Ruling in JCSB vs Rivers is handed down

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    Friday afternoon, Hearing Officer Terry P. Lewis upheld the recommendation of superintendent, Larry Moore, when he handed down his ruling. Lewis stated, “Accordingly, based on the evidence presented and the applicable law, I find that the petitioner had just cause to suspend and to terminate respondent based on her conduct on September 19, 2019, as alleged in the petition. It is thus recommended that the Jackson County School Board issue a final order sustaining the Superintendent’s recommendation for termination. Respectfully submitted this 22d day of January, 2021.”

    In making his ruling, Lewis outlined issues that led him to his decision. “The testimony of three witnesses—Lauren Nelson, Godwin, and Wiggins—corroborated the fact that Rivers grasped Lauren Nelson’s hair with a closed fist and led her through the office. (T. 47; 81; 112). These witnesses further testified that the student was mortified because of the conduct, which occurred in a public place in front of several other individuals, including students. (T. 59; 81; 113). This unwanted touching and embarrassment of a student, constitutes a violation of School Board policy and the Code of Professional Conduct. As established in Paul, “Physical conduct against a student is grounds for termination of a teacher because it violates the Code of Ethics, impairs effectiveness as a teacher, and constitutes misconduct in office.” Paul, 2010 WL 1862159. It does not matter if the contact was forceful or light. See Wojcicki, 2002 WL 31125102 (holding that use of physical force, “however slight,” constituted misconduct in office). Rather, all that matters is that the physical conduct occurred, resulting in embarrassment to the child and a diminution of the administrator’s effectiveness. Id. The evidence presented at the final evidentiary hearing demonstrates these factors.”

    “Even if Rivers actions were deemed discipline, it was improper. In Florida, corporal punishment may only be meted out in accordance with School District policy and with the authorization of the principal. See Wojcicki, 2002 WL 31125102; see also § 1003.32(1)(k), Fla. Stat. (2020) (noting that corporal punishment may only be used in accordance with school policy and with the principal’s approval). Here, even assuming Rivers was disciplining Lauren by grabbing her, she did not follow District policies in doing so, and did not act with the authority of the principal. (Exhibit 8).”

    “Finally, I address respondent’s suggestion that even if the school district might have the legal authority to terminate her employment, it should give her a second chance just as she would a student such as Lauren Nelson. “If they want to say that I did something wrong, then…I would train you. How do you fix a problem?  It’s just like disciplining kids. You fix it by showing them the right way to go.” (T 208).”

    “It’s not a bad argument to make to the authority charged with administering punishment for misconduct. Most people believe in second chances. There are two problems with this argument here, though. First, it is not for me to decide on whether termination here is wise, but rather whether it is legal, justified under the applicable rules and policies. It is for the school board to exercise its discretion in such matters so long as it is legal.”

    “Secondly, I can’t imagine respondent should need additional training to understand that grabbing a student by her hair and leading her around the front office is wholly inappropriate. Moreover, her statement, “If they want to say I did something wrong…” suggests that, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary from independent witnesses, she still fails to acknowledge that she did anything wrong. This is not the sort or remorse and contrition that should be shown for someone seeking a second chance. It lacks sincerity.”

    Rivers was placed on leave with pay on September 2019 pending results of an internal investigation into allegations against her. On September 25, 2019, then Superintendent Larry Moore gave Ms. Rivers notice that he was recommending her suspension without pay and termination. On October 15, 2019, the Jackson County School Board voted to approve Rivers’ suspension without pay pending a final termination hearing. The final termination hearing was held on December 16, 2020 before Hearing Officer Terry P. Lewis.

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