By MATT BLOIS
Last week, the Williamson County School Board adopted a statement that said it essentially treated the district superintendent like any other teacher when deciding not to suspend or fire him following an assault charge. However, according to court documents, the district has suspended at least one teacher after a parent reported that she physically harmed a student.
The statement said that members of the public contacted board members to ask whether superintendent Mike Looney would receive special treatment. The board said he would not.
One of the people who attended the meeting where the board adopted that statement was Melanie Lemon, a former Walnut Grove Elementary School teacher. Lemon reportedly harmed a student at Walnut Grove Elementary in March of 2017.
Lemon is suing the school district and several administrators for intentional infliction of emotional distress and breach of contract. One of the defendants in that case is Mike Looney. That case is still moving through the Circuit Court for Williamson County.
Lemon was a second grade teacher at Walnut Grove. She is suing Williamson County Schools, Looney and several other administrators, claiming that they bullied her into resigning. Part of her claim stems from the incident that happened in March of 2017 during a school play.
About a month after the play, a parent told the school that on the night of the play she saw Lemon grab a student by the wrists and jerk them downward in a hallway. Lemon’s attorney and the attorney representing the school district both acknowledge this report in the court documents. In her complaint, Lemon denies grabbing the student, but admits that she and other teachers did have to physically redirect him.
In its response to the complaint, the school district included part of the report from that parent. It said Lemon “grab[bed] both wrists of [the student] and jerk[ed] them down by [the student’s] side,” and then “got right in [the student’s] face and said ‘STOP’ several times.”
When the parent reported the incident, the court documents show that an administrator at the school started investigating. Lemon’s complaint said the administrator told Lemon she was being investigated for child abuse. Ultimately, she was suspended.
During the investigation, the mother who reported the incident, and the mother of the student whose wrists Lemon allegedly grabbed, both emailed the school regarding the incident. Both emails said that Lemon’s actions didn’t rise to the level of child abuse, according to Lemon’s complaint.
In a response to the complaint, the school district’s lawyer acknowledged that the mothers did contact the school to say that Lemon did not abuse a child. However, they added that the emails never disputed that Lemon shook a child’s wrists and got in his face.
The response says that Lemon was not suspended because of child abuse. She would have been fired for that. Instead she was suspended because “her admitted physical contact with [the student] was found to be unprofessional and inappropriate.”
Lemon’s complaint indicates that she was suspended from Thursday, April 13 until Friday, April 21. In a court document, Lemon says an administrator told her that Looney was appalled that she would touch a child.
On Feb. 20, Looney was charged with assaulting a student at Franklin High School.
A police affidavit describing the event that led to Looney’s assault charge said that he grabbed a student by the arm and pulled her out of a chair. The police affidavit also said he brought her to his car, stood in between police officers and the student, and was aggressive towards the student’s mother. The document said Looney told the student to stop crying and that he would not have a scene at the school.
The district’s normal process for dealing with accusation like this involves gathering as much information about the incident as possible. Then the human resources department has to determine if keeping the employee at work will result in continued inappropriate action if the allegation is true. It also evaluates if the employee’s presence would interfere with an investigation.
After reviewing video of the alleged assault, every member of the school board voted not to suspend or fire Looney. The school board’s statement on the alleged assault says that Looney “did not act inappropriately and was within the discretion of an administrator.”
The board said that it honored the school district’s usual process for accusations and couldn’t justify asking Looney to leave.
According to the statement, the district can’t release the video due to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. The act prevents the school from releasing personally identified information.
Lemon claimed in her lawsuit there was also a video of the incident that led to her suspension which should have exonerated her. The school district’s responded by saying that it could never locate any video of the incident. The only existing video, from the hallway where the incident occurred, was eventually overwritten.
Lemon filed her lawsuit in June 2017. The case will likely go to a trial at the end of this year. Looney will appear in Williamson County General Sessions Court on March 8 at 1 p.m.