Principal denies dragging student

Published 9:19 pm Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Former Brookhaven Elementary School Principal Shelley Riley denied allegations she dragged a special needs child down a school hallway in 2017, refuting that and other charges that resulted in her termination during testimony in a contract hearing Tuesday.

Riley testified she grabbed an autistic student’s backpack loop and guided him down the hallway toward waiting school buses when she found him having a meltdown during a bad-weather dismissal on Jan. 6, 2017, telling the hearing officer allegations she dragged the student down the BES hallway are untrue. She said the child repeatedly collapsed to the floor, got back up to walk and collapsed again during the tantrum, but no dragging occurred.

“I tried to convince him to ride bus 210, and he just was not having it. I got him to walk a little way toward the buses, but he started to run past me, and the last thing I wanted this child to do was run out the front door,” Riley testified. “I ultimately made the decision to take ahold of the handle on his backpack to guide him to the bus. If we was dragged, it was just him falling down, just long enough to get back up. I did not drag him.”

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Riley said the alleged dragging incident — the most serious charge Brookhaven School District Superintendent Ray Carlock levied against her in his March 2018 letter of non-renewal — was based on the testimony of two other BES teachers who were not in position to witness the event. 

She said the testimonies of BES PE teacher Ernie Triplett and former BES special education teacher Mindy Smith were untrue, claiming both of them where outside the main hall where her interaction with the student took place, and alleged the district was withholding surveillance video of the event. Carlock has previously testified the camera covering the main hall did not capture footage of the alleged dragging.

Carlock cited several other incidents in his decision to non-renew Riley’s contract, including a Sept. 22, 2017, incident in which she videoed another autistic child’s meltdown instead of intervening, a block scheduling change at BES for the 2017-18 school year he says was not properly executed and an alleged “blow-up” on office staff at Mamie Martin Elementary School concerning her grandson. 

Riley denied wrong-doing in all the incidents.

She testified she did not engage with the autistic student having a meltdown because other teachers were already working to calm him, and she believed her intervention would cause him to escalate, as notes in his Behavior Intervention Plan and Individualized Education Plan warned against crowding him due to sensory processing disorder, a condition in which the brain has trouble receiving information through the senses. She said she videoed the meltdown to have proof of the need for a personal assistant for the child.

“I had been practically begging the superintendent and (special services director Brandy Myers) for help with this child, and I had been denied repeatedly, and so had the teachers,” Riley said. “I never shared the video or viewed it myself, but within three days, we had an assistant teacher. We’d been asking since the first day of school.”

Riley also testified she was hesitant to physically engage with the student after being accused of the dragging incident during earlier that year, and that she did not feel she had received the proper amount of state-mandated training on the use of restraint and seclusion methods. District behavioral specialist Annabel Spencer, under intense questioning from Riley’s attorney, Lisa Ross, testified on May 3 her 30-minute restraint training sessions were inadequate to properly teach and certify other teachers as required by state and district policy.

Carlock has said several times Riley’s behavior toward the child was discriminatory, and that he believes she discriminates against children with special needs. The child in question came to the hearing Tuesday with his mother, Nancy Love, and embraced and chatted with Riley for a few moments during a recess. Love has previously said she supports Riley. Riley testified another of the her students was held back for a repeat of fourth grade, even though he passed, because his mother believed he prospered at BES.

Scheduling change ‘failure’

Carlock’s letter of non-renewal also charges Riley with failing to properly communicate with BES parents regarding a change to block scheduling in the fall of 2017, and generally criticizes her for failing to communicate with stakeholders as required in her job description. 

Carlock and others have testified several times about an impromptu meeting at the Lincoln County Public Library of parents unhappy with the schedule change — district consultants Kelly Earls and Pam Fearn submitted written reports saying BES teachers had not informed parents of the scheduling change.

But several of those teachers testified on June 21 they had sent home letters, taken phone calls and spoken face-to-face with parents about the new schedule, and on Tuesday Riley flipped through pages of school newsletters and other notices she said the school had sent to parents to keep them updated on events at BES. Riley said Carlock told her to swap to block scheduling, then forced her to change back after the meeting and a handful of angry Facebook comments made by parents.

Carlock maintains Riley’s outburst at Mamie Martin over checkout privileges for her grandson was harassing behavior that caused office staff there to fear for their employment, but Riley said her remark about “dire consequences” was made because she feared her grandson’s father would take him away, not because she intended to get anyone fired.

“Had Mr. Carlock asked me about that incident, I would have been happy to explain it to him, but he never asked me one time,” she said.

Riley went on to testify she and Carlock had a great relationship — she got a $10,000 raise — until she refused to sign off on a good cause exemption to pass on to fourth grade a student who had failed the third-grade reading gate. She said she was pressured into signing the exemption by Myers and assistant superintendent Rod Henderson because the child’s mother was threatening to hire a special needs advocate.

No purple folders

She said she refused to sign the exemption because the student had no “purple folders” to indicate the intervention required for an exemption under the Literacy-Based Promotion Act. DeeDee Roberts, who served as academic coach at BES last year, and former tutor Judy Boggan testified on June 21 Myers improperly substituted the tutoring they provided the student as intensive intervention to meet the exemption requirements.

Carlock testified Tuesday Robin Lemonis, director of the intervention services bureau for the Mississippi Department of Education, reviewed and approved the exemption since the last hearing in July. Ross asked for a copy of the correspondence to be entered into evidence, but Carlock said Myers had Lemonis’ email and he couldn’t produce it. Lemonis did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Boggan was not brought back as a BES tutor for the 2018-19 school year, and Fearn — who served as interim principal to start the year — removed Roberts as academic coach and returned her to a fourth-grade classroom. Fearn said the change was necessary because of the size of the new fourth-grade class, but Ross alleges Roberts was demoted because her testimony supported Riley.

Riley was on the stand under friendly questioning from Ross for two hours, with Carlock testifying for most of the day before her. 

Ross asked Carlock if he disbelieved the testimony of BES teachers who disputed Earls’ and Fearn’s reports they did not communicate with parents, but he declined to answer, saying he had no opinion.

“That is not what they told me. I talked to everyone who was there,” Carlock said. “I know what they told me, and Pam Fearn and Bailey Education Group (the company for whom Earls works).”

The superintendent also said Facebook screen shots of parents complaining about the BES scheduling change “could have” been forwarded to him from a member of the Brookhaven School District Board of Trustees, and that Riley was doing “a pretty good job” in previous years before 2017 went awry.

“It started with us starting to get phone calls. The board has been very clear that anything new has to be communicated well, and when we started getting phone calls, I called Mrs. Riley and said, ‘Hey, take care of this,’” Carlock said. “Next thing I know, we have that meeting at the public library, and that’s why I sent someone there. She could have talked to parents about this, but she didn’t.”

Carlock said he didn’t use limited video footage of the alleged dragging in his investigation of the incident, and said written statements from teachers who backed up Riley were never sent to him — Henderson told him the letters were not submitted, he said. He said Henderson’s report stated Riley admitted to dragging the student in his office and asked forgiveness from the student’s mother, a claim Riley would later deny.

Ross asked Carlock why he waited until after the hearings began to report the alleged dragging incident to MDE.

“You don’t have to report standard one. But when all these things led up to discrimination, that’s when it became reportable, in my mind,” he said. 

Ross went on to ask Carlock if Fearn was properly licensed as an administrator when she opened BES this August and changed Roberts’ duties. Carlock at first said he didn’t know, then said Fearn was properly licensed “as far as I know.” Ross also asked why BES assistant principal Jerrold Willis is listed in the school’s Student Administration Management system as an academic coach, alleging he is not properly qualified for the position. 

“How many chances has Mr. Willis had to become properly licensed? How many chances are you going to give him before you non-renew him?” Ross asked.

“I don’t know. I guess I’ll make up my mind,” Carlock said. “There’s no problem with him being there.”

Ross also asked why the district’s restraint training had gone from 30-minute sessions to “several hours” this year. Carlock said the district is contracting with a new, cheaper company that trains differently. He defended Spencer, saying she was “a little shaken” the day she testified the district’s training was improper, saying she didn’t realize what she’d said.

Ross briefly brought up allegations the district shows favoritism to the children of affluent white parents when requests for specific teachers are made, and accused the district of discrimination in a heated exchange in which hearing officer Terry Caves intervened.

Ross ended her questioning of Carlock, and school board attorney Bob Allen had no questions. 

At the end of the day, when Ross ended her questioning of Riley, Allen requested and received a recess before he started his cross-examination, despite Riley’s pleas the hearing continue and end that day. 

There will be at least one more day of hearings before the matter is turned over to the school board for a decision. The date has not been finalized.