State

Tribunals overturned firings of two Fayette County teachers

MLK teacher in altercation with student

At Fayette County's Martin Luther King Jr. Academy in January 2015, James Hodge pushed and slammed an unruly student who Hodge said had taunted him about the death of his wife. Hodge was fired; a tribunal ruled he should be suspended for 90 days.
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At Fayette County's Martin Luther King Jr. Academy in January 2015, James Hodge pushed and slammed an unruly student who Hodge said had taunted him about the death of his wife. Hodge was fired; a tribunal ruled he should be suspended for 90 days.

Tribunals overturned the firings of two Fayette County teachers last year, and a third appeal is scheduled to be heard this week.

Cardinal Valley Elementary School teacher Charlene Looney’s appeal to a tribunal is scheduled to be heard Tuesday and Wednesday in a closed hearing at the school district’s central office. She dragged a young special-needs student down the school’s hallway last year, and was fired.

RELATED: Fired or suspended teachers often get their jobs back in Kentucky

A ruling in favor of a teacher is a common outcome in the nearly 25 years that Kentucky has used the tribunal system. The Kentucky education commissioner appoints a three-member tribunal panel to hear each appeal. The panel consists of a current or retired teacher and administrator and a lay person — none of whom reside in the district.

A state superintendents group and some legislators want to revamp the appeal process, changing or eliminating tribunals, but the Kentucky Education Association favors keeping the tribunals.

Here is a closer look at the two Fayette County cases last year in which teachers won their appeals.

James Hodge

James Hodge had a good reputation for teaching children who were the hardest to control at Fayette County’s Martin Luther King Jr. Academy, where students with disciplinary problems are sent.

But after a January 2015 incident in which he pushed and slammed an unruly student who Hodge said had taunted him about the death of his wife, Hodge was fired. The incident lasted 60 to 90 seconds, and the student wasn’t injured.

In Hodge’s case, a tribunal ruled that Hodge should be suspended for 90 days.

A September 2015 final tribunal order, obtained by the Herald-Leader from the Kentucky Department of Education, outlined what happened:

Hodge suffered “the sudden and tragic loss” of his wife, who died of a heart attack in December 2014, shortly after her 40th birthday.

He took the standard two days bereavement period and was off work through the Christmas holidays.

One student at the school, a 16-year-old sophomore, was particularly difficult to handle, roaming the halls and “deliberately goading teachers by verbally taunting them.”

Hodge was overseeing the in-school detention room on Jan. 14, 2015, when he responded to a radio call to all staff from a staffer asking for help in removing the student from the gym. The student was shooting baskets when he should have been in class.

On his way to the gym, Hodge radioed other members of the staff for help, but no one initially came.

A video shows the student sitting on a chair facing Hodge, who is sitting in an office chair. According to Hodge, the student was being defiant, was using expletives and made a vulgar remark about his wife being a b---- and that “he (the student) was not sorry she was dead.”

In the video, according to the document, after a few minutes, Hodge can be seen erupting out of his chair and attacking the student by pushing him forcibly off the chair, which fell to its side, and repeatedly pushing or slamming the student into another chair or onto the floor.

He then picked up the student and carried him into a room called the reflection room. Another staff member heard the chair overturn and went to the room.

In the reflection room, the student repeatedly approached Hodge, and Hodge pushed him back toward a bench. A few seconds later, Hodge pinned the student against the back of the bench from the rear and held him down. The other staffer was able to persuade Hodge to back away from the student.

The student was crying and asking the other staffer why he hadn’t kept Hodge from attacking him.

Hodge told officials that he had come back to work too early after his wife’s death and that his own behavior was “utterly inappropriate.”

But he also characterized the event as “a breakdown in the system.”

He said he had requested assistance when he went to the gym to deal with the student and that no one came, whereas ordinarily, several staff members should have responded to the radio call.

After reviewing the tape with staff, principal Mark Sellers sent an incident report to then-acting Superintendent Marlene Helm. In the report, Sellers recommended that Hodge be given additional counseling and be retrained. Sellers was of the opinion that this was a one-time event and that Hodge shouldn’t be fired.

But after getting legal advice and getting an opinion from the human resources department, Helm decided on immediate termination. She said she didn’t recall Sellers recommending that Hodge not be fired.

The tribunal found that Hodge acted inappropriately, but that to Hodge’s credit, he didn’t try to excuse his behavior.

Hodge, who had been an employee of the district since 2008, had no record of disciplinary actions.

“In fact he was considered to be an outstanding teacher,” the final order said. “Based on the evidence presented by Mr. Hodge’s colleagues and former associates, the behavior displayed by Hodge was not consistent in any way with his usual character.”

In deciding on the 90-day suspension rather than dismissal, the tribunal decided that Hodge’s behavior was an aberration and that his wife’s death contributed significantly. The tribunal also found that the district didn’t offer any additional counseling to Hodge once the four sessions authorized by his insurance had been completed.

Shelley Chatfield, an attorney for Fayette County Public Schools, disagreed with the tribunal’s findings.

“The tribunal’s suggestion that the district needs to provide additional support to keep teachers from, as described by the tribunal in its final order, ‘repeatedly pushing or slamming [the student] into an adjacent chair or onto the floor between the chairs and conducting what it called an ‘assault’ on one of our students, further reflects its intention to protect inappropriate behaviors by teachers at the expense of our kids,” Chatfield said.

The tribunal said Hodge should get anger-management training at his own expense during the 90-day suspension.

Jeff Walther, Hodges’ attorney, said that after serving the suspension that began Sept. 1, Hodge has worked at a central office job in which he is not in contact with students. His salary is the same as when he was a teacher, district spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said.

Roger Cleveland, an associate professor at Eastern Kentucky University, told the Herald-Leader that he had known Hodge as an educator for 20 years and that Hodge was highly valued at schools where he worked.

“He’s always been professional. He’s had a great connection and relationship with children and parents. I don’t know anything negative about him,” Cleveland said.

Walther declined to comment on the tribunal decision or other aspects of the case.

The final order explained why the tribunal overturned the firing.

“While shocking, the incident lasted less than one minute and (the student) was not physically harmed in any way. It is also clear that Mr. Hodge may have been stressed, that he was left alone to deal with a very difficult student. And finally it didn’t help that (the student) used fighting words with Mr. Hodge by calling his wife a vulgar name and taunting him about her death.”

“(The student’s) behavior does not excuse Mr. Hodge’s behavior, but it certainly goes a long way to explain it.”

Charles Page

Charles Page, a teacher at Bryan Station Middle School, was terminated in 2014 after he pulled or dragged a student from a room. A tribunal that met in January 2015 overturned the firing and said Page should be suspended for the remainder of the 2014-15 school year and be eligible for reinstatement in 2015-16 after completing training at his own expense. Page retired in February 2015.

According to the tribunal’s final order, Page had not had disciplinary action in Fayette County from when he was hired in 1989 until he was admonished in March 2014 by principal Lester Diaz. At that time, in an email, Diaz told him he could not refuse a student who had been assigned to an in-school suspension room. The detention room is part of a school disciplinary program called SAFE. Diaz told Page he could not question administrative decisions made on SAFE placement in front of students.

In April 2014, Diaz evaluated Page’s performance as a SAFE instructor and concluded that he failed to meet the teacher standard of “demonstrates professional leadership and creates/maintains learning climate.”

The evaluation said Page’s goal was that he would improve in classroom management and control.

The final tribunal order detailed what led to Page’s termination:

On Sept. 12, 2014, a special-needs student, who had been characterized by the staff as disruptive, was sent to the SAFE room by the dean of students while Page was supervising the room. The student had previously come to the SAFE room and had been disruptive, the final order said.

Page, who was not aware that the student had been assigned to his room that day, told the student not to come in. The student left but came back and ran around the room before plopping down in a chair. Page, who didn’t call the front office to verify whether the student had been assigned to SAFE, pushed the chair with the student in it toward the classroom door. The student either jumped or fell out of the chair and onto the floor, and Page then pulled or dragged the student out of the room.

However, the student had curled his feet around the leg of a desk that was next to the door. One of the students in the room told Page that the student in question was laughing and wasn’t hurt.

In explaining his actions, Page said he thought the student was having a seizure because the student was gurgling and struggling for breath, and Page wanted to get the student out of the way of the door to avoid being stepped on.

Page was placed on administrative leave with pay. After an investigation, then-Superintendent Tom Shelton fired him on Dec. 5, 2014. The basis for the termination was conduct unbecoming a teacher. The tribunal, which met in January 2015, agreed with that assessment.

“Page acted inappropriately” when he attempted to drag the student out of the classroom, the final tribunal order said. “There was simply no justification for his actions.”

The order said that although Page tried to excuse his behavior by saying he thought the student was having a seizure, he made no effort to secure the assistance of other personnel, nor did he properly assess the child’s condition.

“Instead he elected to drag the child to another room. This conduct was clearly offensive and violated the accepted norms of behavior. It certainly wasn’t exemplary of good teacher behavior.”

But the tribunal determined that the conduct did not merit termination. “The incident lasted only for a few minutes at best,” the student was not harmed in any way and “in fact did not begin to be upset” until another teacher lifted the student to their feet, the order said.

The tribunal also found that the Fayette school district didn’t take appropriate steps to make sure that Page was properly trained in SAFE room procedures and “offered him little or no assistance.” They said Page was isolated from other instructors, had not been given a radio and was left on his own to cope with stressful situations. The tribunal decided that Page was not being unreasonable in his request that he be given some kind of advance notice that a student was being assigned to the SAFE room. The tribunal found that the district failed to set forth clearly defined procedures for monitoring and managing the SAFE room, and that it failed to provide clear communication to Page as to when a student would be assigned to his room, even though Page had repeatedly asked for advance notice.

School district officials said there was no video of the incident involving Page.

Page’s attorney Joellen McComb said Page didn’t want to comment.

“The tribunal had a basis for their rejection of the termination action,” McComb said in an interview. “The school district failed to provide the support to Mr. Page that he needed.”

“There were some findings by the tribunal that Mr. Page took issue with, but ultimately he did decide to go ahead and retire to be able to spend more time with his wife because of her health issues,” she said.

School district reaction

Both cases brought some strong words from current Fayette Superintendent Manny Caulk and district staff attorney Shelley Chatfield.

“I don’t feel comfortable commenting on personnel matters that took place prior to my joining the district, but seeing that video (from the Hodge case) and reading the transcripts of those cases brought tears to my eyes,” Caulk said. He said he was inclined to support changes in the tribunal system, “because the current process appears designed to protect the interests of employees rather than the interests of our students.”

In regard to the tribunal’s findings that the district didn’t provide enough support for the teachers, Chatfield said: “We completely disagree.”

“Both of these cases involved seasoned educators with multiple years of experience and training in classroom management and student discipline,” Chatfield said. “Additionally, our employees receive annual training in state regulations that clearly direct (that) physical restraint shall not be used to force compliance, punish or discipline a student.”

“Neither of these employees was in any danger when both chose to violate their ethical and professional responsibilities. Barring an imminent threat to the safety of the student or others, there is no extenuating circumstance that makes such actions acceptable behavior for a teacher in the Fayette County Public Schools,” Chatfield said.

In response to the district officials’ comments, McComb said the tribunal’s decision was not arbitrary. The tribunal hears evidence from both sides and sees “the failures of the school district,” she said. “The hearing process is in fact designed to protect the interest of employees because they are entitled to due process under the federal and state constitution.”

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears

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