Teacher under investigation

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Marshall County High School teacher is suspended without pay and under investigation in connection with what might be interpreted as assault, according to public records.

Rebecca Fergerson was suspended by Schools Director Roy Dukes, the record shows, after MCHS School Resource Officer Billy Ostermann and Principal Keith Stacey pursued a complaint.

While Tribune news sources declined to confirm all of a report broadcast in Nashville, WSMV reported Thursday that "a homemade device, described as one made with a nine-volt battery and wires, could be to blame. That kind of device, if rigged properly, could be used to deliver a low-grade shock."

Fergerson has been a special education teacher, records show. Sources said she's not teaching gifted and talented students.

An attempt has been made to offer Fergerson an opportunity to speak for herself.

Fergerson was "suspended without pay for allegations of inappropriate conduct with students and (alleged) assault on students in the classroom," according to Dukes' Jan. 28 report to the state Education Department's Teacher Licensing Office.

Dukes and the school system's attorney, Sam Jackson, had similar responses when asked about Fergerson.

"We're in the middle of an investigation and the teacher was suspended without pay until such time as the investigation is complete," Jackson said. Dukes referred questions to the lawyer after saying substantially the same thing.

Neither would name Fergerson, but two independent sources, speaking on a condition of anonymity, named her and two individuals close to the school system confirmed the information.

"We can't talk about it now," School Board member Curt Denton said Monday, "but when the proper time comes, we will have a press release. It's a sensitive issue. You've got minors and a teacher's livelihood" at stake.

"We don't know any of the particulars," Denton continued. "There's an appeals process and we won't know anything before that time."

He agreed school board members would want to avoid saying anything that would be prejudicial, or reflect a preconceived attitude. "Exactly," Denton said. "We need to be fair to both sides. An appeal is left up to her."

Dukes' letter to the state Board of Education states that an investigation is being conducted by Jackson, and that the state Department of Children's Services has been notified. If results of the investigation being conducted lead to dismissal, Fergerson can appeal to the school board.

Fergerson is a member of the county education association and therefore the Tennessee Education Association.

"In general, if members request legal representation, it's available as a member benefit, among many others," TEA spokesman Alex Smirnov said Tuesday. "Tennessee law provides simple due process to test the truthfulness of allegations which have been made. Such procedures should be protected, as they are the only way to get to the truth."

Dukes called School Board member Donnie Moses and others on the board about the suspension. Moses recalled his call was on Feb. 4.

"I don't know all the details," Moses said. "If what is alleged is correct, I don't see that she would be an employee of the school system again. I don't know the facts, but that would be my position."

Asked about her special education duties, Moses replied, "My understanding is that it was not gifted, probably physically challenged or something of that nature."

Rob Johnson, a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, confirmed for WSMV that it is "investigating the teacher and several reports she used some sort of device on students," the TV station said. "The DCS investigation could take several weeks. If it finds something criminal, DCS will likely turn the case over to the Marshall County Sheriff's Department."

Sheriff Norman Dalton and Lewisburg Police Chief Chuck Forbis had not been notified as of Monday and Tuesday.

"I'm aware of it, but it has not been reported to us," Forbis said. Dalton said he believes jurisdiction is with the police department.

School Board member Barbara Kennedy had not heard a name associated with the allegation but she was notified by a phone call from Dukes that there had been an incident at the high school.

"The board isn't going to do anything at this time as this falls within the scope of Mr. Dukes' responsibility," Kennedy said. "If the results of the investigation provide cause ... the teacher will be receive a letter of dismissal but will have 30 days to appeal to the board.

"Because it is possible that this matter may come before the board and, '(t)he teacher shall be allowed a full, complete and impartial hearing before the Board,'" Kennedy said, quoting school policy. "I don't expect it will be discussed again unless a hearing is requested."

Fergerson's annual salary has been almost $44,000, according to public records. She got tenure in Marshall County in 2005, and has also taught: in Lawrence County schools during 1989-1999; at Spring Hill High School during 1999-2000; and at Bridgeforth Middle School in Pulaski during 2000-2001. She took time off and applied for work in Marshall County for the 2002-2003 year.

Records show her college grades were high and no report of reprimand was found in Marshall County records.