From a reader:
Last month my child did something that should not have done during an after-school athletic activity for which disciplined was needed. According to the Lauderdale County School System PARENT/STUDENT HANDBOOK 2016-2017 the punishment should have been ‘suspended up to 10 days, but not less than 3 days, pending Disciplinary hearing for the 1st offense.’ At the hearing, the discipline given was 30 school days placement in alternative school. Because this was not in the handbook I went to the school the following morning and asked the principal what written policy was followed in the disciplinary action given. He stated that he had followed the handbook. I questioned this since the discipline given is not in the handbook. He then proceeded to deny three statements that I knew he had made.
He also seemed strangely interested in denying a statement he made regarding my child’s current athletic status. Because he was so acutely interested in this and because he was denying statements he made previously, I began to doubt his trustworthiness and asked that he put his current conflicting position of my child’s athletic status in writing. He agreed to do so. I also asked that he provide the written policy for the 30 day alternative school placement discipline. In addition I asked that he provide the written roles and responsibilities of the school personnel in charge of providing supervision to my child at the time of the incident. He agreed to provide this to me by the following day. He ended the meeting by stating that these things are decided on a ‘case by case’ basis and this is what ‘we always do.’ The following day he left me a message that the requested information is available for me at the Lauderdale County Board of Education. I arrived shortly after to pick up the information. The information provided was a copy of the handbook policy which I already had. This policy states that the student will be ‘suspended up to 10 days, but not less than 3 days, pending Disciplinary hearing for the 1st offense.’ Also provided was a copy of the handbook’s complaint procedure and a written statement that if I have any questions I should follow the handbook’s complaint procedure.
Since none of these items were the requested documentation I had requested I asked the receptionist how to file an appeal for a disciplinary hearing. Later, an assistant superintendent spoke with me and soon after a second assistant superintendent joined us. The result of that discussion was that both men agreed with me that they had not followed the handbook policy; however, they stated they are not required to do so. They stated that they have more authority than the legal system. I asked where this is written. They denied that it was. They stated that the only written policy is the handbook. I asked how they can give discipline with no written policy and they stated they do not know; it is just what they always do. If I wanted to know more I would have to ask the superintendent, but to do so I would have to follow the handbook’s written complaint procedure explicitly. I agreed to do this. The first step in the complaint procedure is to speak with the principal. I had already done this and he failed to provide what I asked for. The second step was to put my request in writing to the principal and he would have to respond with a written disposition within five working days. I faxed two written requests to the principal. My first request was that since I was told by the assistant superintendents that they did not follow any written policy or procedure and they did not follow the handbook then could the alternative school placement sentence be reduced (Since the process would take longer than 3-10 days there was no use in asking that they follow their policy). My second written complaint was that a school employee failed to adequately supervise my child at the time of the infraction.
Meanwhile I received a written letter via US mail from the superintendent that my child would serve 30 days in alternative school. The letter had a typo which disclosed another student’s name. This gave me additional reasons to doubt the reliability of the Lauderdale County Board of Education. Five business days later I received a faxed response from the principal that no one failed to supervise my child and that the sentence would not be reduced. Once I had received this I was able to move forward with the third step of the complaint procedure which was to send the written requests to the superintendent. He then had five days to respond. Per their complaint procedure he was required to contact me to try to resolve the issue or meet with me and then follow up with a written disposition within five business days. On the fourth business day his attorney called my husband and left a message that he wanted to speak with my husband about a complaint letter I had written. This was very confusing to me. Although I am a female, I am certainly able to handle my own affairs without going through my husband. This caused me even greater concern about the trustworthiness of this agency. I contacted this attorney to ask why he called my husband regarding a letter I wrote. The attorney stated that he was handling the situation at the request of the Lauderdale County Board of Education since I previously notified that I had an attorney representing my child (I had not). I asked him to provide the documentation of this notification and he did not respond.
On the fifth business day two individuals traveled to my house and left a letter on my front porch. This letter, written by the superintendent, was an agreement to speak with me regarding the third step of the complaint procedure and permission for me to call his secretary to make an appointment. This gave me even greater pause regarding the efficiency of a tax funded agency that would pay two individuals to take an hour to drive to and from my house to hand deliver a letter. As instructed in the letter I called and scheduled an appointment with the superintendent for the following week. When I presented at the meeting I asked the superintendent why his attorney contacted my husband about a letter I wrote. I asked if this is standard operating procedure. He stated that ‘there is no standard.’ He also stated that he can contact any parent he likes in a joint custody situation. I showed him the complaint procedure in the Lauderdale County School System PARENT/STUDENT HANDBOOK 2016-2017 which states that he is required to respond to the complainant at the third step of the process. The fourth step allows him to have a representative act on his behalf, not the third step. He stated that his only response is that he is ‘new and learning.’ We discussed the two letters I had written. He stated that he is unsure why the 30 day placement in alternative school was given. He stated that he would need to research and speak with his attorney. His response to my letter about inadequate supervision was that there was no inadequate supervision as students do things sometimes that they shouldn’t do and we don’t know why. I asked him for his word that my children would not suffer retaliation because I asked questions and he adamantly agreed that he would make sure this did not happen. He stated that parents are encouraged to ask questions. He stated he would call me no later than two days in the future with his response to my question about the 30 day alternative school placement sentence.
Meanwhile I followed up my understanding of the meeting in writing and faxed it to his office. Two days later the superintendent called me and asked if I could come to his office to meet with him. I agreed to do so. At the meeting he stated that he would not change the 30 day alternative school placement. I asked why and by what policy. He stated that his answer would be that he would refuse to answer. I asked why and he said on the advice of his attorney he is not answering this question. He then spoke of some additional rules about the alternative school that I had not heard before. I asked him to show me this in writing. He denied that he would do this. He stated he would not discuss policy with me. I asked why again and he stated this is on the advice of his attorney. I stated: “So, you arbitrarily make this up as you go?” He stated that he would refuse to answer that question. I indicated that this process had been very interesting and left. Meanwhile I received a letter by mail that the disposition of our meeting was that my child’s alternative placement would not be reduced. I did not receive a disposition regarding my complaint that a school employee failed to supervise my child. I followed up our meeting with a written statement of my understanding of what had taken place at the meeting. I asked that he put his disposition in writing and to include that his final response was a refusal to respond. I also asked that he include his disposition that his investigation revealed no employee failed to supervise my child. I reminded him in this letter that his agency had solicited funds for the alternative school program and in the application for state funds the board certified that the program meets certain guidelines.
Based on these standards and because he refused to provide me with the alternative school program policies I asked that he provide me with my child’s progress towards behavior modification goals as well as academic and behavioral progress towards these goals. I informed that I had called three separate state agencies and discussed my difficulties of obtaining information and all three agencies had advised that I request that the superintendent put his disposition in writing. I requested that the superintendent provide this information by a specific date. On that date I called the superintendent and asked him if the documentation was ready for me to pick up. He stated that he had placed a letter in the mail to me the day before and that another letter is being drafted today and would be put into the mail that afternoon. I asked if I could come by to get a copy of the letter he mailed the prior day. He stated: “That’s not what I said.” I asked if he was refusing to give me a copy of the letter and he stated: “That’s not what I said.” We continued this strange conversation in which he denied stating that I could come pick it up and denied stating that I couldn’t come pick it up several times. I finally stated that I would be by to get the copy shortly. He hung up on me. I traveled to the Lauderdale County Board of Education. I presented and asked for a copy of the letter the superintendent mailed to me. His secretary provided it to me. I also asked for my child’s alternative school program evaluation. While she was asking the superintendent for this information I reviewed the letter. The letter stated that there was an employee in charge of supervision on the date of the incident. I was confused because my written complaint had been that an employee had not provided adequate supervision. This disposition did not address my complaint but simply stated that there was an employee present. When the secretary returned with a packet of information for me I gave her the letter and informed her that it was not a sufficient disposition as it does not address the complaint. While she was speaking to the superintendent about this I reviewed the packet of information provided.
There was not an evaluation of my child’s progress in the alternative school program. There was a copy of a page from the Lauderdale County School System PARENT/STUDENT HANDBOOK 2016-2017 stating that an alternative school program exists. There was also a copy of the Alternative School Contract Agreement the instructor reviewed with us at the first day of my child’s placement in alternative school. Interestingly one of the required guidelines of the program is parent participation (which made me laugh). I already had both of these items and neither of them were the requested evaluation of my child’s progress in the program. When the secretary returned she stated that the superintendent will not add to the disposition letter. I informed her that the packet does not contain the information I requested either. She left to speak with the superintendent again. When she returned she stated that the superintendent will not speak to me without his attorney present. I denied that I have or need an attorney. She stated, “Well, we do.” I denied that I needed to meet with the superintendent and am simply asking for the documentation that I had previously requested in writing. She again stated that the superintendent would not see me without his attorney. I stated that maybe he did not understand what I need and it might be helpful if I could clarify what I am asking for. She stated again that he would not meet with me without his attorney. I asked her if he is refusing to see me. She stated: “That’s not what I said.” So I asked, “So he will meet with me?” She stated: “That’s not what I said.” We had several more rounds of this strange conversation in which she denied that he would meet with me and then denied that he would not meet with me. Finally, I thanked her that he would not refuse to see me and began to walk toward the superintendent’s office. The secretary opened his office door and the superintendent was sitting behind his desk speaking with a gentleman beside his desk. He stood up and approached us. I stated that the secretary told me that he was not refusing to meet with me. I thanked him for this and stated that I needed some documents that I previously requested. He stated that he would not meet with me without his attorney present. I asked when that would be and he did not know. I stated that I do not need to meet with him or his attorney, I simply need some documentation. He stated that he provided me with the requested items.
I denied this. I agreed that he did provide me with items just not the requested items. He again stated that he would not speak with me without his attorney. I stated that I had been told that if I followed the complaint procedure exactly then I would be able to ask and receive answers from him. I asked him who is in charge of this agency; the superintendent or the attorney. He stated that he would not speak with me without his attorney present. I stated that this was not acceptable to me as I do not need an attorney and am simply requesting documentation that his policy states he is required to provide. He stated that he would call me by noon today with an appointment time to meet. I asked when this appointment would be and he stated no later than the following day. I agreed to accept this and left. At 11:55 a.m. I received a phone call from the superintendent. Once he identified himself he read this statement and hung up on me: “I have met with you on more than one occasion about your child’s alternative school placement. I will not change the 30 day placement. This matter is considered resolved. I will not meet with you again.” I followed this up with a written letter stating that I am disappointed in the honesty, transparency, and integrity of his administration.
So why am I writing this? I wish I could say that since I did my best to request answers and followed the Lauderdale County School System PARENT/STUDENT HANDBOOK explicitly, it is now well with my soul. But it’s not. The more questions I asked the more evidence I uncovered that the Lauderdale County School superintendent is suffering from a lack of transparency. It is not ok for an elected official to treat parents with questions this way. It is not ok for elected officials to state that parents have to follow a policy but they do not. It is not ok to arbitrarily mete out discipline without written policy. Do they only give 30 days in alternative school to females? Athletes? Non-athletes? People of certain skin color? Those of certain religious beliefs? It is not ok to state that the answer is a refusal to answer. It is not ok to state that an employee was present when the complaint is that a school employee failed to supervise my child. It is not ok to state you will meet with a parent (in front of witnesses) and then refuse to do so. Additionally, what exactly is happening in the alternative school program that needs to be hidden? Why would parents be denied updates or evaluations of their child’s progress? Is the school system even entitled to tax revenue to fund this program?
As for the superintendent’s adamant promise that my child would not be retaliated against…remember the letter with the typo that disclosed another student’s discipline? Because of that disclosure I know the punishment given to that student. That student has been allowed to participate in and attend local school activities during the alternative school placement which is expressly forbidden in the Lauderdale County School System PARENT/STUDENT HANDBOOK. My child has not been allowed to do so. Interesting, isn’t it?
What have I learned that parents need to know? Each year parents and students are required to sign a Handbook Acknowledgement Form. The Lauderdale County Schools PARENT\STUDENT HANDBOOK ACKNOWLEDGEMENT form currently states that parents and students “agree to adhere and follow” the handbook and local school policies. The form is NOT a contractual agreement. The Board of Education does not agree to follow the handbook. It is a one-sided agreement. If students do not return this signed form they are coerced to do so by school employees until the form is returned. I will not be signing this form in the future and neither will my children. Neither should you. The law only requires that students, parents, guardians, or custodians “read the plan and sign a statement verifying that they have been given notice of the discipline policies” (Act 94-784(e)(1)).Of course I really wish my child had not done something that should not have been done. My child needed to be disciplined. My only request was that the discipline be in accordance to the handbook. My mantra in this situation has been and continues to be: “Nevertheless, she persisted” (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell). I will continue to persist. Because in the words of Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (or women!) to do nothing.” When elected officials are behaving in deceitful ways they need to no longer be our elected officials.
Nevertheless, she persisted! While we're no fan of Elizabeth Warren, we do love that mantra!