MCHS charge appears unlikely

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

As the county school board ratified a student disciplinary panel Monday, city police report a high school teacher's fate is in the hands of a state prosecutor.

However, the Lewisburg Police detective who investigated allegations about a Marshall County High School teacher has explained some of his findings as he awaits a state crime lab report.

"The information I have is that it did not put out any current," Detective Scott Braden said Tuesday about a homemade electrical device that led to unpaid suspension for MCHS special education teacher Rebecca Fergerson.

There was "nothing dangerous or hazardous at the school," Braden said.

"Allegations of inappropriate conduct with students and (alleged) assault on students in the classroom," were reported to the state Education Department's Teacher Licensing Office by Schools Director Roy Dukes in late January.

And so, as the director took steps this winter to respond to complaints, members of the school board have accepted Duke's recommendation of members for a panel to hear student disciplinary cases.

Maintenance of student discipline is through actions by the Disciplinary Hearing Authority panel which is appointed for 12 months every spring even though the panel may not have anything to do.

However, the teacher's behavior became the subject of an investigation by the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, according to a news report by WSMV TV which quoted a DCS spokesman as saying the investigation could take several weeks.

"We're pretty much done with it," Lewisburg Police Chief Chuck Forbis said on Tuesday of his department's investigation and report. "It just needs to be reviewed by Eddie Barnard," the assistant district attorney who this week has been prosecuting another case in Circuit Court.

Prosecutors would review the police report "to determine whether it warrants any criminal prosecution," Forbis said.

WSMV reported on Feb. 17 that "a homemade device, described as one made with a nine-volt battery and wires, could be to blame" for some unexplained incident at MCHS. "That kind of device, if rigged properly, could be used to deliver a low-grade shock," the TV station said.

As Braden said Tuesday that his information indicated there was no electrical current from the device, he explained, "It's more of a frequency signal; nothing that you would feel."

To him, the situation was more to the "issue of whether it's something that should have been going on in school."

Braden was "still waiting on the lab report" from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the detective said while waiting in court Tuesday morning.

At the school board's March meeting Monday night, the director presented his list of members for the Disciplinary Hearing Authority.

If Fergerson concludes that she has been treated unfairly since she was placed on unpaid administrative leave, then she may avail herself of due process procedures that are in place for teachers.

The Disciplinary Hearing Authority for students consists of nine school administrators (of which two are alternates) and two members of the public. The panel's composition was approved by a 9-0 vote.

A Disciplinary Hearing Authority panel is appointed for 12 months every spring, but may not have to do anything.

"We may have had three hearings in the eight years I've been here," said Dukes' assistant Rhonda Poole. "We hope we don't have any."

According to Marshall County school system's policy, a DHA "will conduct hearings for students who have been suspended/expelled/remanded for more than 10 school days."

Each hearing is to be conducted by at least three members of the DHA, and a decision must be made on each student's case "no later than 10 days after the beginning of the suspension/expulsion."

Either the student or a school administrator may then request a review by the school board, which may review the record or grant a hearing. That hearing will be closed to the public unless the student's parent or guardian requests otherwise within five days of receiving the notice.

The policy notes that "zero-tolerance" offenses, such as firearms, drug possession, or battery upon a school employee, require a calendar year expulsion or assignment to alternative school, and can only be modified by the director.

The principals on the DHA are Dean Delk, Bob Edens, Randy Hubbell, Sherry Park, Judy Rickman, and Keith Stacy, along with Forrest School's interim principal Danny Morgan. Alternates are Bonnie Reese and Deborah Wade. The members of the public, who Dukes said had done a good job on the panel in previous years, are local Realtor Billy Lanier and Betsye Ledford, owner of Ledford Employee Exchange.

Forrest's former principal, Dr. Larry Miller, is now the interim assistant director of schools, taking the place of Ken Lee while Lee is deployed with the National Guard.