published Saturday, June 14th, 2014

Bradley County ordered to rehire teacher

A judge reversed the Bradley County school board's decision to dismiss a teacher and ordered the district to rehire her and pay the woman retroactive to her 2012 dismissal date.

In an order filed Tuesday, Hamilton County Chancellor W. Frank Brown III said the school board manufactured reasons to dismiss Susan Elliott after she was arrested on a charge of aggravated assault. Even though the charge was dropped, Brown said, the school board was embarrassed by news coverage of Elliott's arrest, so members turned a small problem into a big issue.

"This case can represent several examples of life," the chancellor wrote, "such as the rolling snowball."

Bradley County Schools Director Johnny McDaniel first suspended Elliott from Hopewell Elementary School in July 2012 after Cleveland police arrested her at home on a charge of aggravated domestic assault. Her former boyfriend later recanted his story, and the charge against Elliott was dropped.

About two weeks later, in October 2012, McDaniel told Bradley County Elementary Supervisor Sheena Newman and Hopewell Principal Tim Riggs to interview other teachers at the school about Elliott.

Those teachers complained that Elliott didn't create lesson plans, refused to teach social studies, smoked around the school, shopped online during class and shouted at another teacher in front of parents and students.

The same day as some of those interviews, the school board voted to dismiss Elliott for two reasons: the "unprofessional conduct" of her arrest, and her "incompetence" pointed out by her fellow teachers.

Those were flawed reasons, Brown ruled. A court had already decided Elliott should never have been arrested, the school board didn't give Elliott a chance to defend herself against the other teachers' allegations, and Riggs gave her a positive performance review in May 2012 -- two months before McDaniels suspended her.

"Why did Mr. Riggs give Ms. Elliott such a high performance rating in May 2012 if he had concerns about her?" Brown wrote in his ruling. "Why was she rehired the next year?"

If these teachers actually had problems with Elliott's work, Brown said, they should have told the principal. And if they did that, Riggs should have then met with Elliott and given her an "improvement plan."

But none of that happened. Instead, the teachers complained, and those complaints went straight to the school board. Riggs did that, Brown said, only because of Elliott's arrest.

"If a principal has concern about a teacher's decline in effectiveness, ability to get along with others, etc.," Brown wrote, "then ethics should require that the principal discuss these matters with the teacher and assist in the necessary improvements. None of this occurred."

Brown's order comes more than a year after Jackson, Tenn., attorney Dale Conder Jr. ruled that Elliott lacked credibility in her attempt to appeal her firing. She then brought the case to Chancery Court for a separate ruling.

In his order, Brown suggested that the school district place Elliott in a school other than Hopewell Elementary, given Riggs' and the teachers' testimonies against her.

McDaniel, the Bradley County Schools director, could not be reached for comment, and the school district's office is closed on Fridays during the summer.

Elliott and one of her attorneys, Steve Crump, did not return calls seeking comment Friday evening.

But, on her Facebook page, Elliott wrote: "I could have never made this difficult journey to clear my name without God, family, and friends! Wow!"

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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