At a Cleburne County School board meeting Monday, parents told the board that it has a responsibility to select quality employees to teach children and that, in their view, it had recently failed to do so. One month earlier, the board selected Frederick M. Berry, who had pleaded guilty to second-degree possession of marijuana in August 2007, to serve as a third-grade teacher at Cleburne County Elementary School.
Berry declined to speak to The Star, pending approval from his attorney.
“I do not want a drug offender teaching my child,” said Jody Brown, who has a child entering the third grade at Cleburne County Elementary. “I’m asking you to please rescind this measure.”
Brown wasn’t the only parent at the meeting who is concerned about the board’s decision to hire Berry. The meeting was held in the Cleburne County Middle School library, which was filled with several parents, some of whom also questioned the board for hiring Berry.
Board member Dana Turner told the crowd that he was glad they brought the matter to the board’s attention.
Before they spoke out, Turner said, the board was not fully aware of the “extent” of Berry’s background.
“You have to bring these items to our attention,” Turner said. “We’re not above you. We make mistakes like everybody else.”
The board entered into an hours-long executive session before the close of the meeting. According to Turner, they were discussing the concerns surrounding Berry’s employment.
Two people, Wes Littleton and Stacey Littleton, were invited into the executive discussion, Turner said. He indicated that the board could soon make a decision concerning Berry’s employment. The board’s next scheduled meeting is today.
Cleburne County’s interim superintendent Mary Harrington said she was aware that Berry had been fired from Oxford City Schools, because it was indicated on his application in a portion that asked about his past. But, she said, a misdemeanor offense does not preclude someone from teaching in a public school in Alabama.
“It’s not my job to judge people, but I do realize that a lot of people have been given a lot of chances,” Harrington said.
Teachers must undergo background checks before entering the classroom. Turner said teachers are hired, and then their backgrounds are reviewed by state officials.
“When we hire, we expect the state to come through and give us clear title,” Turner said. “Sometimes we get the cart in front of the horse.”
Harrington said parents’ opposition to Berry’s hiring is racially motivated, even though the parents who questioned the board Monday deny that claim. Parents say they oppose Berry’s selection as a third-grade teacher based solely upon his drug conviction.
Berry and Harrington are two of six Cleburne County School employees who are black. The school system employees more than 300 people, she said.
“We’re talking about Cleburne County. We’re talking about 2012,” said Harrington. “If this young man was any other color we wouldn’t have this.”
Harrington said in keeping with common hiring practices, Berry was selected by the school’s principal. Several candidates were interviewed, she said, and Harrington was deemed to be most fit for the job.
Harrington also said that she knew Berry and his family members before he was selected. She said her prior knowledge of Berry and his family was irrelevant and declined to say how she knew the family.
Harrington is currently being sued by the Cleburne County Republican Party and by Jerry Cash, who is running for school board.
Following Berry’s drug plea in 2007, he was released from a contract with Oxford City Schools, where he worked as a fourth-grade teacher at Coldwater Elementary School. According to an arbitration document, board members released Berry because they considered his actions immoral and because administrators said they thought parents would not want him to teach their children.
Under Alabama law, teachers can be released from their contracts for “incompetency, insubordination, neglect of duty, immorality, failure to perform duties in a satisfactory manner, justifiable decrease in the number of positions or other good and just cause, but cancellation may but not be made for political or personal reasons.”
According to a document from the hearing, the Oxford City School system told Berry that his contract was being terminated because he pleaded guilty to second-degree possession of marijuana. The board wrote to Berry that it considered the behavior immoral, and that on those grounds under title 16-24-8 of the Alabama code, it was terminating his contract.
Berry’s legal punishment for the offense was a $50 fee and a suspended jail sentence.
Based on the arbitration document, Berry contends that though he was arrested for second-degree marijuana possession and pleaded guilty to the charge, the school board’s decision was too severe.
According to the document, Berry’s attorney argued that the board neglected to consider Berry’s “teaching proficiency and his popularity as a fourth-grade teacher at Coldwater Elementary School.” Berry also contended that the board did not take into consideration the circumstances that resulted in his drug charge.
According to the arbitration document, Berry was unaware of the presence of marijuana in his car in 2007 and found the leafy substance inside his vehicle. According to Berry’s statements as recorded in the arbitration document, a passenger in his car placed a small bag of marijuana in the console when officers began to pull the vehicle over. Also according to the document, Berry, for the purpose of giving some money to his son’s mother, had just visited a house that was under surveillance for suspected illegal drug sales when he was pulled over.
The passenger then told Berry that the passenger was on probation and that the passenger would go to jail if police knew the drugs belonged to him. Berry alleges in the document that he said he took ownership of the bag of marijuana to keep his passenger from having to go to jail.
The hearing officer said Berry’s testimony was not credible and sided with the school board.
Star staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter@LJohnson_Star.