Federal judge sides with teacher over Walker County Schools' policies

Jim Barrett

Saying their policies are "facially unconstitutional," a federal judge ruled against Walker County, Ga., education leaders in a lawsuit Monday.

U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy wrote in his order that the school system's administrators violated the First Amendment with the rules they set up about what someone needs to do before speaking at a school board meeting. In particular, Murphy wrote, the school system should not try to prevent residents from criticizing school employees, and the policy should guarantee people get the chance to speak in a timely manner.

Murphy wrote that the Walker County School District should rewrite its policies. Also, the county is on the hook for a payment to Jim Barrett, a social studies teacher at Saddle Ridge Middle School who filed the lawsuit in March 2015.

"The school district is liable for damages," said Barrett's attorney, Gerry Weber. "End of story. The policy is unconstitutional."

It's not yet clear how much money Walker County will owe. Weber said he doesn't yet know what he will ask for. He said the county can settle the case out of court or go before a jury - probably at some point next year.

"The wise thing for the school district to do would be settle at this point," Weber said. "The judge ordered a long, comprehensive order and ruled against them time and time again."

Patrick Ouzts and Randall Farmer, the attorneys representing the school district in this case, did not return calls and emails seeking comment Tuesday. Neither did Damon Raines, superintendent for Walker County Schools.

The lawsuit began when Raines adjusted the school system's grading policies. Under the new policy, students would be able to retake portions of tests in which they were not satisfied with the results.

"If I fail my driver's test," Raines told the Times Free Press last May, "I can do it again. I'm going to reassess [the students] on the 20 percent they missed and give them the opportunity to show me what they know."

Some teachers, Barrett included, were unhappy with the new system. Under the new policy, they said they are only allowed to give students grades on tests - not on homework, not on day-to-day classwork. And those tests, Barrett said, must be about cookie-cutter performance initiatives, giving teachers little leeway on how to shape their students.

Teachers can give homework. And they can give assignments in class. But instead of applying the results of that work to the students' grades, Barrett said the teachers have to rate the performance with a toothless, 1-4 scale. One is bad. Four is good. But none of that score touches a student's final grade.

"It takes all the work ethic out of the education process," Barrett said. "If I can't hold the student accountable for anything outside of the classroom, they don't have to study outside of the classroom."

He added: "It's just a disaster. An absolute disaster. It's nothing less in my opinion than criminal academic neglect."

According to the lawsuit, Barrett tried to meet with Raines in May 2014 and August 2014 about the policy change, which officially took effect this school year. Barrett said Raines "quashed" his attempts to sit down.

Barrett, the president of the Walker County Association of Educators, emailed Raines on Jan. 20, 2015. He asked to speak at the upcoming school board meeting. The next day, Raines offered to meet with Barrett on Jan. 28, 2015.

Barrett gave Raines a list of his concerns about the new grading policy. On Feb. 9, 2015, Raines gave Barrett a written response to all of the issues he had raised. Barrett then asked to go before the school board for its Feb. 17, 2015 meeting.

Barrett said he sent Raines a letter on Feb. 9 asking to go before the board. Raines said he did not receive this request until Feb. 11. Because this request came less than one week before the board meeting, Raines said Barrett could not speak at the board meeting.

Raines later offered to let Barrett speak at the March 10, 2015 meeting. But at that point, Barrett was already in the process of filing a lawsuit.

According to Walker County School District policies, members of the public cannot speak before the board until they first meet with Raines. They tell Raines what their concerns are. Raines then investigates the claims and meets with the concerned residents within 10 days of their first meeting.

If the residents aren't satisfied, they can then file a written request to speak at the school board meeting - assuming they file their request at least one week in advance.

The school district's attorneys argue this creates a more efficient system, given that many issues can be resolved without going before the board. But in his order Monday, Murphy said the policy is unconstitutional because there is no time restriction for when Raines must meet with the concerned residents.

In theory, he could hold them off for months.

Murphy also rules against another school board policy: Residents are not allowed to complain to the school board about school employees. The school district argues that Raines is the one who oversees employees, not the board. So going before the board is pointless. Plus, talking about an employee at a public meeting could violate their privacy.

Murphy, however, said the policy is too widely written. Certainly, there are times when members of the public should be able to speak about school employees at a board meeting.

"The policy, on its face, prohibits all complaints about employees, not just those complaints that would qualify as sensitive personnel matters," Murphy wrote.

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