A Coffee County Circuit Judge has ordered the Enterprise Board of Education to “reach a settlement agreement” with an elementary school teacher who is suing them for wrongful suspension without pay.
Circuit Judge Shannon Clark ruled March 8 that Enterprise City Schools Superintendent Dr. Camille Wright and Board of Education members Gloria Jones, Bert Barr, Ross Cotter, Dorothy Richardson and former BOE member Doug Vickers are “ordered and adjudged” to settle the case with Harrand Creek Elementary teacher Sonya Dean.
The decision comes 13 months after Clark took the EBOE and school superintendent’s request to dismiss the lawsuit against them under advisement.
In her lawsuit, Dean maintains that her rights were violated under Alabama law in connection with a 20-day suspension last school year. She says she was wrongly suspended without pay from Oct. 22 through Nov. 19, 2014 and that her suspension caused her to lose $5,494.20 in pay.
At a one hour hearing Feb. 26, 2015, an attorney representing Wright told the court that the superintendent should be dismissed from the lawsuit because she simply made a recommendation to the board and that the board acted on their own volition.
The BOE attorney said that the board, acting in their official capacity, had “immunity” from being sued. Clark’s ruling said, “The defendants’ immunity defense is inapplicable under the circumstances.”
Acknowledging that the state constitution provides “absolute immunity to agencies of the state,” Clark noted, “Exceptions are recognized when a state agent acts in bad faith or with malice or willfulness or under a mistaken interpretation of the law.”
The lawsuit cites an Oct. 8, 2014 meeting during which Dean and her attorney, Carmen Howell of Enterprise, met with Wright, then BOE Director of Personnel Dr. Irma Townsend, BOE attorney Merrill Shirley and Harrand Creek Elementary School Principal Ronnie Retherford.
The purpose of the meeting, according to the lawsuit, was to inform Dean of Wright’s recommendation to the BOE regarding allegations against Dean by both Harrand Creek School Custodian Eric Brown and a man who is the father of the child who was alleged to have been struck by Dean.
The two men alleged that Dean struck the child on the neck during a classroom test. The student and one other student were the only remaining students in the class and the child in question was asleep at her desk during the time she was supposed to be taking the test, according to the lawsuit.
Brown said that he did not call the police after witnessing the incident but did report it to his school principal who then reported it to the school superintendent, Dr. Camille Wright.
After a municipal court hearing before Judge Joey Gallo Dec. 2, 2014, Dean was acquitted of a harassment charge brought by the child’s father connected to the same case.
Dean had requested a hearing before the board following her written notification of the suspension, according to a statement read by Enterprise City Schools Superintendent Wright during a board meeting in 2015.
“Board, before you, you have the information regarding the proposed suspension of an employee,” said Wright, reading a written statement. “At this time, I recommend that Miss Sonya Dean, teacher at Harrand Creek Elementary School, be suspended for 20 work days without pay for the following reason: Ms. Dean struck a child on the back of the neck on Sept. 24, 2014, which is in violation of her performance duties to establish and maintain a positive and safe learning environment and to act in a professional manner.”
Dothan attorney Thomas Brantley, who represented Dean at the meeting, interrupted Wright in the reading of her statement.
“Stop—stop– this is not supposed to be in public,” he interjected while Wright continued reading her statement. “We object to that,” he added as BOE attorney Merrill Shirley admonished him to sit down.
“I’ll hush but this is improper,” Brantley continued. “I think she (Wright) could go through that without bringing up the details— which are not true anyway.”
“That remains to be seen,” replied Shirley.
After Wright finished reading her statement, Jones, then-BOE president, read the following statement: “The superintendent recommends to this board that the teacher be suspended for 20 days without pay. The superintendent gave the teacher written notice of her recommendation and notice of this conference and the teacher has requested the opportunity to address the board on this recommendation. I will now ask each member of the board whether he or she is able to serve as an impartial member of the administrative tribunal and to arrive at a decision based solely upon the information presented at this conference. Any member not able to act in such a matter may say so and ask to be excused.”
All board members answered in the affirmative, at which point Shirley reminded them that a request had been made by Brantley to discuss the matter in a meeting closed to the pubic— known as an executive session—which he suggested they do.
After an hour in executive session, the board reconvened. BOE member Richardson made a motion to uphold the suspension and BOE member Cotter seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.
Dean said that at the meeting— during which, she said, she was “intimidated and browbeat”— she asked about the possibility of appealing the superintendent’s recommendation for suspension and the board attorney replied that an appeal “could be more severe on you and more negative information could come out against you.”
Dean’s lawsuit cites the example of another teacher—whose father was employed at the BOE Central Office— who was suspended without pay. The reason for that suspension was kept confidential.
Dean compared that confidentiality to the fact that the charge against her was read by Wright, in its entirety, out loud— at a school board meeting. The action, the suit said, was one of “malice, ill will and mean spiritedness.”
In her suit, Dean asks the court to order restitution in the form of the pay lost during the 20-day suspension and to order Wright to issue a public apology to Dean.
Dean asks further that Wright explain why she “observed the good name and character,” of the other suspended employee and why she was not afforded that same right.
Clark ordered that the parties “attempt to settle the case by entering into negotiations and/or settlement discussions within the next 30 days.
“The mediation conference shall commence within 60 days from the date of this order unless the parties and the mediator mutually agree on a different time,” according to the order.