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Principal’s contract hearing resumes — Counselors’ testimonies conflict with that of special services director

A pair of elementary school counselors cast doubt on the Brookhaven School District’s adherence to state promotion policies Thursday during their testimony in a hearing for an elementary principal whose contract was non-renewed.

Brookhaven Elementary School academic coach DeeDee Roberts told the court a special needs student who failed the third-grade reading gate test in 2017 had no documentation of the interventions necessary for the good cause exemption he received to move up a grade, while retired teacher and part-time tutor Judy Boggan said one-on-one work she’d done with the same student did not qualify as the interventions the exemption claimed he’d had. Both counselors made the revelations during questioning by Lisa Ross, the attorney defending BES Principal Shelley Riley in a hearing over the non-renewal of her contract.

Both counselors’ testimonies conflicted with previous testimony given by district special services director Brandy Myers and other administrators who claimed the child met exemption requirements for a free pass to fourth grade.

Riley said Myers and deputy superintendent Rod Henderson coerced her into approving the student’s exemption at the urging of superintendent Ray Carlock, who she claims demanded the student be passed because his parents were threatening to bring in a special needs advocate.

Roberts testified she attended a meeting among Henderson, Myers and Riley in which the student’s good cause exemption was signed, and that Henderson said there was a “disgruntled family” pushing for promotion to fourth grade.

“That’s kind of how it made me feel,” she said. “(Riley) mentioned there wasn’t any documentation of two years of interventions, and that it wasn’t in the best interest of the child.”

Troubles begin

Riley claims her troubles with Carlock began when she resisted the good cause exemption in May of last year.

Carlock is citing a pair of incidents involving special needs students in his decision to non-renew Riley’s contract, mainly a Jan. 6, 2017 incident in which she allegedly dragged an autistic child down the BES hallway by his backpack during a meltdown, and a second incident on Sept. 22 that same year in which she stood back and videoed another student’s meltdown instead of engaging with him.

Carlock is also citing a tantrum Riley is alleged to have thrown toward office staff at Mamie Martin Elementary School over checkout permissions concerning her grandson.

Riley is claiming discrimination, and her defense has been an exhaustive review of laws and policies concerning special needs students in an attempt to show negligence and mismanagement by the district. Numerous administrators and teachers have taken the stand in four days of hearings that have, at times, been confrontational.

In addition to backing up Riley’s claim she signed off on the good cause exemption against her will, Roberts also testified the Accelerated Reader benchmarks used in the student’s exemption were not a proper measurement of the intensive remediation required by the Literacy Based Promotion Act.

She told the court the student had no “purple folders,” the working name given to the file where a special needs student’s weekly progress monitoring reports are saved. In earlier testimony, Myers said the reports were not included in the student’s Individualized Education Program and that summaries of the reports are used instead — but Roberts said a student with no “purple folders” has “not received intervention in the tier process.”

Boggan, who taught in the district for more than 20 years, would go on to testify she was never asked to provide intensive remediation for the students she tutors at BES and that she provided no weekly progress monitoring. She said former BES intervention specialist Rachel Powell, now a professor at Southern Miss, asked her to write a statement on the tutoring services she provided to “J.M.,” the student who received the good cause exemption, in May 2017.

“She said we needed to get something on J.M. and asked me what I had. I said, ‘I don’t have anything,’” Boggan testified. “She said Brandy (Myers) needed for us to get something together — just something on J.M. I did find a couple little things he had left, some papers, and she helped me write the statement.”

Boggan’s statement would later be used as proof of intervention services in the good cause exemption. She said she was never shown any assessments or goals for her work with the student.

“I never worked with Brandy or talked to Brandy about this child,” Boggan said. “She was never in the classroom. I don’t think (Myers or Powell) knew I was working with that child until the end of the school year.”

Roberts would wrap up her time on the stand earlier Thursday by testifying about the BES schedule change instituted by Riley in early 2017. Carlock would ultimately reverse the change and put the school back on the old schedule, claiming Riley mismanaged the situation by failing to properly inform parents and creating confusion in the community. Carlock criticized Riley for the schedule change during the hearing’s opening day.

But Roberts and others — fourth-grade teachers Jennifer Bray, Bridgette Gilmore and Marlene Martin, and third-grade teacher Angela Bledsoe — testified they either sent letters discussing the change home with students or spoke to parents directly in meetings.

Each testified they liked the schedule change because it allowed them extra time for one-on-one sessions with lower-performing students. All four teachers said they asked for a meeting with Carlock later in the school year to discuss rumors of Riley’s departure, but the superintendent instead sent them an email declining to meet with them.

“He made a blanket statement that everything would run smoothly,” Martin said.

Witness testimony

Martin also testified to witnessing the dragging incident, the primary reason cited in Riley’s non-renewal. She said the student had a meltdown and collapsed on the floor after arguing with Riley — it was an early-release day due to bad weather, and the child was attempting to run to the parent pick up line as he does on normal days.

“I thought he was going to run out. He was confronting Mrs. Riley,” Martin said. “They were in the lobby area… and the front doors are right there at the lobby.”

Under questioning from school board attorney Bob Allen, Martin said she witnessed Riley trying to pick the child up under the arms but did not see her drag him by the backpack.

Ernie Triplett, who teaches PE at BES and is an assistant coach on the high school football and baseball teams, previously testified to witnessing the dragging incident, but Martin claimed Triplett could not have seen the main hallway from his duty post.

In her testimony, Gilmore said Riley works well with special needs students and that one student in particular — identified as “D.A.” — asked often to meet with Riley.

“He thinks Mrs. Riley can solve all the world’s problems. His mom said if he’s having a good day, let him go see Mrs. Riley,” Gilmore said.

Gilmore also testified a special needs student eligible to pass to fifth grade was held in fourth grade an additional year at the request of his mother, who felt her son had made progress at BES and wanted more time for him to grow before moving on.

Henderson had previously testified he believes Riley discriminates against special needs students.

BES special education teacher Kathleen Robinson testified about the Sept. 22, 2017 incident in which Riley stood by and videoed a special needs student’s meltdown while assistant principal Jerrold Willis restrained the child on his own.

Carlock cited Riley’s failure to engage the student in his non-renewal of her contract, and Myers previously testified Riley “should have stepped in.” But Robinson said Thursday the student was leery of new people — a common trait of autism — and had not yet developed a relationship with Riley. She said his behavior was much more easily controlled by men.

“It’s like he defuses,” she said.

When questioned by Allen, Robinson said she would not have videoed the student’s meltdown. But when pressed by Ross, she said Riley’s videoing of the incident was no different from the school capturing student conduct on hallway cameras.

Former principal speaks

Federal programs director and former Mamie Martin principal Rob McCreary followed Robinson on the stand. He testified about a 2012 incident at Mamie Martin in which a special needs student left campus unattended and wandered almost a mile away before being found near a building just off Hwy. 51. He said the incident happened because the student’s assistant did not walk him all the way to his class — she saw him enter the building that then backed away — and maintenance had left open a gate on the outer fence.

McCreary said he was not fired nor recommended for non-renewal of his contract because of the incident. Ross asked those questions in an attempt to show Riley is being treated differently than other principals in the district.

McCreary also testified the autistic student he paddled for misbehavior at Mamie Martin did not begin to exhibit signs of a behavior problem until late in his first-grade year, the student’s second year at the school. Ross pointed out the IEP the student brought with him when transferring in from Loyd Star Attendance Center showed numerous days of suspension, but McCreary said the student was not a problem at Mamie Martin.

“His grades were good, he had no major discipline issues,” he said. “I don’t make a ruling. I take it as I see it.”

Ross asked McCreary why the district waited until the student’s parents had a private evaluation done at Batson Children’s Hospital before ordering a hearing for a special needs diagnosis. McCreary expressed surprise when Ross handed him a copy of the evaluation stating the child kicks, bites and spits as a manifestation.

“This is amazing to me because I’ve talked to the father several times and he’s never mentioned it to me,” he said. “We did keep an eye on him, but we had no major issues.”

The timing of the Batson evaluation matches up to when McCreary said the student’s behavior first became a concern.

Rachel Powell

Rachel Powell followed McCreary, and she and Ross clashed often during the testimony. Powell spoke fast and referenced numerous special education policies and procedures, but declined to answer Ross’ questions with specific details without reports she made while working at BES. She said she provided speech and language services to numerous special needs children while filling in for the late Kathy Shackelford, but testified she could not remember specific students.

“I possibly did,” Powell said when Ross asked if she provided speech and language instruction in a classroom. “I can’t speak to that without my therapy notes.”

The notes were point of contention between Ross and Myers in previous testimony, as Ross claimed they should be preserved as part of a student’s IEP while Myers said that wasn’t necessary.

Powell said Thursday she helped Myers prepare the good cause exemption Riley claims she was forced to approve, but could not identify who provided the student’s intensive remediation beyond the test results themselves.

“I witnessed the documentation,” Powell said.

Powell also testified she submitted her good cause exemption determination to Myers instead of Riley because she worked directly for Myers. Ross had her read the exemption form instructions requiring the teacher — Powell — to discuss the exemption with the principal and parent, which Powell said she did not do. Ross ultimately forced Powell to admit she violated BSD policy.

“Yes, it appears so,” she said.

Judy Boggan

Boggan’s testimony followed Powell’s — aside from her statements about tutoring, she also testified to overhearing a phone call between Riley and Carlock in which she claimed the superintendent pressured the principal to expedite the request of an affluent parent to have their student moved to another homeroom at BES.

“Mrs. Riley said she had talked to that parent, and she would move them when a slot came available, but someone else had already asked,” Boggan said. “Mr. Carlock asked if the parent was someone important and Mrs. Riley said yes, they have two high-performing kids in the district. And Mr. Carlock said, ‘No, is it a doctor or a lawyer?’ I’ve heard that before.”

Carlock had alluded to the preferential treatment of the children of well-to-do Brookhavenites on the hearing’s first day, when Ross asked him if the practice of moving students around by parental request created segregated classrooms. Carlock said then, “we have some classes that are all African American.”

Ross asked Boggan if it was true a parent who “works at Kentucky Fried Chicken” gets less consideration in homeroom requests than more affluent citizens.

“You need to keep that parent who works at the bank a little more calm,” Boggan said.

The hearing ended in testimony from Alexander Junior High Principal Patrick Hardy. Hardy told Ross he became principal only after filing a federal discrimination lawsuit against the district, which was settled in August 2014. The hearing was shortly closed into executive session for Ross’ questions.

A fifth day of hearings is tentatively scheduled for mid-July. Riley will testify then, and Carlock will testify a second time.