School Board Upholds Teacher Suspension For Neglect of Duty and Insubordination and Increases the Penalty

April 14, 2012
by: 
Dwayne Page
Bradley Hendrix (Older Photo)

A physical education teacher at Smithville Elementary School, who has already served a one day suspension without pay for "neglect of duty" and "insubordination", has been suspended for two additional days by the Board of Education.

During a special meeting Friday night, the board voted 5 to 0 to sustain the one day suspension of Bradley Hendrix which was imposed by Director of Schools Mark Willoughby and later upheld on appeal by Hearing Officer Robert G. Wheeler, Jr. But taking the position that the one day suspension was not enough, the board then voted 4 to 1 to suspend Hendrix for two more days without pay, making his total suspension three days.

Hendrix has twenty days to appeal the board's decision to the Chancery Court.

The board left the decision on when the suspension should become effective to Director of Schools Mark Willoughby, who later said he would place Hendrix on suspension Monday and Tuesday, April 16 & 17.

Director Willoughby suspended Hendrix for one day several weeks ago for "neglect of duty" and "insubordination" after Hendrix left early from a student field trip in Murfreesboro last December without getting the permission of his supervisor, Principal Dr. Bill Tanner. Hendrix appealed Willoughby's decision and Wheeler, the hearing officer took up the matter on February 27. A month later Wheeler issued a written report on his "Finding of Facts and Conclusions of Law" upholding Director Willoughby's suspension. Hendrix then filed an appeal with the Board of Education, which was the reason for Friday night's special meeting.

The trip for which Hendrix was suspended occurred on December 9, 2011 when the elementary school rewarded certain pre-k through second graders for their efforts in a fundraising project by arranging a field trip to Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Murfreesboro. There were approximately five or six employees/chaperones on the trip that consisted of a teacher, an assistant, and a bookkeeper from Smithville Elementary. Taking the students on this trip was considered a work day, not a personal day for those teachers who accompanied the students. Mr. Hendrix left early from Chuck E. Cheese to return to DeKalb County for a middle school basketball game in which his daughter was playing. He had not ridden the bus to Murfreesboro and was leaving early in his own car to attend the game. In his report, hearing officer Wheeler wrote that "he (Hendrix) did not specifically ask permission of the assistant principal nor Principal Dr. Tanner to go to Murfreesboro by himself or to leave early".

According to Wheeler's report, "When Dr. Tanner later spoke to Hendrix about leaving the field trip early, Hendrix apologized for doing so. It was Dr. Tanner's opinion that Hendrix put those other teachers in jeopardy that day by leaving without permission."

Dr. Tanner had testified that, in addition to the Murfreesboro field trip incident, there had been other previous occasions when Hendrix would leave school duties early without permission. In his report, Wheeler wrote that " He (Tanner) had testified that on several previous occasions, Hendrix would come to him and ask for permission to leave early for various reasons, some of which pertained to his ailing father, and some of which was due to Hendrix building or remodeling a house. It came to the point that Dr. Tanner instructed Hendrix to come and ask him directly if he needed to leave, that he was not simply to leave word with a secretary or a bookkeeper when he was going to leave during the workday. Dr. Tanner further explained that there had been a problem with people complaining about Hendrix being seen about town during the workday when Tanner did not know Hendrix was away from school."

Wheeler also wrote that an additional issue arose in that Hendrix made an oral request to be allowed to take one-half of a sick day for having left the field trip early, in case he was out of personal days. The problem with that request, according to Wheeler, "is that Hendrix was not sick that day. Thus, the evidence of "cutting corners" with rules and mandates is emphasized".

During Friday night's hearing, Knoxville attorney Chris McCarty, saying he represents Director Willoughby and the board's interests, asked the school board to sustain the suspension of Hendrix. "Two years before this happened (Murfreesboro Field Trip) Mr. Tanner went over with Mr. Hendrix orally about leaving the campus (saying) a teacher will not leave the campus unless it is with the principal's direct permission. This was not based on just one event. This was based on a repeated failure of Mr. Hendrix to follow these rules. That's why Mr. Tanner had the original meeting with him two years ago which Mr. Hendrix admits to. When Mr. Hendrix was brought in and asked about it (Murfreesboro Field Trip), it was also found out that he didn't even take half of a personal day. He asked if he could take a sick day. He cuts corners on trying to take a sick day when he admits that he wasn't sick and he cut the corners repeatedly by trying to leave campus and leaving campus without permission. This is not one incident. This is the straw that broke the camel's back. For that reason we are asking that the board sustain the decision of Mr. Willoughby," said McCarty.

Hendrix, who appeared before the school board without his attorney Friday night, admitted that he should have sought permission before leaving early from the field trip. However, Hendrix added that in his twelve years as a school teacher, he has never before been suspended and that he is the only teacher to ever have been suspended by Director Willoughby. Hendrix indicated that he has been treated differently than other teachers who have done similar things and that his troubles with Willoughby began after he was elected to the county commission.

Hendrix was among those county commissioners who helped defeat a proposed school budget offered by Willoughby and the school board last summer along with a proposal for the purchase of land for a new high school. But, according to Wheeler's report, Willoughby denied this being the real motive for his suspension of Hendrix. According to Wheeler, " Mr Willoughby testified that even though Mr. Hendrix is a county commissioner and had voted against the school's budget and for a land purchase that was proposed for a new high school, he, Mr. Willoughby, did not base his one-day suspension on Mr. Hendrix's position; but rather, on the facts that Mr. Hendrix ignored a prior directive, and that Mr. Willoughby felt that it was neglectful of Mr. Hendrix' duty to leave the activity early".

Before the vote Friday night, Seventh District School Board member Johnny Lattimore said he felt Director Willoughby's one day suspension was justified, but not enough. "Its my opinion that Mr. Hendrix still doesn't believe that what he done was a severe offense. The suspension was, in my opinion, to get his attention that you don't need to do things like this anymore. It wasn't, in my opinion, about the money. It was to get his attention that this can't go on. You can't continue like this. Its time to take an about face, turn around, and start following the rules. I don't think a one day suspension is sufficient in my opinion. I think he needs something else to get his attention that you will follow the rules. I have employees, Mr. Evins has employees, and if you don't follow the rules, you don't keep your job very long. I think its to his benefit, as well as the school system, that his attention be gotten right now. My opinion is that I would recommend a greater suspension than one day," said Lattimore.

First District member John David Foutch agreed with Lattimore and called for three day suspension of Hendrix. "I don't think the suspension is stiff enough. You (Hendrix) have been cautioned time and again and you've ignored those cautions. If I had an employee who had done me that way, I would have warned him and warned him and then I would have suspended him. The next time I would have fired him. You are to directly report to that gentleman (Dr. Tanner) and you did not report to him. You should have reported to that gentleman. You knew that and he had cautioned you about that time and again. That was your responsibility to that gentleman and your responsibility to our children and to your children. The only thing that keeps me from recommending that this board fire you is because your child is over there (elementary school) and I believe you, as a parent, love your child enough that you would not purposely have put your child in any kind of danger. I don't believe that's a question at all. But I do believe that you have abused the system and it's just as this man (McCarty) said. This is a straw that broke the camel's back. You don't stand any more leniency than our students do in our school system. Whenever they misbehave a three day suspension is what they get a lot of the time. I would recommend that you get that three day suspension because I don't believe that you stand above our students. I believe you should be setting an example for those students. Sir, if you can't do that, then you don't need to be part of this school system. I think you need to take this as a very serious warning and a serious matter. You have a great responsibility upon you where our children are concerned. They are the most precious that we have and you need to take that seriously. Your leaving the school system and leaving those children there is not a very good thing at all and I think its something that really has to be looked at very closely. I hope this never has to come up before this board again," said Foutch.

Hendrix, in response to Foutch, insisted that he does take his teaching job seriously and that he is concerned about the children. "I've been teaching here for twelve years. I got my first write up when I became a county commissioner five days later," said Hendrix.

Board Chairman Charles Robinson interjected: "We're not going to go that way with that rebuttal"

Hendrix: "I take teaching very seriously. I take taking care of the kids very seriously. There's not one write up that I signed about me leaving school. He (Dr. Tanner) talked to me one time about leaving school. I made a mistake by not telling my principal that I was leaving to go see my daughter play basketball. The other times that I left school was for a family crisis. All I ever wanted to get from this school system is the same chances that the other teachers around me are getting. You can ask any parent. If their child does not feel safe in my gym or in my presence, I'll quit today. But I guarantee you that you can ask any parent that I've had. I've had Mr. (Dub) Evins' kids. Have you (Evins) ever felt that they were not safe in my presence?"

Dub Evins: "My daughter was intimidated by you if you want to know the answer to that"

Hendrix: "I didn't ask about intimidation, I said safe"

Evins: "She considers that safe"

Hendrix:"She knew nothing was going to happen to her I guarantee you that. What about your son?"

Evins:"I haven't talked much about it to my son. He don't mention those things. I'm talking about my daughter and I told you how she felt."

Hendrix: "I asked you did she feel safe?"

Evins: "What kind of safe? She felt intimidated to be in your gym."

Hendrix: "Some kids do"

Evins: "She was scared of you. She was afraid of you"

Hendrix:"A lot of kids are afraid"

Evins: "If she's afraid of you then she didn't feel safe"

Hendrix: "I was afraid of a lot of teachers when I was growing up"

During Friday night's hearing, the school board by law had the option to sustain the decision of Willoughby and the hearing officer Wheeler, "send the record back if additional evidence is necessary, revise the penalty, or reverse the decision. Before any findings and decision are sustained or punishment inflicted, a majority of the membership of the board shall concur in sustaining the charges and decision".

Board members voting for upholding the one-day suspension of Hendrix were First District member John David Foutch, Second District member and Board Chairman Charles Robinson, Fifth District Member W.J. (Dub) Evins, III, Sixth District member Doug Stephens, and Seventh District member Johnny Lattimore.

Board members Kenny Rhody and Billy Miller were unable to attend Friday night's meeting.

All members voted to increase the suspension by an additional two days to a total of three days, except for Stephens, who voted "no".

The following is the "Finding of Facts and Conclusions of Law" by Robert G. Wheeler, Jr, Hearing Officer in the case of the DeKalb County School System versus Bradley Hendrix

"This cause came on to be heard on the 27th of February, 2012 at the central office of the DeKalb County Board of Education. After the transcript of the hearing was presented to the Hearing Officer, and after a brief illness, these Finding of Fact and Conclusions of Law are submitted."

"Bradley Hendrix is an elementary P.E. Teacher at Smithville Elementary School and has been for 12 years."

"On December 9, 2011, the school rewarded certain pre-k through second graders for their efforts in a fundraising project by arranging a field trip to Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Murfreesboro. There were approximately 5 or 6 employee/chaperones on a trip that consisted of a teacher, an assistant, and a bookkeeper from Smithville Elementary School. Taking the students on this trip was considered a work day, not a personal day for those teachers who accompanied the students."

"Mr. Hendrix left early from Chuck E. Cheese to return to DeKalb County for a middle school basketball game in which his daughter was playing. He had not ridden the bus to Murfreesboro and was leaving early in his own car to attend the game. He did not specifically ask permission of Ms. (Karen) Knowles, the assistant Principal at Smithville Elementary, nor of Dr. Bill Tanner, the Principal at Smithville Elementary, to go to Murfreesboro by himself or to leave early. Ms. Knowles states unequivocally that Mr. Hendrix did not ask her permission to leave the field trip early. Ms. Knowles testified that the only person who would have been able to give him permission to leave the field trip early would have been Dr. Tanner, the school's Principal. Ms. Knowles did find out from the school's bookkeeper prior to the trip that Mr. Hendrix would be leaving early."

"Dr. Billy Tanner has been the Principal at Smithville Elementary School for seven years. He testified that on several previous occasions Mr. Hendrix would come to him and ask permission to leave early for various reasons, some of which pertained to his ailing father, and some of which was due to Mr. Hendrix building or remodeling a house. It came to the point that Dr. Tanner instructed Mr. Hendrix to come and ask him directly if he needed to leave; that he was not to simply leave word with a secretary or a bookkeeper when he was going to leave during the workday. Dr. Tanner reduced that directive to writing. That written directive was effective from at least the school year 2010-2011. Dr. Tanner further explained that there had been a problem with people complaining about Mr. Hendrix being seen about town during the workday when Dr. Tanner did not know that he was away from school.. Dr. Tanner is of the opinion that there was no misunderstanding with Mr. Hendrix about having to ask for Dr. Tanner's permission to leave school or an assignment early. Dr. Tanner testified that nothing was said to him by Mr. Hendrix about leaving the Chuck E. Cheese field trip early, and Dr. Tanner did not give him permission to do so. Mr. Hendrix did not fill out the appropriate paper work to take a half-day personal leave prior to the field trip in question, and he did not take half of a personal day until Dr. Tanner asked him to do so. Dr. Tanner came to learn that Mr. Hendrix told the bookkeeper that he would be leaving the field trip early. Dr. Tanner, however, did not know of Mr. Hendix' plan to leave early until after the event."

"When Dr. Tanner did speak to Mr. Hendrix about leaving the field trip early, Mr. Hendrix apologized for doing so. Ms. Knowles did not discuss with Dr. Tanner the information that she had that Mr. Hendrix would be driving separately to the field trip. Had he known Mr. Hendrix was going to leave early and that he was not going to be riding the bus with the rest of the chaperones, Dr. Tanner would have sent someone else. It was Dr. Tanner's opinion that Mr. Hendrix put those other teachers in jeopardy that day by leaving without permission. If I had known that he was going to be leaving, I would have sent someone else to cover for him. But I did not know that, I did not know that he wasn't going to ride the bus either."

"Mark Willoughby is the director of schools for DeKalb County. He has been in education for thirty three years. He is in his sixth year as the Director of Schools for DeKalb County. He has known Bradley Hendrix for that period of time. Mr. Willoughby, pursuant to the Tennessee Code, is the person who suspended Mr. Hendrix for one day due to leaving the field trip early, thinking it was an example of neglect of duty and insubordination. In making the decision to suspend Mr. Hendrix for one day, Mr. Willoughby accepted the recommendation of the building Principal, Dr. Tanner. Mr. Willloughby did consider what Dr. Tanner had told him in the past that resulted in Dr Tanner's written directive that Mr. Hendrix was not to leave the school without direct permission from the Principal. Mr. Willoughby testified that in a meeting with Mr. Hendrix and his counsel, Mr. Hendrix said he made a mistake and that he should have asked Dr. Tanner for permission to leave the field trip early. Mr. Willoughby was also at the middle school basketball game that Mr. Hendrix attended. He did contact Dr. Tanner because he knew of the prior admonition to Mr. Hendrix to seek permission of the school's principal before leaving his school duties. Mr. Willoughby testified that even though Mr. Hendrix is a county commissioner and had voted against the school's budget and for a land purchase that was proposed for the new high school, he, Mr. Willoughby, did not base his one-day suspension on Mr. Hendrix's position; but rather, on the facts that Mr. Hendrix ignored a prior directive, and that Mr. Willoughby felt it was neglectful of Mr. Hendrix' duty to leave the activity early."

"Mr. Hendrix testified that he has taught in the DeKalb County School System for twelve years. He has a physical education and wellness degree, a Master's degree in administration, and an EDS in administration. Mr. Hendrix testified that he started to mention to Dr. Tanner that he would leave early on the aforementioned field trip but that as Dr. Tanner passed through the area where Mr. Hendrix was speaking to the bookkeeper, Dr. Tanner told him that he would have to talk to him later. Mr. Hendrix admitted that he never returned to discuss or ask Dr. Tanner's permission to leave the field trip early. He stayed at the field trip until approximately 11:35 a.m., and after attending the basketball game at DeKalb Middle School he dropped by his house on the way back to Smithville Elementary. He returned to the school at approximately 1:20 to 1:25 p.m. He was there when the bus returned and helped unload the students.

The following response was submitted to the following questions:

Q. And since you didn't-and since you have admitted, you know, that you were wrong that you didn't go back to talk to him- but after he talked to you, did you voluntarily take half a personal day.

A. Yes, I did. I had one question for him when I took that personal day is that could I take a sick day instead? Because I didn't know if I had enough personal days. I thought I might be out of personal days.

Mr. Hendrix admitted that Dr. Tanner did go over the contents of Exhibit C (concerning leaving school early) with him personally. That session preceded the field trip to Murfreesboro. He admitted that he never asked Dr. Tanner's nor Ms. Knowles' permission to leave the field trip early. When asked about the request to take a sick day, the question was-

Q. So why would you think that you could geta sick day for time when you are not sick?

A. Well it just covers me. I mean....
Q. But it's not technically correct, is it?
A. Technically, no.

Mr. Hendrix responded in the negative when asked if anybody that was on duty covered for him on the field trip.

Conclusions of law

The Director of Schools, Mark Willoughby, suspended Mr. Hendrix pursuant to the two of the five causes for suspension or dismissal of a tenured teacher in Tennessee as they appear in T.C.A. 49-5-501. The two causes at issue here are neglect of duty and insubordination. They are defined in the statutes as follows:

(8). "Neglect of Duty" means gross or repeated failure to perform duties and responsibilities that reasonably can be expected of one in such capacity or continued unexcused or unnecessary absence from duty

(7) "Insubordination" may consist of:

(A) Refusal or continued failure to obey the school laws of this state, to comply with the rules and regulations of the board or to carry out specific assignments made by the board, the director of schools or the principal, each acting within its own jurisdiction, when the rules, regulations and assignments are reasonable and not discriminatory;

(B) Failure to participate in an in-service training program as set up by the local board of education and approved by the state board of education;

(C). Treason, or any effort to sabotage or overthrow the government of the United States; or

(D). Refusal by the teacher to disclose to the board whether or not the teacher is, or has been, a member of the communist or any other party that advocates the overthrow of the government;

While it is obvious that sub-paragraphs (B), (C), and (D) immediately above are inapplicable to this case, this Hearing Officer is of the opinion that the directive from the principal, Dr. Tanner, to Mr. Hendrix regarding leaving school only with Dr. Tanner's direct permission was specific, reasonable, and non- discriminatory. It is also the opinion of the hearing officer that leaving word with office personnel that he would be leaving early from the field trip did not meet the requirements of the directive that had been presented to Mr. Hendrix and that he acknowledged by his signature. The directive was developed because of previous issues that arose as a result of Mr. Hendrix being away from school. Failure to meet the directive yet again does constitute neglect of duty and insubordination as defined above.

An additional issue arose in this matter that has not gone unnoticed- Mr. Hendrix's oral request to be allowed to take one-half of a sick day for having left the field trip early, in case he was out of personal days. The problem with that request is that Mr. Hendrix was not sick that day. Thus, the evidence of "cutting corners" with rules and mandates is emphasized.

This Hearing Officer is of the opinion that under all the facts and circumstances of this case the one-day suspension is reasonable and justified.

It is therefore, ORDERED that the decision of the Director of Schools to suspend Mr. Hendrix for one day is sustained.

T.C.A. 49-5-512 states, in pertinent part as follows:

(c) (1) If the affected teacher desires to appeal from a decision rendered in whole or in part in favor of the school system, the teacher shall first exhaust the administrative remedy of appealing the decision to the board of education within ten working days of the hearing officer's delivery of the written findings of fact, conclusions, and decision to the affected employee.

(2) Upon written notice of appeal, the director of schools shall prepare a copy of the proceedings, transcript, documentary and other evidence presented and transmit the copy to the board within twenty working days of receipt of notice of appeal

(3). The board shall hear the appeal on the record and no new evidence shall be introduced. The affected employee may appear in person or by counsel and argue why the decision should be modified or reversed. The board may sustain the decision, send the record back if additional evidence is necessary, revise the penalty or reverse the decision. Before any findings and decision are sustained or punishment inflicted, a majority of the membership of the board shall concur in sustaining the charges and decision. The board shall render its decision on the appeal within ten working days after the conclusion of the hearing.

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