published Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Red Bank teacher's story on student's doctor visit at odds with officials, records

Red Bank High School has been inundated with criticism since news hit that a teacher was forced to resign for taking a student to see a doctor.

The twitterverse exploded: "What is wrong with this world?" "No good deed goes unpunished!!!"

But school officials, along with personnel records, tell another story about how former Red Bank High teacher Jennifer Mitts left the school system.

Mitts was warned before about taking students to the doctor, but she said she thought last month's situation was different. She said she took a 20-year-old student who did not have transportation or insurance to the doctor and paid for her care and prescriptions.

"She's a legal adult. And she asked to go," Mitts said. "I thought this situation was different. They said no, it's not."

Mitts was confronted by school officials on March 14 and wrote a letter of resignation on a piece of legal pad paper. She says they offered her no choice. If she didn't resign, she said, she was told she'd be fired.

"They didn't give me any time to think about it," she said.

The story was picked up by national media outlets and an online petition demanding Mitts' reinstatement had received more than 1,400 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.

"Fire the principal, reprimand the school board, and reinstate her with full back pay and an official apology," one petitioner wrote.

"Teachers should not be punished for going the extra mile. And Ms. Mitts went WAY beyond the extra mile," wrote another.

But Hamilton County Schools administrators say there were years of reprimands and warnings leading up to last month's incident.

Stacy Stewart, assistant superintendent for human resources, said Mitts resigned of her own will.

Officials say there's no reason for teachers to leave school during school hours to take students to the doctor. There are supports such as counselors in place to make sure that such needs are met.

"I can tell you it was not a matter of life and death," Stewart said. "If that were the case an ambulance would have been called."

Mitts' personnel file, a publicly available document, shows several instances of disciplinary action, including:

• An August 2011, five-day suspension without pay for what administrators called insubordination, neglect of duty and unprofessional conduct. That month she got two reprimands, including one for improper handling of proceeds from a group fundraiser. The file states that Mitts deposited money into her personal account. Another reprimand from then-principal Gail Chuy said Mitts had been absent many school days, failed to leave adequate instructions for substitutes and left school on multiple occasions without notifying anyone. "...you must give serious attention to your professional responsibility or face the consequences," she wrote.

• An August 2013 oral reprimand from human resources and warning of future disciplinary actions after a parent submitted a note "in which Ms. Mitts had written suggestions to his daughter regarding how to 'make [the father] feel badly.'"

• A January 31, 2013 written reprimand from Principal Justin Robertson for not showing up to a school open house. In the same month, she was admonished for taking a student to the doctor and warned not to do it again unless she had permission from administrators and parents. "...even though your intentions were good, you put yourself, the school and to some extent the district in jeopardy of all sorts of liability," the file reads.

A note in her file says those collective issues "constitute a pattern of poor decision-making and lack of professional judgment." Mitts denies many of the claims and downplays the importance of the file. Performance evaluations in Mitts' file were mostly positive.

"They like to write down every little single thing you do and put it in your file," Mitts said. "Some administrators just like to build cases against their employees so if they ever give negative evaluations they'll have all this proof."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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