There’s no excuse

Published 9:42 am Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Until the past week, it was difficult to imagine a way in which the leadership of Franklin’s city schools, and specifically that of its human resources department, could have screwed up much worse than it already had in recent years with respect to personnel decisions. In fact, the depths of the department’s ineptitude has been so stunning that The Tidewater News flatly called for the firing of department head Gail Wade more than a year ago.

Inexplicably, neither the previous superintendent nor the school board — both of whom we also suggested should hit the road and all of who had plenty of explaining to do for their own bone-headed decisions and general lack of competency — chose to remove Wade from her position.

The bulk of the charges levied against the school system by the state board of education during the last year of enhanced reviews, with respect to human resources and personnel, had to do with having unlicensed and un-credentialed instructors in the classroom teaching outside their endorsement areas. Given the performance struggles of the school system in recent years, allowing unlicensed teachers in the classroom with students who are already behind falls somewhere between professional incompetence and gross stupidity.

To put someone in the classroom a week after being arrested on charges on heroin distribution borders on criminal negligence. Yet that is precisely what the human resources department of Franklin City Public School decided to do on Sept. 29.

On Monday, Sept. 22, Elizabeth Ferguson was indicted on two charges of felony heroin distribution. On Friday, Sept. 26, she was arrested for those charges and at the time of the arrest was suspected to have been in possession of a heroin-like substance. The following Monday she began her employment as a first-grade teacher at S.P. Morton Elementary School. She remained in the classroom until Dec. 5, when the results of a criminal background check came back to the school system.

When initially questioned by The Tidewater News the following Friday, Dec. 12, division superintendent Willie Bell confirmed the hiring, the firing and the results of the background. He would not reveal when Ferguson was hired and was not forthcoming regarding the systems background check policy. Calls to human resources director Gail Wade that same day still have not been returned.

Given the system’s duck-and-cover approach employed in recent years to avoid explanation of poor decisions, it is not surprising that school leadership would be less than transparent regarding such an incident. But it defies logic that a school system would allow a teacher in the classroom for longer than two months before getting the results of a criminal background check.

We believe that an individual is entitled to due process under the law, and is innocent of any charges until proven guilty in a court of law. But an individual accused of charges such as the ones that Ferguson faces has no business in a classroom with children until cleared. A child’s safety and well-being demands nothing less than those having direct contact with them undergoing the highest level of scrutiny possible.

Surely, some will defend the school system by saying it was in compliance with state guidelines, which seems to allow a teacher in the classroom even before the results of a background check are known. But that is a copout. A search of Ferguson’s name in the Virginia Court System website would have shown arrest warrants dating back as far as December 2013. Instead, a suspected heroin dealer was placed in direct contact with a room full of 6 year olds for ten weeks until the results of the background check came back. That is inexcusable, and there must be some accountability.

This episode should result in two immediate changes in the city’s school system. The first is that the schools’ hiring policy should require the results of a background check be known before putting a new teacher in a classroom. The second is that any and all individuals responsible for putting an accused heroin dealer in a classroom with a group of first graders be immediately terminated. Any actions falling short of either will not be acceptable.