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Suspension: Too much or just right?

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Matt Mock's lawyer Michael Clemons argues that his client's one-semester suspension was excessive for such pranks as coating doorknobs with hand lotion and moving other teachers' cars. JOHN BUTWELL / The Wilson Post
Board Attorney Mike Jennings urges the county school board to affirm the one-semester suspension without pay that a special hearing officer imposed on teacher Matt Mock for pulling pranks. JOHN BUTWELL / The Wilson Post
Matt Mock, flanked by his lawyer and wife, listens to arguments before the county school board about whether his one-semester suspension for pulling pranks should be reduced to five days. JOHN BUTWELL / The Wilson Post

Board must decide if teacher's penalty fits offense, reassigned to MJ Middle

Tenured Wilson County teacher Matt Mock played pranks during a teacher work day last spring at Tuckers Crossroads School (TXR), his lawyer Michael Clemons admitted to the Wilson County School Board Monday night.

However, Mock's one-semester suspension without pay was excessive for his actions, Clemons contended to the board, which postponed making a decision until its next regular meeting on Jan. 4. Earlier this week, it was announced that Mock has been reassigned for the Spring semester at Mt. Juliet Middle School.

Board Attorney Mike Jennings defended the suspension as appropriate considering Mock's actions and noted that Hearing Officer Robert Wheeler imposed the suspension after listening to three days of evidence - urging the board not to be swayed by Clemons making points that Jennings called irrelevant to whether Mock's punishment is fair.

Mock appeals ruling

Following a hearing, Wheeler imposed the suspension Oct. 23 after Mock appealed his July 6 termination by the school board on charges including insubordination, neglect of duty, harassment and intimidation of a minority teacher in violation of her civil rights, and conduct unbecoming a teacher.

Wheeler ruled that except for the unbecoming conduct charge, the allegations against Mock were unproven and termination was excessive, reinstating Mock and imposing the suspension instead - which Mock then appealed to the school board Monday night at a special-called meeting.

Clemons said his client is not saying he wasn't guilty of some of the pranks - he's saying that the consequences were much worse than are fair and reasonable given the lack of seriousness of the offenses, which included putting hand lotion on classroom doorknobs and moving two teachers' cars.

A five-day suspension like was given to another teacher in the school system for being charged with DUI would be more appropriate, Clemons asserted. But Jennings called that argument an attempt to divert the board from considering what Mock himself had done by shifting the focus onto another teacher's actions.

'Juvenile conduct'

Jennings also downplayed Clemons' arguments that Mock's a good teacher who tutors his students and goes the extra mile to serve them, saying "that's what a teacher's supposed to do" - but the issue is that he behaved like a teacher shouldn't.

There was no argument about what Mock had done and that it really was conduct unbecoming a teacher, Jennings continued. Specifically, Wheeler ruled that Mock's conduct was "clearly juvenile and conduct unbecoming a teacher with 14 years of experience."

"Teachers have the right to be treated as professionals," Jennings said, "and the duty to act like professionals."

Mock's behavior had wide-ranging consequences, Jennings also asserted. Not only did it cause Mock trouble, it disturbed his fellow teachers and caused two other employees at TXR not to be rehired.

'Transfer requested'

His actions also led the African American teacher who allegedly was harassed to request that she be transferred to a different school because of upsetting messages she received after Mock's dismissal, Jennings said.

But Clemons told the board members that they need to know that Mock did not post any of the Facebook comments about the minority teacher, and he also pointed out that Mock didn't force the employees who weren't rehired to pull any pranks - they acted on their own.

Clemons also claimed that the appropriate grievance procedure was not followed in his client's case and that the allegations weren't investigated thoroughly, leading to a false claim that the minority teacher was harassed for racial reasons.

Although Jennings said it doesn't matter how the pranks came to the Central Office's attention to be investigated, Clemons pointed out that then-principal Susie Breedwell was the appropriate person to have dealt with any complaints from the victims of the pranks that May 28. However, she was not contacted by the victims at all.

'Who investigated?'

Clemons said another teacher at the school, Melanie Mundy, instead texted Anna Raines, who at the time was assistant principal at Lebanon High School but is now TXR principal - and Raines then contacted the Central Office and talked with Deputy Director of Schools Mickey Hall.

Jennings said that following that contact, Mary Ann Sparks - the schools' human resources director - took charge. But Clemons said that Raines and Mundy, who was later named assistant principal at TXR, began collecting statements from the teachers at Tuckers Crossroads.

Specifically, Clemons said, "Melanie Mundy contacted the (minority) teacher and asked her for a statement which Mundy then sent to Anna Raines."

However, he added, no person who at the time was an administrator at TXR or the Central Office spoke to the minority teacher or asked her about what happened before the case was presented to the school board at its July 6 meeting.

'Never intimidated'

When she testified at the hearing before Wheeler, Clemons said, the minority teacher said she had never been afraid of Mock, nor had he threatened or intimidated her.

At the conclusion of Monday night's special-called meeting, Zone 3 Board Member Don Weathers said he had not had time to review all the relevant materials and moved to postpone the decision of the board, which has 10 working days to rule on Mock's appeal.

Jennings calculated that excluding weekends and holidays, the board has until Jan. 7, but it meets next in regular session on Jan. 4. Zone 1 Board Member Wayne McNeese then seconded Weathers' motion, which passed unanimously, so the members can all study the transcript of the hearing before making their decision.

McNeese also said he had some concerns about the case, and that if he had known that it was not a discrimination issue, "I just may have voted differently" on terminating Mock last July.

"Why would we not go to the victim to ask what happened?" he asked, and finally pointed out that Mock should not be held responsible for what other teachers did.

Writer Connie Esh may be contacted at cewrites@yahoo.com.

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#wceducation, fired, Matt Mock, Mike Jennings, Mt. Juliet Middle School, pranks, tenure, Tuckers Crossroads, Wilson County School Board, Wilson County Schools
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