As more than 59,000 students completed the year in Mobile County schools, the system suffered from a wave of stories alleging teacher misconduct and racism that left at least three teachers on paid administrative leave.
Last week, MCPSS made international headlines after a teacher at Burns Middle School gave eighth-grade students in a language arts class an infamous internet math test that uses “racially charged” names in a series of questions about gang activity, drugs and prostitution.
On the same day, school officials confirmed a separate incident at the same school after the principal discovered a sixth-grade teacher had duct-taped a student’s hands to his desk. Around the same time, the parent of a third-grader at Collins-Rhodes Elementary School went public with allegations that his son was “whipped with an extension cord” by an MCPSS teacher.
The system has acknowledged reports of all three incidents, and each of the teachers involved in those respective cases have since been put on administrative leave pending the outcome of internal investigations. However, the barrage of bad press left school officials defending their reputation on school safety to parents and the media.
“If you look at the number of employees we have, the incident number is very low, but even one issue where a policy or procedure hasn’t been followed is of concern to us,” Superintendent Martha Peek said. “The safety and security of students is a very serious matter.”
Though MCPSS has more than 7,500 employees, Peek said the system works to ensure everyone from the central office to those in individual schools are “cognizant at all times” of the system’s rules. One of those rules is the prohibition of any type of corporal punishment — a policy Peek said has been in place for at least 20 years.
“That includes any type of physical action on the part of the teacher with a student,” Peek added. “So when that happens, or if someone does not follow that policy, we take immediate action that involves an investigation and also putting the teacher on administrative leave.”
Peek acknowledged some parents don’t look fondly on the term “administrative leave,” but said the policy is required, with any subsequent personnel actions coming through her office and ultimately before the full school board to be finalized.
Troy Forister, the father of the Collins-Rhodes student said to have been struck with an extension cord, told WKRG last week he didn’t receive any information from the school system until his son’s teacher, Alice Nelson, was placed on administrative leave. Following up, Peek didn’t comment on Forister’s claims specifically, but said parents are supposed to be notified as soon as an incident is reported at the school where it occurs.
“What often happens is the parents want to know specifically what action has been taken after a teacher has been removed or placed on leave, and of course, until the board acts, we don’t and can’t release any of that information,” Peek said. “An investigation takes place, and then recommendations are made to the board. Once the board acts, it becomes public knowledge, but what we do along the way isn’t.”
As a general rule, most personnel matters aren’t discussed by MCPSS officials to avoid possible litigation. However, a pending federal lawsuit has made public some of the behind-the-scenes work that moves those investigations along.
In 2015, former O’Rourke Elementary School teacher Gina Pace filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against MCPSS after she was terminated in 2014. According to both sides of the lawsuit, Pace “dragged a [fifth grade] student from her classroom to another teacher’s classroom with the help of another student” on Nov. 13, 2014.
According to a sworn affidavit from Executive Manager of Human Resources Bryan Hack, Pace was immediately placed on administrative leave after school officials and O’Rourke Principal Cheryl Chapman reviewed security camera footage of the incident.
Though MCPSS had a policy not to comment on pending litigation, court files show several interviews were conducted with witnesses as part of the system’s internal investigation, including handwritten statements from several students in Pace’s classroom that day.
The consensus of those statements was that a student, whose name was redacted in the court documents, had been upset that he failed to prepare a required presentation. As a result, he pretended to be asleep when Pace called his name.
“[Two students] started shaking [redacted] trying to wake him. Then someone pushed [redacted] or he fell on the floor and [two students] tried to get him up but he was too heavy,” one student wrote in a description of the incident. “So Ms. Pace came and dragged him by his arm out of the classroom into Mrs. Bauman’s room. Mrs. Bauman came into Ms. Pace’s classroom and asked Ms. Pace what just happened and Ms. Pace replied with, ‘I’ll send you a text.’”
Following the investigation, Chapman submitted a written statement requesting Pace be terminated “due to [a] number of concerns” and the “severity” of that incident. However, according to Hack’s affidavit, Pace was given “an opportunity to resign in lieu of being terminated” when she and her attorney were shown video of the incident.
Emails to Pace’s attorney, Ronnie L. Williams, did not receive an immediate response, but according to the lawsuit, Pace alleges she was discriminated against for being African-American.
In her complaint, Pace claims she was “treated differently than white teachers who have not only engaged in the same act, but much worse conduct.” She also contends O’Rourke has “never had more than three African-American teachers at any given time out of staff of 65.”
MCPSS denied all allegations of racial discrimination in its response to Pace’s lawsuit.
In a recent joint filing from May 31, both parties acknowledged an unsuccessful conference “to discuss the possibility of a settlement” in the case. However, the filing goes on to say both parties are “open to revising settlement talks at a later date.”