JOPLIN, Mo. —
After hearing nearly 10 hours of testimony from more than a dozen witnesses and accepting more than 45 exhibits into evidence, members of the Joplin Board of Education voted to move behind closed doors Thursday night to decide whether Randy Turner, a communication arts teacher at East Middle School, will continue to teach.
Termination charges against Turner include allegations that he engaged in immoral conduct, that he intentionally violated district policies and that he made available to middle school students material that contained inappropriate sexual content.
Turner was placed on leave — a standard procedure — after the school district received a complaint about him from a district employee on April 4, according to Superintendent C.J. Huff. After an investigation into the complaint by the administration, a 28-page “statement of charges” was given to Turner on April 15, and a set of additional charges was delivered to him earlier this month.
The school district’s human resources director, Tina Smith, on Thursday said she interviewed students in Turner’s classes and inferred that he might be “grooming” his students, a reference to behavior often exhibited by child predators.
Turner was accused of tagging by name proportionally more girls than boys on his Facebook page by Klista Rader, director of information technology for the district. She said that “stood out as odd.”
Turner would later testify that he had never tagged anyone on his Facebook page.
Huff testified that he would be more at peace knowing there were no “victims” of Turner’s out there. Holding back tears, Huff said that as the parent of a 13-year-old girl, he could not put his head on a pillow at night “and not bring these charges before the Board of Education.”
No parents or students testified against Turner in terms of his moral character or his ability to teach. The parents and students who did testify said he was an outstanding teacher capabIe of lighting a fire in students who had not shown an interest in writing.
One parent said she wished she had more information about a permission slip she signed to let Turner publish student writings in a recently released book, “Scars from the Tornado.”
The hearing, which began at 9 a.m. and concluded at 9 p.m., started with excerpts from a book — “No Child Left Alive” — that Turner said he wrote as a satire about the distressing state of public education in this country. The excerpts, read by administration attorney Shellie Guin, included graphic, but not explicit, references to sex.
Turner said he used the sexual content to reflect what really is happening in the schools. He said some of the scenes were inspired by experiences of teachers.
Turner said the book was written for adults and was never intended to be read by middle school children. He said he inadvertently posted on a blog — Room 210 Discussion — that the book was either available for purchase or could be downloaded for free. The blog at one time was used for classroom purposes by students, but it had not been used in more than two years.
District officials said posting the notice on the blog made it available to students. Whether any student read the book was irrelevant, school administrators said; the act of making it available was the problem.
The district also accused Turner of posting information on his Facebook page and through his Twitter account that the book was available. The district said Turner’s Facebook page and Twitter account are followed by students.
In all, the district said, Turner on 17 different occasions let students know about the existence of the book that he had testified was never intended for children.
The district did not produce any students who said they had read the book.
Parents who had read the book at the instruction of Turner’s attorney told the board that the book was a satire and that many of the themes expressed, such as the lack of classroom discipline and bullying, were genuine issues. The sexual content, they said, was irrelevant to the theme of the book.
The parents said they would not want the book to be read by children.
Turner’s lawyer, Nancy Watkins, of St. Louis, contended that the district itself had permitted middle school students to be exposed to sexual content that was inappropriate. The attorney cited an instance in which a guest speaker at East Middle School recently talked about how his sister was being raped by a baby sitter and that he had permitted himself to be raped to protect her.
One parent said her 12-year-old son did not know anything about rape until he attended that assembly.
Other charges included Turner’s secret taping of a phone conversation with the district’s human resources director after she had told him that such recordings were not permitted by district policy. Turner’s attorney said the district policy cited by human resources director was incorrectly interpreted by the director. The attorney said Missouri law does not prohibit people from secretly recording a conversation to which they are a party.
When Turner aired the recording on YouTube, he did so to defend himself, the attorney said.
If the board chooses to terminate Turner’s contract, it must reveal the vote to do that within 72 hours of the decision.
ABOUT 40 STUDENTS AND PARENTS turned out at the Joplin School District administration building before the hearing on Thursday. Most of those attended the hearing and stayed throughout the day.