CLEVELAND, Tenn. — A suspended Bradley County teacher got a chance this week to argue that she lost her job over an imaginary incident and a bungled investigation.
Susan Elliott, a veteran fourth-grade teacher at Hopewell Elementary, was suspended in July after a man she was dating told police she beat him with a baseball bat. She was arrested on a charge of aggravated domestic assault, but the man recanted his story the next day and the charges were dismissed.
School Director Johnny McDaniel suspended her based on the arrest, and commissioned an investigation into Elliott's performance at school. He charged Elliott with unprofessional conduct, neglect of duty and unfitness to teach, and the school board voted in October to fire her if the charges proved true.
Elliott challenged the firing attempt at a due-process hearing Wednesday and Thursday at the Bradley County Schools central office. Witnesses testified under oath and a court reporter recorded the proceedings.
Elliott's Tennessee Education Association attorney, Virginia McCoy, said the school board's actions are "a little bit like Sharia law ... morally constraining teachers based on conduct, not how they do their job."
McDaniel insisted that the Cleveland Police Department officer who initially arrested Elliott stood by his actions. He said teachers are expected to conduct themselves according to the highest standards.
"We want to know we have the right people in front of our children every day, people we have full trust in," McDaniel said.
A parade of witnesses testified for both sides.
Sheena Newman, elementary education supervisor for Bradley County Schools, conducted the investigation into Elliott's school performance.
"We are not contending she was not a good teacher previously -- we were seeing a decline and we were working with her. There was not a plan to remove her," Newman said.
School board attorney Chris McCarty led the witnesses through their testimony. Some said Elliott appeared to be suffering from depression after going through two divorces, and that she took medicine that made her drowsy and unable to pay attention.
The teachers said they'd heard complaints from parents and students about Elliott, from failing to work with the other fourth-grade teachers or complete lesson plans to using her laptop to shop online during class, smoking in the classroom and posting answer keys on the board for students to use.
But McCoy challenged the allegations, pointing out that no complaining parent was identified by name, and no date or time was attached to any of the complaints of misbehavior. She led Elliott through a refutation or explanation of many allegations.
McCoy also pointed out that the investigation was in October, when Elliott was suspended. The teacher was never given a chance to respond to the allegations or put on a performance plan, McCoy pointed out.
She went through Elliott's performance evaluations by Newman and Principal Tim Riggs -- uniformly high -- and brought in parent after parent who one by one described Elliott as a "wonderful" teacher.
Elliott has suggested that the whole case against her is part of a larger custody fight with one of her ex-husbands, who gained control of their two children after the arrest.
The impartial hearing officer over the case, attorney Dale Conder Jr., of Jackson, Tenn., said he will release his decision March 15.
Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...