Former Gray Elementary fifth grade teacher Jennifer Collins will be reinstated next school year as a result of a 5-4 vote by the Washington County Board of Education which granted her appeal on Thursday, April 6. The board had voted 5-4 to terminate Collins’ employment Nov. 1, 2016.
The vote also overturned the prior ruling of Bristol, Tenn., Juvenile Court Judge Randy M. Kennedy — who had been called to serve as an impartial hearing officer in the case. In his findings Kennedy noted that, “Collins did act unprofessionally, was insubordinate, and her actions caused parents, students and administration to have concerns for the safety and well-being of the students. The termination/dismissal was proper and with just cause.”
If you are interested in seeing the complete record from the hearing, click this link from our friends at WJHL: Click Here
Board members Mary Beth Dellinger, David Hammond, Keith Ervin, Phillip McLain, Annette Buchanan and David Hammond were the five who voted to retain Collins and curb her punishment to a continued suspension without pay until next school year.
The ruling can be appealed by Washington County Director Kimber Halliburton in chancery court judge. If the finding is appealed, the 257-page transcript from the Dec. 12 hearing and 25 exhibits are the only things that can be taken into account, not the boards decision. Regardless of the appeal, Halliburton will have final say as to where Collins will be placed if she returns to the school system.
McLain was the lone board member who changed his vote, noting that he spent two days reading the document and keeping notes of the details, and said that he was disappointed with some of the procedures. “Just like her attorney said, there were some things in there that I was extremely disappointed in. There was, I don’t want to be a Monday morning quarterback, okay, but what little all I do know is there was hearsay that was admitted,” McClain said after the meeting.
Kennedy allowed the father of the 14-year-old student to testify on the student’s behalf, (page 20) opening the door for objections of hearsay.
McLain later told WJHL, “I felt like the teacher had more than paid her dues; she lost a whole year of salary. I felt like a complete dismissal was above and beyond what needed to happen.”
Hammond agreed with McClain during his statement before the vote.
“In reading the transcripts twice and given her record, I know certain board members have contacted TSBA (Tennessee School Board Association) attorney and given the concerns of losing a law suit, and that’s not the issue,” Hammonds said. “The sitting hearing officer found no ill intent. The principals did their job and I commend them for that and they were going on the information they were given.
“And the information they were given was listed in the transcripts as hearsay and double hearsay, but the hearing officer allowed it.”
The judge only mentioned no “intent to harm the child,” in finding number nine when he referenced an incident from Oct. 6, after a parent complained of hugging, head kissing, finger in the ear and at least one case of rear-end smacking. (Page 2 of ruling).
Dellinger noted in her prepared statement that she “found nothing that would warrant this teacher to lose her job. (Her) Good past record is impressive. Ms. Collins has been suspended without pay since October. In my opinion, she should be reinstated to 2017-2018.”
Collins’ attorney, John Allen, told the board and Kennedy his client’s impeccable record as a 27-year veteran teacher should be noted, besides her recent mishaps. Collins did not want to speak after the ruling, but she was visibly emotional and was embraced by numerous teachers as they exited the building.
In the hearing from Dec. 12, Collins said she felt like teaching was her calling and that she enjoys watching the children learn.
She admitted to showing her students affection. “…There would be some hugging, but it was always done in a very motherly type fashion because I do see these children as my children while they’re in my classroom and I will treat them just like I would my own daughter.” However, Collins has documents in her central office file, that were presented in the hearing that include an e-mail from 2014 that was written by former Gray Principal Paula Maupin that tells Collins a child was uncomfortable with her hugs.
Another complaint was made in February 2016 to then Gray Elementary Vice-Principal Travis Thompson that says, “Ms. Collins was requesting neck rubs and back rubs from students and that the students were giving her neck and back rubs.” Thompson met with Collins and told her that was inappropriate.
In August, Thompson was notified by a student that Collins was making a child uncomfortable with her hugs and kisses. Thompson, now principal at Gray, and assistant principal Erika Patterson interviewed that student and it was confirmed the child wanted Collins to stop.
“The problem with the hugging and the kissing is when I have a student in my office crying because he’s so uncomfortable it’s happening,” Thompson said in hearing transcripts. “And I gave her a direct, a directive not to have any physical contact with any more students.”
During testimony in her hearing, Collins denied ever having any physical contact with the child that broke down to Thompson (Page 222). But she admitted she never told anyone she didn’t touch the children, until the date of the hearing.
On Oct. 17, Collins was given a “Letter of Recommendation for Termination of Employment” from Thompson, alleging she had been insubordinate, exhibited unprofessional conduct and failed to adhere to Washington County Department of Education code of ethics.
Halliburton objected to the board’s decision to re-open the matter.
“(Judge Kennedy) found your original vote to terminate was just and with cause. I find it disheartening that certain members of this board disregarded this decision, confirming the actions of this teacher, which made the learning environment unsafe for students. The board’s decision has sent a clear message to the stakeholders in this community. The parents received a message that we cannot be counted on to protect the safety and well-being of the students in our care.”
Halliburton also said that she was worried that the board not supporting the decision of it’s principals, which could drive away effective principals. She also warned the board it risked alienating its funding body.
“The county commission is pouring money at us, pouring money at us and they say to us, countless times, that they want accountability in this school district. And you sent the county commission a clear, clear message. That accountability does not exist in this county.”
Washington County board member Clarence Mabe said it was a tough decision but quoted a text from a principal that he said read, “I love Washington County. But I will not work here in the future. I love my school. I love my job. This is really a sad night. I never thought I’d be searching for a job because the school board would not support administration.”
Board members Todd Ganger and Mike Masters said that they were disappointed in the board for their decision and not standing behind the director.
“I’ve sat here for years, some of you on the board, some of you not, and heard complaints about our former director and one of the things you all wanted was change,” Ganger said during the meeting. “You wanted people to be held accountable and when we are trying to implement that, we turn our back. I am absolutely disappointed in that tonight.”
Board members were told by legal counsel not to take into account anything other than the matters from the impartial hearing. However, Ervin said, “I’m just going to say that Ms. Collins taught my children and I’m the only board member that is sitting on this board right there, that she taught all three of my children and I had no complaints, she was an excellent teacher.”
Ganger responded to Ervin by saying, “We have to separate personal and business sometimes, and it may not be the popular decision and it may not be the easiest decision.”
In the transcripts, all three of the character witnesses that testified on behalf of Collins (the fourth character witness didn’t testify because both parties agreed her testimony would sound similar to the previous three) said she was a caring teacher. One of Collins’ co-workers noted that she was “a very good teacher that always put the students first.”
All three witnesses also said when questioned by Washington County Attorney Tom Seeley that the action suggested in the documents were not okay if the student was uncomfortable (Pages 142-174).
At the end of the transcript, Kennedy asks a lingering question that he’d had. He said that it “didn’t matter what incidents Collins had before 2016. It all comes down to August 2016, “when she was told what to do and didn’t do it.” (Page 252).
The hearing officer said, “It’s down to whether the kids were being honest and you can believe them when they came in after she had been told not to hug and kiss anymore.” (Page 252).
The county’s position was that Collins was given a written directive on August 24, 2016 to not have any physical contact because of allegations and because it was making students uncomfortable.
An appeal by Halliburton must be filed within 30 days after the letter of the decision is delivered.