Friday, April 23, 2010

TOP STORY >> Base teacher in abuse case investigated

Leader staff writer

There is no deadline for the investigation to end into allegations of abuse by a first-grade teacher at Arnold Drive Elementary School, say Pulaski County Special School District officials.

The school is located on Little Rock Air Force Base.

“It really just depends on the process for both the investigation and what could happen afterwards,” said Deb Roush, spokesperson for PCSSD. “There really is an array – a whole host of things that could happen.”

Possible outcomes range from the teacher being found innocent and allowed to return to her classroom to being terminated, or something in between. If that occurs, she has the right to file a grievance. Hearings and appeals could go all the way to the state Board of Education.

Citizens too have the right to file a complaint with the state Department of Education Professional Licensure Standards Board about a teacher’s conduct. Penalties range from a written reprimand to permanent revocation of license.

The Arnold Drive Elementary School teacher accused of abuse is suspended, pending the conclusion of the investigation by the district. According to the children who say they were either victims or witnesses, she solely targeted boys, about six of the class of 20 students. Pulling them off the ground by the collars, thumping on the head or neck, yanking ears, as well as threats and demeaning comments, were among the things she is accused of.

The teacher is in her first year in the classroom. Witnesses say she is in her mid-20s.

The situation came to the attention of the PCSSD school board Tuesday when mothers of two children taught by the alleged abuser spoke at the board meeting. Afterwards, one of the women, who did not want to be identified, said she decided to speak publicly only because of concerns about how the situation had been handled initially by the district.

Also present at the board meeting was Lisa Otey, wife of Col. Greg Otey, LRAFB 19th Airlift commander. In a letter to the board about the alleged abuse, she called for “an expeditious, full and complete investigation into the matter.”

According to parents’ accounts, the teacher was removed from the classroom on April 8, after several parents complained to the school principal. Then without parents first being notified, the teacher was reinstated by acting Superintendent Rob McGill on April 19. But, by the end of that day, the teacher was again removed from the classroom after parents found out she was there and called in June Elliott, deputy superintendent for PCSSD. Up to that point, Elliott had been unaware of the alleged abuse.

Parents are troubled by the fact that the teacher was back in class last Monday without their knowing beforehand so they could prepare their child or keep him or her home. They say that rumors have been out of control at the school among parents and faculty because the administration has not communicated to all parties about what has happened.

The parent speaking off the record was complimentary of the actions by Elliott.

“She got us all together – parents and students – and interviewed all of us separately, and told the parents she wanted written statements about what our children had told us,” the mother said. “She asked us questions that I had not even thought to ask.”

The level of detail and collaboration between the various children’s accounts, gathered in separate interviews, was compelling, the mother said. She says she is “absolutely” convinced her son is telling the truth. He claims the teacher occasionally mistreated him; it was watching his friends being abused “often” that prompted him to tell his parents, his mother said.

What has come out was “a total shock,” the mother said, because relations with the teacher have been smooth and her son has done well academically.

“She has done good things in that classroom. She taught them how to read,” she continued. “No one is gunning for her; it is just that we don’t want her to be teaching little kids. Maybe she could teach high school, because no way would bigger kids put up with it.”

Otey said she is disturbed by the fact that some individuals on base are saying that high-ranking personnel, whose children are affected, are ganging up on the teacher. That is totally false, Otey said.

“One child is an officer’s son. Another is a master sergeant’s son, and the rest are E5 and below,” Otey said.

For now, the parents want to give the district a chance to complete the investigation, Otey said. “But, if we don’t find it satisfactory, we will be back on them. We won’t drop the ball.”

Otey said Arkansas now has a Professional Licensure Standards Board for teachers and a process for addressing allegations of non-compliance, including incidences of abuse. She said she has already contacted the Arkansas Department of Education about that.

In the first year of the board’s existence, 150 complaints were filed with the standards board. Relations with students, competency, honesty in reporting, public funds, integrity, confidentiality during testing, drugs and alcohol and criminal behavior were the bases for complaint.

Before the establishment of the standards board, it was difficult to revoke a teacher’s license.

Julie Thompson, spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Education, said, “If there is a bad apple in the teacher pool, their license can be taken away and the problem alleviated.”