."
Bryant said she then called Central Office and left a message for Kirk, but that call was never returned.
On Jan. 8, she said, she went to Central Office to request a form to speak before the Board of Education. While she was there, she said, Ripley and Kirk assisted her in retrieving the form.
Ripley reportedly told Bryant that he had spoken with Whitson and Carpenter and had thought the situation was resolved.
He aided her in setting up a meeting with Carpenter on Jan. 9, in which she was told that a child is to "never, ever be redirected with [a] foot."
The next day Bryant had a meeting with Carpenter and Whitson, during which she said Whitson apologized.
Since then, she has canceled a meeting with Kirk, saying that she feels "everything has been swept under the rug."
"I think more should be done. I think [Whitson] needs to be suspended and she needs to go to classes to learn how to treat kids," Bryant said.
Bryant said she objected to not being told what disciplinary measures may have taken place, and emphasized that the incident never should have happened.
Bryant said that she is considering speaking with an attorney, and has also contacted Hawk.
SCHOOL SYSTEM POLICIES
Bryant refers to the incident as bullying and intimidation.
In cases that are identified as being bullying and intimidation, the system policy on Student Concerns, Complaints and Grievances calls for a written or oral (recorded, if possible) complaint, followed by notification of the parent within 24 hours of a meeting no more than five days after the incident.
The policy calls for the notification of the principal or assistant director of schools, and of the director of schools, concerning the complaint and meeting.
Bryant said no such interview occurred.
Serrianne said she also felt that the same procedure should have occurred when she shared her daughter's complaints.
Kirk described this as a formal policy, but said that most often complaints are handled more informally.
"We try to follow the intent of the policy," she said. "The intent of the policy is to resolve the situation at the lowest level."
This, she explained, means often facilitating a meeting between parent and principal in order to help preserve that relationship.
Parents are not invited to attend meetings in which there is going to be serious disciplinary action taken against personnel, she said.
When calls concerning parental complaints come into Central Office, she said she answers some and delegates others, depending on scheduling.
Ripley, Wallin or other supervisors may respond to a situation.
She said she did not receive word that the parents wanted to speak with her directly, but that she was indirectly involved in the effort toward a resolution.
"We felt like we were working toward a solution," she said. "We were under the impression we were making good headway."
Kirk said officials will carefully evaluate how to make sure all parties agree that a situation is resolved and seek out means to improve communication.
"When we feel like adults behave inappropriately, we take measures to make sure it doesn't happen again," she said. "I am very intent on every child being cared for every day.
"My plan moving forward is to learn everything we can learn about this situation and take any action we need to take to make it better for our children, for our personnel and for our school system."
JOHNSON WEIGHS IN
County Board of Education member Deborah Johnson, who represents the Mosheim area, said that she is aware of both situations, but in an interview with the Sun, she spoke directly to the allegations made concerning Mosheim Elementary School.
"The administration's position is that it didn't happen in that way and that the parent was very happy after meeting with them.
"Right there I had an issue with what was going on," she said.
Johnson said that, when she was contacted, she directed the parent to complaint forms that are available to the public online.
Johnson said that the same zero-tolerance policy that applies to students should also apply to adults.
"If there is an alleged abuse going on, such as touching a child with your foot -- especially from an authority figure -- I would expect an investigation," she said.
"With that, if the parent wasn't happy, I would have thought they would have instructed her on what she could do instead of just saying, 'She's very happy. Go home and we'll handle this.'"
Johnson further called on the system to fully investigate the incident, and for Kirk to respond with a report to the board, followed by an analysis of policy and procedures surrounding such allegations.
She described the ongoing issue as either failure to follow due process, lack of communication, need for more training, or "just incompetence."
"I know that we often say that we put children first. But when I hear the way students are treated -- and I know it's alleged -- but if we put a child first, then an investigation should have taken place," she said.