Friday, March 14, 2014

TOP STORY >> Students protest teacher’s firing

Leader staff writer

A popular Lonoke High School science teacher was fired Tuesday night after a four-hour special school board meeting held to review allegations that he slapped a student’s face.

He was also accused of showing a graphic video and of other infractions during his tenure.

An open hearing was held in the school library at the request of Boaz Cotton, who taught pre-advanced-placement and advanced-placement biology and environmental science.

He’d been a teacher at Lonoke since August 2010. More than 70 students, parents and teachers were at the hearing wearing green shirts in support of the teacher with “100 percent Cotton” on the front and a quote of Cotton’s on the back.

Although he wasn’t at the hearing, the student Cotton slapped for cursing didn’t want the teacher fired.

When Cotton and his witnesses spoke on his behalf, the students all stood up as one, some hand-in-hand as they tried to hold back tears.

“Mr. Cotton is the best teacher I ever had. He teaches you how to figure things out in biology and in life,” junior Gracie Pusley said.

Paris Terry, a 10th grader, said, “Truthfully, I find it unfair.”

Lin Smith, a senior, said Cotton means a lot to her. He helped her through some trying times in her life, she said.

Chandler Elmore, another student, read a letter about Cotton during the hearing.

Elmore said he taught the state curriculum and life lessons. He lectured students and challenged them to find solutions on their own, Elmore said.

Four board members voted for Superintendent Suzanne Bailey’s recommendation to terminate Cotton, two abstained from voting, and one board member was not present.

School district attorney Donn Mixon of Jonesboro moderated the hearing.

Science teacher Rebekah DiGiacomo read a letter during the hearing from the science department. The letter was delivered to the administration in February.


She said Cotton was the most qualified to teach advanced classes. End-of-course exams and advanced-placement scores have risen over the past four years, she said. He set the bar for his students and the department. He held students accountable and pushed them to their potential, DiGiacomo said.

Cotton gave students after-school tutoring without charge, she continued. Students who weren’t in his classes came to him for help with math and chemistry, she added.

Cotton had been suspended with pay for four weeks until his firing on Tuesday. A substitute teacher is teaching his class for the remainder of the school year.

During the hearing, Cotton said he wanted to apologize to the student involved in the incident and the student’s family.

He also apologized to the teachers, staff, his students and their parents.

“They believe in me. They worked hard for me. I’m supposed to be there for them. I can’t help but take fault for the events that transpired. I take responsibility of the negative impact on their education this year,” Cotton said.

“For my students, thank you for believing in me. This has made a lifelong impression on me. It has changed me tremendously. It has brought much joy in my heart to see that I have their support,” Cotton said.


According to school incident reports, on Feb. 6, students were gathered at the Gina Cox Center for an emergency drill. A black male student was cursing loudly while talking with friends when Cotton, who said at the hearing that he was half African American, overheard the words.

Cotton then slapped the student’s face and told him not to curse. The student said the slap was not hard, but hard enough to feel it. He said he balled up his fist in anger, and the student’s friends said they wouldn’t take that.

Cotton then guided the boy to the restroom. The teacher allegedly blocked the restroom door and told the student to “take a free shot at him.”

The student refused to hit Cotton. He said Cotton asked him questions about liking school. The teacher moved to block the student’s exit as they were talking.

The student said, when Cotton finally let him leave for class, the teacher tried to grab his shoulder and apologize. The student shrugged it off, and they parted ways.

Later the same day, the student told his brother and mother about the incident. The next day, the student’s mother met with Cotton about the incident during parent-teacher conferences.

She then called the school to let administrators know what had happened.

Security footage of the incident was shown at a private session with Cotton and school board members during the hearing.

Cotton admitted to principals during an interview that he did put his hands on the student’s face. He said it was a reaction to hearing the student curse.

Cotton said he knew it was wrong to use his hands and that he was sorry for doing it.

During the hearing, Cotton said he never intended to harm the student, nor would he want to. Cotton said it was not a slap. He said he did apologize to the student’s mother.

“Guiding (the student) to the restroom was intended to protect (the student) from the mistake I just made. My mistake of touching the young man’s face, it got him very upset, and I was very concerned that what I just did to him was going to cause him to get into trouble that he may not recover from,” Cotton said.

He said guiding the student to the restroom was not meant to intimidate him, but to isolate him from his friends so the two could talk.

Cotton said it was also to let the student know that he cared for him and that he was sorry about offending him.

The teacher said he wanted the student to consider the consequences if he struck Cotton.

“I did not want to harm him. I wanted him to succeed,” Cotton said.

He said he wanted to protect the student first and foremost.

“I was trying to protect him from being seen striking a teacher. I was worried he would and, if he did, it was because of what I did,” Cotton said.

“If the student had hit me back, I would not have reported it,” Cotton said.

The student involved, who was not present for the hearing, wrote a letter to the board asking that Cotton to be reinstated.


On Feb. 21, 2013, high school principals met with Cotton to discuss reports from parents and students that he used profanity in his classroom. Cotton admitted to using some profanity.

He used an expletive when he tried to make a point about how much it hurt when one jumps in water and lands on their belly.

Cotton was told by supervisors the use of profanity was inappropriate and should not be used again in the presence of students. A report was written up about the incident.

He allegedly used profanity in the classroom again in last August, according to four students.

Cotton told administrators he let a few vulgar words slip, but has never cussed at a student.

Science teacher DiGiacomo said during the hearing she has heard other teachers use profanity in front of students and that was not reported.

Cotton said he had used that expletive. After being told not to use that kind of language, he stopped. The teacher denied accusations that he used other curse words in class.

He said he had heard teachers use profanity in front of students before, not just in Lonoke, but at the four high schools Cotton attended growing up.


Cotton was suspended with pay for the afternoon on Aug. 30 and all day Sept. 3 as school administrators investigated allegations that he had inappropriate contact with a student.

A female student on Aug. 28 reported to the Open Arms Shelter that Cotton took her out into the hall during his environmental science class to talk with her about turning in the wrong assignment on that date.

When interviewed by principals two days later about the incident, she told them Cotton sat on the stairs when they left the room.

She felt that he wanted her to sit next to him. She said she did not want to and he went toward her. She backed away and he still came toward her. She said her hands were in her pockets. He reached and grabbed her hand to hold it while he spoke to her.

The student said Cotton held her hand and talked to her like a boyfriend would. She said he was “up in her space too much.”

The student based this on his facial expressions and actions.

The day following the incident, the student said Cotton did not say or do anything that could be considered inappropriate.

At the hearing, Cotton said the student remained in the classroom and continued working with him.

Cotton said he sat down on the stairs to be less intimidating because he’s tall. He explained that it was not done to get the student to sit next to him, but to give her the advantage of looking down at him.

Cotton said the discussion was school-related. He worked with her closely last year and helped her pass her biology course she was struggling with.

She was under the impression their rapport was more than it was, Cotton said.


It was reported to school principal Marc Sherrell on Oct. 29 that Cotton showed the video “Child Birth or Getting Kicked in the Balls, Which Hurts Worse?”

Sherrell said the video may be deemed inappropriate by some viewers or their parents. He requested that Cotton seek approval from the administration first before showing questionable videos.

DiGiacomo said during the hearing that she had seen the video. She said pre-AP and AP students are mature enough to understand the video was educational, based on solid science.

“It was presented in a way that would capture the students’ attention,” DiGiacomo said.

She said the school has, in the past, approved videos that contain vulgar language.

Cotton said the short video was intended to make the students chuckle and laugh and held them remember the information.

When Cotton was made aware that some may find it offensive, he stopped showing the video.


Cotton was also accused of allowing students to eat in his room at lunch without permission, which is against building policy.

In August, he was written up. Cotton admitted to administrators that he let students eat lunch in his room because it gives them a chance to bond with him and an opportunity to help them with their problems.

Administrators told Cotton he could eat lunch with the students, but he needed to do that in the cafeteria.

DiGiacomo said at the hearing that students last week were eating their lunch in other teachers’ classrooms.

Cotton said lunch is a good way for him and his students to open up and become comfortable with each other. He said some students find it “uncool” to be seen talking with their teacher in the cafeteria or with large groups of students around.

“To remove or not to allow students to visit and learn from their teacher during lunch, I think is a huge disservice and an oversight of the time we could be using to prepare our students for the future,” Cotton said.

He said academic progress is achieved when the students eat in the classroom.


Board members went into executive session.

They came back and said they believed the allegations against Cotton, except for the accusation that he blocked the door of the restroom.

Cotton was also found to have failed to maintain a professional relationship with his students.

His conduct interfered with the performance of his duties as an educator, the board said. He engaged in conduct that adversely reflected on the integrity of the school district and its staff, they said.

Superintendent Bailey said, “We are all here as educators for the safety and security of all our children. We have an ethical standard as educators to have the utmost professionalism to show toward students, peers, parents and community members. We’re also role models.”

Cotton said, “My profession is to make sure my students know how to handle themselves in life when they don’t have a teacher. My profession is to encourage and motivate them and influence them to be better people; that is what teaching is.

“In my profession, I choose to go against something that I do not, after careful consideration, deem to be in the best interest of my students. My students come first. That will also be my stance,” he told the school board.

Cotton told the students after his firing, “(The board) has made their decision. We have to accept that. You don’t need me. You can do it for yourselves. Don’t let someone else stop you from doing what you need to do. If you want to pass that AP exam, you will pass it. You can do it. I have seen how all of you work.

“Just because I’m not your teacher does not mean that you are removed from my life. All of you will be a part of my life,” Cotton said.