Interim school chief Harrington refuses recommendation to fire teacher
by Laura Johnson
lbjohnson@annistonstar.com
Aug 10, 2012 | 7837 views |  0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
HEFLIN — Parents at a Cleburne school board meeting Thursday learned that an elementary school teacher who had pleaded guilty to a drug charge in 2007, while working for a different system, will be retained.

The Cleburne County Board of Education had recommended to interim superintendent Mary Harrington that she place Frederick Berry on administrative leave immediately. It further recommended that the third-grade teacher’s contract be terminated at the next board meeting.

Harrington said she would consider the recommendation, but after consulting with a board attorney in private at the meeting, announced she would not act upon the board’s recommendation at the Thursday meeting. The decision, Harrington said, means Berry will be employed by the school system when classes begin later this month.

Attempts to reach Berry this week have been unsuccessful.

“We are in agreement and we have made a recommendation,” said board member Hope Lee. “It is unfortunate that it seems like everybody doesn’t feel way.”

Lee said before a standing-room-only crowd that the board had hoped to assure parents that Berry, who had been hired in July, wouldn’t be teaching at Cleburne County Elementary School this fall. Berry pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge in August 2007. He was sentenced to a $50 fine and a suspended jail sentence.

Board members have said they did not know at the time he was hired that Berry had a criminal history.

“As a board member I would hope that type of information would be disclosed to us before we voted. It would certainly have changed the way that I had voted,” Lee said.

Some in the crowd Thursday supported Berry by challenging those who opposed his employment.

The issue erupted at board meetings this week when vocal parents appeared at school board meetings to protest Berry’s hiring. Parents said they learned only recently of Berry’s conviction, and added that they’re not comfortable with him teaching their third grade-students.

“If my son gets this teacher, he won’t be at the first day of school,” said Jeff Perry, whose son will be a third-grade student at Cleburne County Elementary School. “I’ll pull my son out and I’ll homeschool him.”

Tension was high at the meeting, erupting more than once into shouts and accusations. Heflin police usually do not attend the meetings, but at least three officers were asked to attend Thursday’s meeting.

The meeting included two executive sessions. During one session, parents who were on the agenda to speak to the board publicly were called in one by one to address the school board behind closed doors.

Parents said later they have zero tolerance for teachers with a drug record.

“We have an excellent school system, we just want to keep it that way.” said Elliot Hudgins, who said she spoke to the board in executive session and has a third-grade student in the elementary school.

Star staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter@LJohnson_Star.
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