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Manchester attorney Eric J. Burch speaks on behalf of his clients, Amy Dodson and Sarah Harwell, at the school board meeting Monday, June 17. Dodson and Harwell were officially dismissed from Tullahoma City Schools following the discovery that they used false information to allow special needs children to attend the Tullahoma City Schools Special Education Preschool program.

Two veteran Tullahoma City Schools teachers were officially dismissed from their positions on Monday night for failing to “follow the chain of command and model integrity through honesty and transparency.”

According to a news release from the school system, “two instances have been discovered in which nonresidents used Tullahoma addresses to gain access to the TCS SPED Preschool Program.”

While the board recently changed district policy in order to allow the children of all district employees to attend school in Tullahoma without tuition fees, the instances occurred before the policy change took place.

 

Charges against

According to the school system, Amy Dodson, a longtime special education preschool teacher, “provided instruction and support” to someone living outside the city limits in order for their child to attend the special education preschool program in Tullahoma for the last two years.

East Lincoln Elementary School teacher Sarah Harwell was also found to have used a false address in order for her son to be in the program.

According to the charges against Dodson, she instructed a fellow TCS teacher who lives in Lynchburg, Ashley Davis, to use her mother’s Tullahoma address in order for her son to be admitted into the preschool program.

“Dodson’s actions represent a gross failure to perform duties and responsibilities that reasonably can be expected of one in such capacity,” the charges read. “Dodson was dishonest with TCS in the performances of her duties and responsibilities.”

Harwell, a resident of Manchester, provided the address of an East Lincoln coworker in order for her son to “qualify for enrollment in the Pre-K Program,” the document reads.

While Harwell did self-report the incident last month, she allegedly “was not forthcoming on how she obtained the Tullahoma address and would not divulge whose address it was,” according to the release.

A check of tax records performed by the district discovered the address belonged to Harwell’s coworker. That coworker told the district she had not consented to Harwell using her address.

Dodson did not self-report, according to the district. Instead, her interference with a student’s individual education plan [IEP] was discovered “when preparation was being made for the student to transition to the TCS kindergarten.”

“In both instances the chain of command was not followed,” the district said. “A request to participate in the TCS SPED preschool program should have been made to Dr. Tammy Hatfield, then-Director of Special Education and to then-Director of Schools Dan Lawson. This process did not happen.

“In both instances, actions were taken by veteran employees to disregard and circumvent established protocols and procedures. These employees failed to inform or request consent from the Director of Special Education or the Director of Schools and failed to follow the chain of command.”

 

Comments from counsel

As with any school board meeting, the public had the chance to share their thoughts on the matter of the dismissal. Several people, including the lawyer representing both teachers, spoke on their behalf, calling the move to have them fired and their licenses revoked “unfathomable.”

Attorney Eric Burch, of Manchester, claimed the actions taken against his clients were “counterproductive” to the mission of TCS, which includes being a place where “all children can learn - all children.”

“We believe this is targeting the special education programming at Tullahoma because it’s expensive to run,” Burch said.

Dodson’s actions, Burch said, were only meant to benefit a child with special needs who would receive the benefits of the system’s “exemplary” education, and firing her was detrimental to the special education program.

“Mr. Carver says ‘This is going to cost us $40,000 to educate this child,’” Burch said, referencing Director of Schools John Carver. “That’s discriminatory.”

Further, Burch said, “there were multiple people who were well aware that Amber Davis [sic] didn’t live in Tullahoma. The principal knew. Multiple superiors to Amy Dodson knew that this child didn’t live in Tullahoma.”

Burch continued, saying Harwell was only guilty of “wanting her son to get the best possible education.”

“You’re really opening yourself up to a ton of exposure here,” Burch cautioned the district.

He added that neither teacher “really wants to work here” under Carver, given Carver’s treatment of the women, but he recommended the board only give them a written reprimand for what they’d done.

“Why would we take these two ladies’ teaching licenses? That’s crazy,” he said. “These are two wonderful educators that should have been an asset for the Tullahoma City Schools for decades. They are part of the reason that Tullahoma is, for this area, the beacon of educational systems.”

 

What happens next?

According to charges for dismissal documents, both instances will be reported to the Tennessee Board of Education for further disciplinary action, which includes the revocation of both women’s Tennessee teaching licenses.

According to School Board Counsel Clifton Miller, the district is obligated to report the dismissals to the TBOE, and state law mandates that tenured teachers who are dismissed are also subject to having their licenses revoked.

A supplemental news release from the district says “Tennessee law requires that a director of schools report to the state board any licensed educators who have been suspended or dismissed ‘following allegations of conduct…which, if substantiated, would warrant consideration for license suspension or revocation under state board of education rule.’

“Any proceedings to take action against a teacher’s license is initiated, processed and decided by the State Board of Education.”

If Carver did not report the dismissals, the release says, he would be “subject to public reprimand by the state board.”

But this isn’t the end for Dodson and Harwell.

According to the Tennessee Department of Education, “a tenured teacher who is dismissed or suspended by action of the board … may petition for a writ of certiorari from the chancery court where the teacher is employed.”

Dodson and Harwell, through their attorney, have 30 days from the Monday decision to file that petition in the Chancery Court of Coffee County, according to TDOE.

If they file the appeal, that filing “shall suspend the order of the board pending a decision by the chancellor.” Neither teacher is allowed to return to their teaching jobs, however, until the final decision is reached in Chancery Court. 

If the court finds in favor of the school district, the teachers would then have the opportunity to use the appellate court system of the state, TDOE says.

When asked what the next steps for the women were, their attorney responded, “We intend to pursue all legal options against the Tullahoma City School system. They have not heard the last of Mrs. Harwell and Mrs. Dodson, I assure you.”

A copy of the press release from the school district and the charges of dismissal against Dodson and Harwell can be found below.

Erin McCullough may be reached by email at emccullough@tullahomanews.com.