Order lifted, school board meets

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 7, 2003

The Dallas County School Board met Monday to consider terminating the contract of a teacher who has filed a $45 million lawsuit against officials in the school system.

A temporary restraining order to halt the meeting had been issued Friday by Circuit Court Judge Marvin Wiggins. But Dallas County schools attorneys filed an emergency appeal with the Alabama Circuit Court of Appeals and got that order lifted, allowing the hearing to take place as scheduled.

The lawsuit was filed Dec. 3 by Barbara J. Barge, Kathryn M. Crosby, Henrietta Jones and a minor at Southside High School. Barge and Crosby are teachers at Southside. Jones is a counselor at the school.

The suit alleges that Southside Vice Principal John Harris homosexually assaulted an unnamed student at the school.

The suit names Harris; Dallas County Schools Superintendent Wayne May; Dallas County assistant superintendants Don Willingham and Freeman Waller; Gary Crum, principal at Southside; and Ollis Grayson, a member of the Dallas County Board of Education, as defendants.

The hearing Monday was called to consider a motion by May to terminate Barge’s contract on charges of immorality. She is currently suspended without pay.

As evidence, attorneys for the school board introduced a tape recording made secretly by a student at Southside, which purports to show Barge using graphic sexual language with the student and making derogatory statements about current and former school employees, including Harris.

George Jones III and J.L. Chestnut Jr., attorneys for Barge, sought to have the hearing Monday either continued for seven days or dismissed outright on several grounds. They argued that since board member Grayson is named in the Dec. 3 lawsuit he should recuse himself from being part of the hearing to dismiss Barge.

Grayson refused to recuse himself.

Jones and Chestnut also argued that their client was not allowed to subpoena witnesses on her behalf or to depose opposing witnesses, noting that the superintendent’s office was closed from Dec. 23 until Monday.

Because the hearing Monday was considered an administrative hearing with quasi-judicial powers, Jones and Chestnut further argued that it should be chaired by an administrative hearing officer to rule on admission of evidence and other points of law, saying that board chairman Roy Edwards, who is not a lawyer, was unqualified to do so.

They also questioned the authenticity of the tape, saying they had not been allowed to have the original examined.

“The sole evidence to be presented here is a tape made, as I understand it, by some student,” Chestnut told board members. “My client has a right to have her expert examine that tape.”

Chestnut also argued that even if the tape were proved to be authentic, it represented constitutionally protected speech.

John Pilcher, an attorney for the county schools system, dismissed those arguments as “a red herring,” saying the attorneys for the defense did not want the board to hear the tapes.

To that, Chestnut shot back, “Whether we like it or not, we’re in a fishbowl here. There is deep public interest in this case. The public wants to know why we’re in such a rush to get her and not to get the object of that tape. She has a right to make sure the tape is authentic before Mister Pilcher presents it to you.”

The board initially denied the motion for a continuance without taking a roll call vote. But when Jones later insisted on a roll call vote, board member Mark Story, seconded by Grayson, made a motion that the hearing be allowed to go forward. Story, Grayson, Edwards and Cecil Williamson voted for the motion. Only board member William Minor voted against the motion.

That vote brought an outburst from audience member Faya Rose Toure, who loudly questioned why Barge was on trial and Harris was not.

“Where is the justice for the children who were allegedly abused by that man for 10 years,” Toure said, referring to Harris. “If these were some little white children, do you not think they would have that man here?”

Following a short recess, the hearing resumed. Much of the testimony revolved around the contents of the tape, which was made by a 12th grade student at Southside.

May testified that he was “shocked” by the language on the tape. “It was totally crude, gross and full of suggestive, lewd acts,” May said. “It was totally disgusting that a teacher would use that language.”

Jones responded, “I would submit, gentlemen, that there is no nice way to ask somebody about child molestation.”

Jones and Chestnut argued that Barge did not resort to the language on the tape “in any prurient sense,” but merely to determine whether the student had been molested.

“I’d like to know how one of y’all would discuss homosexual assault,” Chestnut told the board. “How do you clean that up? How do you put that, as Mister Pilcher put it, ‘in professional language’?”

After hearing testimony from several other witnesses, the hearing was recessed until Thursday.