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BES principal fights for her job — Brookhaven schools’ policies, management under fire in open contract hearing

A Brookhaven school administrator is fighting her removal from the job for misconduct, claiming discrimination and the school district’s refusal to follow its own policies put her in an unwinnable situation.

Brookhaven Elementary School Principal Shelley Riley claims she is being unfairly targeted for a handful of disciplinary incidents last year involving interactions with a special needs student and other district employees. She claims male administrators guilty of the same behavior met lesser fates and that her protests over the student’s behavior went ignored.

Superintendent Ray Carlock is recommending the school board decline to renew her contract, saying Riley built a year-long history of unprofessional behavior and failed to follow district policy regarding management of special-needs students.

“There was a group of events that set a pattern in the way she deals with special services students,” Carlock said. “These two events were so outstanding, they were not the norm. I have never seen anything like this. We didn’t make this happen, but we investigated, and based on that investigation, this is the recommendation I’m making to the board.”

The grievances were aired Wednesday in open proceedings before Laurel civil attorney Terry Caves, who is serving as a hearing officer for the case. The seven-hour court session took place in the Brookhaven School District office adjacent to the high school, and was open to the public at Riley’s request. Numerous BES teachers and other school officials have been subpoenaed to testify and will do so when the second day of proceedings begin at 9 a.m. today.

Carlock is citing a handful of reasons for Riley’s non-renewal, chief among them a pair of interactions with special-needs students at BES and a tantrum thrown before staff in the office of another school concerning treatment of her grandchild.

The most serious charges are the interactions with the students — Riley is accused of dragging a non-compliant special-needs student down the BES hallway by his backpack during a confrontation on Jan. 6, 2017, and accused of standing by and videoing another student’s outburst instead of assisting in restraining him in another incident on Sept. 22 the same year.

“She never engages, ever,” Carlock testified. “She stands back while this thing is going on, the child is escalating, and we want him to deescalate. And all she ever does, the entire time, is film this. By the time the assistant principal shows up, he has the student deescalated and picking up paper off the floor. She never engaged this student.”

Carlock said Riley failed to follow district and state policy on restraint and seclusion, despite undergoing mandatory annual restraint training early in the year. Brookhaven schools use restraint procedures from human services firm Crisis Prevention Institute, which is an approved vendor with the Mississippi Department of Education.

“All principals know they are responsible for the safety and well-being of their students, and responsible for their discipline,” Carlock said. “I have done everything I can, and I am not going to allow her to mistreat our special education students.”

Carlock reprimanded Riley on Oct. 9 last year, telling her in the letter, “your inability to take control of the situation prolonged the episode and increased the likelihood a student or teacher could have been harmed.”

Riley is also alleged to have behaved unprofessionally and made office staff at Mamie Martin Elementary School feel uncomfortable during a tirade about the treatment of a grandchild there on Sept. 5. Carlock is also unhappy with her handling of a schedule change at BES last year, saying she failed to communicate with parents and created so much confusion in the community the schedule had to be reverted.

“She threatened both of the people in there, was unprofessional with them to the point they felt like their jobs were in danger,” Carlock said. “It is very inappropriate.”

But Riley had defenses for every charge, and her attorney, Jackson’s Lisa Ross, spent the next six hours putting Carlock to the test, asking the superintendent about the specifics of school policies, responsibilities and the events surrounding the charges against Riley.

The cross-examination drilled down deep into the complexities of school policy, into a vein of acronyms and numbered codes, and Carlock often had to admit his approach to governing the school district was not always within the letter of the law, though it did seem to be within the spirit.

A recurring theme of the cross-examination was Ross’ insistence the superintendent should know the technicalities at all levels, while Carlock identified himself as a delegator who lets his chiefs handle day-to-day affairs, coming to him only in special circumstances. Ross’ demand for specifics caused Carlock to answer numerous questions with, “I don’t know,” and he had to admit some matters the law requires be handled by a superintendent were instead handled by administrators under him.

Carlock answered the questions with emotion.

Ross began her attack immediately, pointing out Carlock did not personally attend the restraint training mandated for Riley and other educators. She also accused the Brookhaven School District of breaking state law by not having employees trained directly by a company on the MDE approved vendor list for restraint training — the district instead has its own training personnel who receive training from an approved vendor, then teach the techniques to others.

Ross forced Carlock to admit he did not know who administered the district’s January restraint training and could not provide documentation showing a district employee was certified in such training. Carlock countered by pointing out staying abreast of such policies is Riley’s job.

“The principal must stay informed of all rules and regulations that could affect the school — it is her professional duty to know these rules and regulations,” Carlock said.

Carlock’s response was emotional, and Ross seized on it to lay down her first attempt at establishing discrimination.

“Mr. Carlock, do you always scream at women?” she asked. “I noticed you raised your voice when I took over the questioning.”

Ross kept her discrimination approach alive, next alleging that while Riley was being punished for not following the rules for special-needs students, former Mamie Martin principal Rob McCreary spanked the child from one of Riley’s incidents numerous times, against policy and without reprimand. She also pointed out McCreary was promoted to the central office from Mamie Martin while it was a poorly-performing school, while Riley’s BES is the district’s second-highest-performing school, behind Brookhaven High School.

Brookhaven school board attorney Bob Allen objected on the grounds that discussing McCreary was a personnel matter.

“It goes to show my client is being held to a different standard than men. Otherwise, this is a hoax and a pre-case for discrimination,” Ross said.

Ross pointed out Alexander Junior High School Principal Patrick Hardy also had an outburst at another school similar to Riley’s — Hardy allegedly lost his cool and pounded the wall over a matter involving his son at BHS. Carlock could not say if Hardy was reprimanded, as Riley was, saying that issue was handled below him.

“So matters involving a male principal are handled below you, but matters regarding females come to you?” Ross asked.

Carlock denied all claims of discrimination, saying assistant principal Rod Henderson investigated Hardy’s incident. Ross forced him to admit such an incident would have violated several codes of conduct.

Ross went on to declare one of the special-needs students involved in the incident with Riley had an education plan that called for him to spend 80 percent of his day in a “least restrictive environment,” but school officials had the child in one-on-one instruction the majority of the time, a violation of LRE rules. She raised more issues with the child’s ascension out of third grade — Riley did not believe the child was ready to advance after flunking the third-grade “reading gate,” but Carlock awarded the child a “good cause” exemption to pass him to fourth grade.

Riley claims her signature on a document stating the special-needs child had received the appropriate tutoring was forced at risk of her job after the child’s parents put pressure on the district. Carlock said he was away in California at the time and Henderson handled the matter routinely, asking for Riley’s signature and coercing no one.

“I trust Mr. Henderson. He is always right. He always follows the rules,” Carlock said.

Riley’s defense also alleged Carlock had demanded a letter of resignation from her following the scheduling failure at BES, and Ross had Carlock go over several ambiguous text messages entered into evidence that showed the superintendent asking if the principal “had her letter ready.” Carlock said he was simply asking for her version of a response letter being drafted to explain the scheduling change to parents — though Ross pointed out the letter was mailed out to parents before Carlock’s text message.

Ross went on to accuse Carlock and other district officials of meeting with BES teachers who witnessed Riley’s interactions with the special-needs students in an attempt to align their testimonies prior to Wednesday’s hearing, and Allen objected that any discussion of such was protected under attorney-client privileges. Caves stopped the line of questioning and said he would seek clarification on the range of attorney-client privilege before the hearings resume today.

Riley’s defense for her inaction during the September incident with a special-needs student was her fear of another reprimand after the dragging accusation and that the student’s assistant, Kathleen Robinson, was already involved in the deescalation process. Carlock insisted Riley should have gotten involved, but when Ross asked him what specific measures the principal should have taken that were not already being administered, Carlock had no answer.

“I don’t know what they are. She should know. She’s the principal,” he said.

One of the hearing’s more interesting moments was seemingly unrelated to the matter at hand.

Ross asked Carlock if the district made certain adjustments for the children of “doctors and lawyers” in Brookhaven, and the superintendent said parents can call and ask if their children can be placed in certain classrooms. When Ross asked if that practice could lead to segregated classrooms, Carlock said, “we have some classes that are all African American.”

Allen objected to the question’s relevancy and said segregation is an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice investigation in Brookhaven schools due to 1960s civil rights orders.

“We do what’s best for the child, not necessarily what’s best for the parent,” Carlock said. “(When someone calls), I listen and I call up my principals and say, ‘Hey, this is the situation, what do you think?’ Usually, unfortunately, for the principals, they have already emailed them.”