Pubdate: Thu, 09 Aug 2012
Source: Anniston Star (AL)
Copyright: 2012 Consolidated Publishing
Author: Laura Johnson


Some Cleburne County parents are calling on their local school board 
to release a recently hired third-grade teacher who has a misdemeanor 
drug offense on his record.

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.
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