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School board member under fire for urging parent to go to media after school fight


School board member under fire for urging parent to go to media after school fight

By AMBER STEWART

A video of a middle school student hitting another that was shared with a Nashville TV station has raised questions about student discipline and privacy.

Two weeks ago, a student threw a punch in the Heritage Middle School lunch room.

By Monday, Feb. 22, a video of the incident, taped by the victim’s friend, was on WKRN and the incident was being discussed on 99.7 WTN.

Before media got involved, Williamson County School Board member Susan Curlee could be found on Facebook, taking an “anti-bullying” stance on the situation by encouraging the mother of the victim fight to appeal to the school board.

On Facebook comments, she encouraged community members to contact news outlets in regard to the incident at Heritage. She said to contact news stations “2, 4, 5, 17 & write editorial for the Homepage, Herald, & Tennessean. Our kids need to be SAFE! This isn’t the only case I’ve heard of & far worse has happened.”

She stated repeatedly that “this isn’t the only case.” She also asked if the mother of the child who was punched in the video “considered filing assault charges.”

Some school board members are suggesting Curlee’s involvement in the issue, even if it only extends to encouragement, was inappropriate. Her connection could also be in violation of the school board’s ethics policy, which states “one will support full administrative authority as well as responsibility for the Superintendent to properly discharge all professional duties.”

In an email to fellow school board members, board member Jay Galbreath wrote:

“We are called to be ambassadors for our school system, and yet you seem to be focused on finding every flaw that exists or is perceived to exist in our school system and of our Superintendent. There is no effort to undermine your rights. You are free to say and do what you please, and you have exercised that right to the detriment of this board and our school system.”

And in response to a constituent email, board member PJ Mezera wrote:

“I know we cannot bar her from attending public meetings, but I believe we can omit her from receiving privileged information. I will ask our Chairman and Superintendent to do just that on all future communications to the Board. She cannot be trusted with sensitive information.”

No disciplinary action has been taken so far against Curlee or any other school board member in regards to this matter. However, Curlee has previously been suspended from committee service for discussing board business and criticizing the superintendent through the media.

After it became apparent the news of the student fight was going to become public, WCS Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney sent an email to board members, saying:

“I need to make you aware of an incident that typically would not get on your radar, but Mrs. Curlee has advised a parent via Facebook to go to the media and to the Board rather than referring her to administration in accordance with the Code of Ethics and Policy.”

The email also included references to confidential student information and stated the email could not be shared with media because it is protected by federal law.

Michael DelGiornio, of 99.7 WTN, discussed some of this confidential information on his show.

“I have the video, which is frankly all I need. I have the superintendent’s email that substantiates what the video shows, and the facts behind it. It tells me everything but the discipline that was received.”

There is currently no evidence available linking any school board member to the leaked video and student information. However, after these details were addressed on air, Curlee wrote several emails in her defense.

She explained Looney was trying to shift attention away from the fight. In an email, she stated:

“In a public interview this morning, the mother of a child involved in a recent incident clearly stated she contacted the media prior to making a Facebook post early this morning. The statements and accusations made by Dr. Looney were false, malicious, inappropriate and clearly an attempt to redirect attention from an issue that requires the attention of this board — that issue being the safety of children and teachers in the district. Dr. Looney’s redirect to place blame is intentional, highly political in nature, and needs to stop.

“This is nothing new and appears to be a pattern inconsistent with board policies. I’ve repeatedly addressed these concerns to both our chairmen and legal counsel.”

The mother of the victim said in the interview, “the media contacted me. I did not call them, they called me.”

Later, Dr. Looney wrote to the board that the leak made the district, “very vulnerable should this matter result in litigation.”

Carol Birdsong, Williamson County Schools communications director, issued the following statement on behalf of the district:

“There has been discussion in the community about an incident that happened at Heritage Middle School last week. Due to federal laws protecting student privacy, the school district is limited about the information that we can share. Because children are involved, the public will never know the whole story.

“Here is what we can share:

“A confidential email from Dr. Looney to School Board members was inappropriately shared with the public. The email contained some detail of the incident. In this incident, as with all others involving children, school administration investigated and administered student discipline. As with all physical altercations, law enforcement was also notified.

“We will continue to discipline all students appropriately, but we cannot give public detail each time a discipline event occurs at one of our schools.”

Dr. Looney commented on Saturday morning there is “parental indication” the mother of the student who threw the punch – who also had water thrown on his pants and confidential educational details leaked to the public – will pursue legal action against the district.

When asked to comment further, Curlee referred the Home Page back to her emails.

Amber Stewart reports for Home Page Media Group. Reach her at amber@homepagemediagroup.com.

About The Author

Kelly Gilfillan is the owner-publisher of Home Page Media Group which has been publishing hyperlocal news since 2009.

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