By Collin Brooks
Nine parent and members of the community spoke to the Washington County Bord of Education about their concerns with the reinstatement of Gray Elementary teacher Jennifer Collins. No action was taken by the Washington County Board of Education to go against their 5-4 vote to reinstate the teacher which was taken last month.
Washington County Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton can appeal the board’s decision to an impartial Chancery Court Judge in Washington County, but she will only have until the end of the month to make that decision.
The board could change their stance, but it would take a motion from one of the five voters who chose to reinstate Mrs. Collins, Mary Beth Dellinger, Phillip McLain, David Hammond, Annette Buchanan or Keith Ervin, in order for the board to overturn their ruling.
That did not happen during the Thursday, May 4, meeting, after they heard from the nine people that were troubled by the board’s decision.
The most gripping words came from Gray Elementary teacher and parent Rebecca Weems, who told the board before she spoke that her son was involved in the incident and she is referred to in the testimony documents as “RW”.
“By this time, I am sure that every board member is familiar with me, if not personally, then by my initials RW,” she said.
She said that this school year has been immensely difficult on her family and that she has chosen to remain quiet because she wanted to protect her son.
“While I have been respectful and reserved in terms of speaking out,” she said. “I have not been blinded to the social media attacks, dirty looks and blatant disregard to the facts of this case.”
She said the only involvement she has had in this case was her role of mother. She said that she did not ask for any of this, nor did she plot or begin a witch hunt of any kind. The backlash has taken a toll on her and her family, none are quite as hurtful as those aimed directly at her son.
“While I am glad some board members have had positive experiences with Mrs. Collins, both as teachers of your children and co-workers, these personal interactions should have never been brought to light,” Weems said. “Not only does it raise questions about your ability and willingness to be impartial, you are also negating the experience my son had.
“You have negated his words, you have negated his tears, you have negated his feelings, you have negated him.”
Gray Elementary School parent Dwight Jenkins, who has two children at the school, said that the board exercised unbelievable hubris and that the actions of the board make it clear that they aren’t putting student safety first. He said they also set a dangerous precedent.
“Contrary to the wishes of at least one school board member, I find it very difficult to simply ‘Move on,’” he said referring to BOE member Annette Buchanan’s comments to WJHL, “when the safety and well-being of our students is discarded so easily by a majority of this group.”
He said he was surprised when the board reversed their decision and reinstated Mrs. Collins so he reviewed the media copy of the transcripts. After reading all the documents, except the glossary, he said he was even more surprised that the school board changed their stand and he called it a “monumental mistake, having implications for every teacher, administrator, every student and every school board member.”
Kara Battel was another concerned parent who has a 5th grade daughter at Gray. She asked the board if her daughter was involved in the actions that took place in the transcripts and the teacher was a male, would the vote remain the same?
She went through different codes of conduct that are documented in the county system that deal with students, administration, faculty and the board itself.
“The Board Code of Ethics states, in Article I, Section I, ‘I will at all times think in terms of children first. Always determining other important things according to how they effect the child, his education and his training.’
She said that the board went against that with their decision.
“After reading the transcripts and testimonies, I cannot understand your change in decision,” she said. “I cannot understand allowing a teacher, with multiple accounts of insubordination, harassment of students and inappropriate behavior, the opportunity to be around your students, my children. I cannot understand how the benefit of this outweighs the risk to your students, my children.”
She said that the vote could silence the children and the administrators of the system, and that “I cannot understand how board members can sleep at night, knowing that your childrens’ voices have been dismissed and that their ask for help has been denied,” Battel said.
Retired ordained minister Ed Wolff said he doesn’t have any children inside of the school system, but he still had a great concern with the finding of the school board.
I was absolutely shocked when I read that this board overturned the director’s decision. Being a past congregational leader, I know the dynamics of such action, it’s dysfunctional,” he said. “…The decision of the board removes power from the principal. The decision of the board diminishes the ability of the director to guide the vision which the board has approved.
“This decision now possibly shifts inappropriate power to the teachers, who appear to have connections with board members. This decision now appears to shift power to the teacher’s union, who might be able to influence board members.”
He said that was the “good-old boy” system at work.
Jennifer Laughren, a mother with four students in Washington County schools, including one in kindergarten, said she didn’t think that Mrs. Collins had any ill intent with her actions, but she said the simple fact that Collins was insubordinate was plenty enough for her firing.
“I do not believe that Mrs. Collins had any malicious or perverted intentions toward any child,” she said. “…I do believe that Mrs. Collins, though not malicious in her intent, acted very unwisely and was not above reproach. She was told, instructed, encouraged and ordered by her authority to cease from all physical contact with children.”
She said not stopping, creates a troubled learning environment. So even though she may have had no evil intent, she acted unwisely because she was insubordinate.
After hearing from another county parent, Mike Lewis, who applauded the efforts of Gray Elementary Principal Travis Thompson and Washington County Director of Schools Kimber Halliburton, and concerned citizen Army Major General (Ret.) Gary Harrell, the board took no action.