Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Please Don't Bite The Students!

It seems as though the employment standards of the Tifton, Georgia's Len Lastinger school could use some revision:
Vivian Hightower, a paraprofessional at the school, was suspended without pay for five days by the school’s principal, Dr. Kim Ezekiel. The board confirmed last week that Hightower bit a child she understood had bit another as punishment on Jan. 10. Unconfirmed reports Monday are that Hightower has been reassigned to another position in the school system after meeting with Superintendent Patrick Atwater Monday.

Julie Lambert, the mother of a Len Lastinger student and a volunteer in the school who takes cupcakes and serves them once a month to students with birthdays, said she became concerned when she heard about the student being bitten. Lambert said she didn’t witness the incident, but decided to talk to Ezekiel concerning the matter.

“After I talked with Dr. Ezekiel and told her I was going to administration, I and several parents wanted to set up an appointment to meet with Mr. Atwater, but his secretary told me that Mr. Patrick couldn’t discuss personnel matters with us,” Lambert said. “I was very upset at being told two times in one day that it didn’t concern me.”

Lambert said she was encouraged when she met with Kevin Dobard, BOE personnel director, in mid-February on a Thursday. She said Dobard told her to get letters together from those concerned. He recommended two letters, she said, and she gathered letters from seven people and took them to Ezekiel and copies to Dobard.

“Mr. Dobard, to his credit, has taken more time with me than anybody,” Lambert said. “I left there with the impression that with the letters, something would be done.”

Lambert said she received a letter from Ezekiel the Saturday following her Thursday meeting with Dobard. The letter, Lambert said, was brief and basically, according to Lambert, stated that Ezekiel appreciated Lambert’s concern, reiterating that the school administration places a high priority on school safety and that policy had been followed, but that the issue was a personnel matter the school administration couldn’t discuss with the public.

“I wouldn’t have any reservations in writing a formal complaint, but I question whether they will do anything,” Lambert said. “If I had been asked at any point to do it, I would have just like I got the seven letters together.”

Ezekiel said during an interview conducted in her office Friday that Lambert came to her on Feb. 13 after making an appointment and told her she wasn’t there concerning her son directly, but had a concern. Ezekiel said Lambert told her “she wanted to know why this woman is still in this school.”

“I told her I was not able to discuss personnel issues,” Ezekiel said. “She said she was going to Mr. Atwater and I told her that was fine because he was fully aware of the situation.”

On Feb. 19, according to Ezekiel, Lambert came to her office while she was in a meeting and asked for her. Ezekiel said she got the word from staff that day that Lambert said Dobard had told her to gather the letters. Ezekiel said she received the letters and responded to each of them.

“I said I would be happy to address the concerns having to do with their own children,” Ezekiel said. Ezekiel said that she has not discouraged Lambert from continuing her volunteer work in the school and welcomed her there.

Kano Goff, Lambert’s father, who read a prepared statement at the March 4 BOE meeting expressing his concern that the punishment Ezekiel imposed on Hightower wasn’t sufficient, said he got involved when Lambert told him about his meeting with Atwater.

“I told her, Julie, you have gone to the principal because you are concerned about your child at the school with a biting paraprofessional, Patrick sent her to the personnel director and then gets a letter back from Ezekiel stating the same thing,” Goff said. “I told her it was now time to go to the board.”

The BOE and administrators explained in a press conference Thursday that formal complaints, according to policy, had to have the person’s name, address and telephone number on them before they would be considered. Goff said the written statement he read to the board during the public comment section at Tuesday’s BOE meeting was only his signature away from fitting the criteria for filing a formal complaint in the case.

“They keep stating that they got upset because we didn’t follow procedures and went to the board, but we had talked to everyone we knew who to talk to about it,” Goff said.

“No one was upset that he spoke to us the other night, but the public forum is not designed for action, it is designed to hear concerns,” Potts said.

Goff said he called BOE Vice Chairman Lester Potts on Feb. 25 and he, Potts and Lambert met on Feb. 26 at Shoney’s to discuss the matter over coffee.

“Potts said he knew very little about the situation,” Goff said. “Lester said he was shocked and the gist of the meeting was that it would get to the board and he would see that there was a vote. He told me and Julie that he was only one vote but he would get back to us on March 4.”

Goff said that Potts called Lambert and told him that BOE attorney John Reinhardt had told him that since Hightower had been reprimanded and punished with a five-day unpaid suspension from her job, there was nothing the board could do. After Goff discussed it with Lambert, he called Potts.

“I told him I couldn’t believe there was nothing that could be done about it by the board and that I thought they were taking the easy way out,” Goff said. “I told him that the people of Tift County needed to know and maybe they’d get upset enough to do something about it and that I was going to read a statement in public at the March 4 board meeting.

“I’ve been in business a long time and maybe things are different in government, but if I had someone in my company who did something drastic and found out someone under me issued discipline that wasn’t severe enough, I would fire them,” Goff said. “This wasn’t something that just popped up on him (Potts).”

Potts confirmed Monday that he had met with Lambert and Goff at Shoney’s that night and said that was the first time he had heard about the biting incident.

“At that particular moment, it was hearsay,” Potts said. “I said I would check into it and see what was going on. Lester Potts, as a member of the board, has one vote and has no power or authority outside of the board as a whole.”

Potts said he began to question what had gone on relative to the case and Dobard told him an investigation had been conducted by Ezekiel and that the five-day suspension without pay had been imposed with Atwater’s blessings.

Potts said Goff called him and told him he needed to speak before the board.

“I told him to call Patrick’s secretary and see what he needed to do to be able to speak,” Potts said.

Potts said that at some point he discussed the biting incident with BOE Chairman Rita Griffin. Potts said the personnel committee, of which he is a member, met Wednesday after the Gazette furnished a copy of the incident report concerning Hightower, who was charged in 2006 with aggravated assault in a case that hasn’t been indicted or otherwise adjudicated through the court.

When asked if someone filed a formal complaint in the case that was in compliance with the BOE’s current policy, would he consider bringing the issue of the punishment imposed before the board for consideration and discussion, Potts said, “If the formal complaint process is followed, it would come before the board itself and at that point, the board would take it under consideration.”

When asked what he hoped comes as a result of the flow of information opening in the case, Potts responded, “I hope personally that everyone in the school system and in the community knows that is that it is our desire for open, clear and positive communication among each other. If fear exists in a school building, you can jump the chain of command to get that rectified, but please first do all that you can at the lowest level possible first. The chain of command is an important structure to me because of my military background and important to maintaining order.”
Where do these districts find these employees?

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