One School Board Member Walks Out Of Meeting As Tempers Flare Over Parent Complaints
BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
Tensions between the majority of the Greene County Board of Education and board member Deborah Johnson unexpectedly exploded on Thursday during the airing of parental concerns.
The meeting deteriorated into incendiary comments between board members before Johnson shook her head, gathered her coat and purse, and walked out the door.
The meeting took place at the Greene Technology Center. It began at 4:30 p.m. and continued until 6 p.m., at which time the board chose to recess in order to hold a joint board meeting with the Greeneville Board of Education.
This decision meant the two parents scheduled to speak at the end of the meeting, as well as a considerable crowd of interested parties, had to wait an hour before the board reconvened.
Johnson had made an earlier motion asking for the two parents to be able to speak prior to any further agenda items.
That motion died without a second from any of the five other members present: Chairman Nathan Brown, Tommy Cobble, Kathy Crawford, Rex Hopson and Rick Tipton.
Board member Kathy Austin was unexpectedly unable to attend the meeting, Brown reported.
Once the meeting reconvened, Christan Serrianne, mother to a 10-year-old child at Doak Elementary School, shared her daughter's allegations that she had been called names and picked on by Extended School Day Program (ESP) workers.
According to Serianne, this included an initial incident in which an employee of the school who also works with ESP allegedly called Serrianne's daughter a baby and asked her daughter if the girl needed diapers and a pacifier.
Another incident followed, Serianne said, in which a part-time ESP worker allegedly yelled at the girl, calling her a "brat."
In both situations, Serrianne said that the system failed to follow up with her and her daughter about their concerns or to let them know how the personnel would be disciplined.
She called this a violation of the system's bullying, harassment and discrimination policy, which calls for the system to schedule a meeting no more than five days after an incident of this kind occurs.
Serianne said a meeting among herself, her daughter and a school official never occurred and her daughter was never asked how she was doing or offered counseling.
At Johnson's questioning, Serrianne further told the board that no one in the system's administration directed her to any policies or complaint forms and added that the incidents had dramatically changed her daughter's view of school.
"My child absolutely used to love going to school," she said. "Now she dreads it every day. She hates it; she doesn't want to go back."
She called for both the Doak employee working with ESP and the ESP staff member to be removed from the school for failing to act as mentors.
Melissa Bryant then spoke concerning an incident at Mosheim Elementary School in which her 7-year-old child alleged that Assistant Principal Jennifer Whitson had kicked him.
Bryant described in detail her efforts to go through the school administration and later the school system's Central Office to address her complaints.
She also mentioned her decision to file a complaint with the Greene County Sheriff's Department on the day of the incident.
She objected to Whitson's actions on the day following the incident, in which the assistant principal allegedly confronted the child, kicked a doorframe to demonstrate what a kick is, and walked him, embarrassed and crying, out to his mother's vehicle in the pickup line after school.
Bryant expressed complaints similar to those of Serrianne, and stated that the administration waited more than a month to take her complaints seriously and sit down with her and her son.
She cited this as what she said was a violation of school system policies and urged the board to have zero-tolerance in what she said was bullying by an adult.
At Johnson's questioning, Bryant said that she had not been directed to policies or complaint forms.
She said that her son is now afraid to go to school and afraid of Whitson. Bryant called on the school system to suspend Whitson and require her to take professional development courses.
In Serrianne's situation, board members responded by questioning her as to why she did not reach out to her board representatives, saying that they were unaware of the situation.
"We take these situations very seriously in our school system. We will try to get these situations taken care of," Brown said.
"We didn't know anything about this at all," Brown added. "You should have known that [Crawford and Cobble] were your representatives."
Serrianne objected, saying she had followed procedures by contacting her school administration and then the system's Central Office.
"I contacted the D.A.," she added. "The D.A. was supposed to contact the school board." (Serrianne told the Sun this morning that she had contacted the office of the district attorney general but was not sure with whom she had spoken.}
COMMENTS TO JOHNSON
Brown requested that Kirk provide a timeline from the system's perspective of both parents' complaints. (Please see related article, page A-7.)
During that report, Kirk also addressed Johnson's reported involvement with the case.
Kirk said that she regretted making the issue public, but said that it had become necessary due to its airing by area media.
"I have reason to believe that the administration's efforts to resolve this issue were intentionally interfered with, and I believe that the timeline of events will reveal that fact," Kirk said.
She said that this was not the first time she has felt this way, and read aloud a memo she sent the board on March 11, 2013, concerning Johnson's reported independent investigation of another incident.
Kirk said in her March 11 memo that she wished to clarify board member's duties regarding investigations of complaints, noting that it is against district policy for board members to offer any individual counsel.
"To be clear, board members do not investigate complaints or conflicts," Kirk said in the memo. "This is the duty of the administration.
"The board may be called upon to render an opinion upon appeal, and it impedes the appeal process if board members have been involved in the investigative process."
County Attorney Roger Woolsey later offered a similar opinion.
Johnson replied by asking Bryant to share how much involvement she had had in the case.
Bryant said she contacted Johnson first and that Johnson only aided her in directing her to the policies and getting her copies of those policies.
"Then I contacted Kirk, like I was supposed to do," Johnson said.
Kirk said, however, that this contact came after someone with the Sheriff's Department reported that Johnson had contacted police.
"Ms. Johnson, the only thing I can tell you is, it's distressing to me as the attorney who will be defending you -- if you're sued, or the rest of this board, or any teacher -- when I hear from a police officer that a board member has contacted him as opposed to contacting the director of schools," Woolsey said.
"That does concern me."
Johnson said that she was not involved in the case and was not the one who called the Sheriff's Department, but would ask her husband if he had called.
Her husband, Gary, later called The Greeneville Sun to say that he had been the one who contacted the Sheriff's Department.
"I put myself in the position of trying to alleviate the situation by just alerting the Sheriff's Department of the possibility that, if they just did a follow-up on the situation, this might all be alleviated [without involving area media]," he said.
He did not immediately recall how he became aware of the situation, but said it was likely from taking messages for his wife.
He said he was not certain if he told his wife he had called the Sheriff's Department.
Brown and Kirk said that the Johnsons' number is listed as a contact on the complaint card at the Sheriff's Department.
From that moment forward, the meeting became disorganized, with comments interjected from parents and applause from audience members.
Brown attempted to question Johnson in detail about her level of involvement.
She replied that she spoke to media on her own behalf and had no contact with Bryant other than providing the policies.
She also read a pre-written statement, in which she praised the parents for their courage and expressed her concerns with policies.
"Parents should be partners in our education process with the teachers and the administrators; not problems to be dealt with and silenced," she said.
"Our children should not fear going to school. The parents should not worry about their children's safety or well-being when they send them to school," she added.
"I would like to challenge the parents and taxpayers of the county to be aware of the issues and remind them that there is an election in August.
"If there is any one on this board tonight that is not part of the solution, then they are part of the problem."
Fellow board members immediately voiced their objections.
Brown said he felt the situation had been undermined. He read a letter from a parent who wrote that she had been approached by Johnson, who allegedly told the parent that Whitson had been overly aggressive in her actions.
As he read this letter, Johnson gathered her coat and purse, hugged the two parents, and walked out of the room.
"This goes to set a tone," Brown said. "I feel that, in looking at this and what has happened, that Ms. Johnson has had more a part in this than what we know as a board."
He urged members to bring complaints to Kirk, who he said has always properly addressed those he has presented to her.
Crawford concurred and urged members to act as one body, not as individuals, and noted that everyone there cares deeply for all children.
Tipton and Brown both objected to reports by media in which there were claims the situation was widespread and said criticisms that they had not responded to the situation were unfair because they weren't aware of the situation.
Both clarified after the meeting that these objections were not a reference to the Sun's report on the matter.
Cobble said that the situation goes astray when someone "throws gas on our fire."
"I'm proud to be part of this system, and I won't back up one [expletive] bit," he said.
Both Serrianne and Bryant expressed their disappointment that the meeting became what they called an "attack" on Johnson, saying that they did not feel the board addressed their concerns.
Bryant said that she and her husband will continue pursuing answers and consulting their attorney.
Serrianne said she has also been in touch with an attorney and will need to take time to consider her next steps.