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Non-renewal case in Savannah

A Georgia Association of Educators member and teacher had been employed in a southeast Georgia school district for 28 years. On May 12, 2015, an incident occurred involving two of the teacher’s students and a pocket knife. One student was alleged to have pulled the pocket knife from his pocket and to have placed the open blade on the arm of another student.  

No one was hurt but upon further investigation by the principal, questions were raised as to teacher’s handling of the situation. These questions ultimately led to the principal and superintendent proposing that his 28-year career as an educator be terminated. 

But something seemed suspicious:  A story of a 28-year veteran teacher being terminated after responding to a student’s call for help for being threatened with a knife did not make sense.

The main issue, according to the principal, was whether or not the teacher was aware that a knife had been waved during the altercation. If he was aware of the knife and failed to take immediate action, the school district argued that termination of employment would be justified. 

In a six-hour hearing, student witnesses, both for and against the educator, offered their varied perceptions of the events. The student who had been threatened with the knife put to his arm claimed that he yelled loudly six times “[Teacher], he has a knife!”  Some students testified that this student said “he has a knife” twice but at normal volume of voice, while other students testified that the victimized student never said a word about the knife. Despite the prospect of losing a valuable 28-year veteran teacher, the school system brought forward only those students who were to testify that the threatened student yelled loudly for the teacher’s help.

GAE network attorney, Wesley Woolf of Savannah, investigated in preparation for the hearing, asked permission of the students’ parents to talk with their children and then insuring that the students would attend the hearing. One child sacrificed her long-scheduled appointment to have her wisdom teeth removed to testify at the hearing. Another interrupted her vacation with relatives and testified over the phone at 9:30 p.m. from Miami. All of the students who came to the hearing waited patiently one to five hours before their turn to testify. These students loved their teacher and stepped forward to tell the truth when he needed it.

The educator testified that he did not hear the threatened student say anything about a knife. He saw the two students from across the room and thought there might be some disagreement. He approached them from behind and asked them to take their seats, not knowing that a knife was present. But he knew nothing of the knife until later in the day when another student spoke to him directly about it, after which he then immediately brought in the principal to report the matter.

As it turns out, the teacher has hearing difficulty. This incident caused him to seek out medical assistance from a local audiologist. GAE counsel insured that the audiologist attended the hearing to testify about our educator’s hearing loss. Indeed, several of the students testified that the class would, from time to time, take advantage of the fact that he could not hear them or that he would cup his hand to his ear to hear them when they responded to questions. Notwithstanding, the teacher never heard his student state that the other student had a knife. 

The GAE member has a lot left to accomplish, but without legal assistance from GAE, he might not be continuing his 28-year career. The hearing loss issue was not immediately apparent. The school district brought to its Board of Education only one side of the story. GAE counsel spoke with numerous parents and the student witnesses, sifted through their varying accounts of the incident, and insured the presence of testimony necessary for a balanced and fair presentation of evidence necessary for the Board’s decision.