For those of you who tune into this blog for political opinion, I apologize for the following post, but I feel compelled to comment on something happening in my local school district.
Randy Turner is a teacher assigned to Joplin East Middle School. Until recently he taught English to eighth graders, and judging by the accounts I have read from current and former students, he was good at it. He was once a finalist for the district’s Teacher of the Year Award. Turner is also a local blogger (The Turner Report), does some writing for The Huffington Post, and has authored several books.
The 57-year-old middle school teacher is now on administrative leave, having been escorted from school premises by a police officer on April 8—a mere six weeks before the end of the school year.
The charges against him, as related by Mr. Turner himself, can be found here. For the sake of brevity, I will condense the charges down to the two essential ones:
1) That he directed his middle-school students to a book he wrote, No Child Left Alive, which the district claims contained “sexually explicit and violent passages,” and that he promoted “obscene material” in the book “to 12, 13, and 14-year-old children through his blog for his middle school communication arts class.”
2) That he “marketed for personal gain” another book he wrote, Scars from the Tornado, that incorporated “stories, essays, and comments” from his eighth grade students about Joplin’s horrific storm experience, and that Turner allegedly “instructed” his students to contribute to the book.
Mr. Turner offers his public (and to me, plausible) defense against these charges on his blog and I will leave interested readers to draw their own conclusions, but there are a couple of things that bother me about the actions the school district has taken.
Before I offer my criticisms of the district’s actions against Turner, I want to make a couple of things clear. Randy Turner is not a fan of mine. I used to read the Turner Report now and then and even linked to it for a while, but he didn’t seem to appreciate my writing or my efforts on this blog, particularly when it was connected to the Joplin Globe, so I sort of wandered away from what he was doing.
But I have appreciated his criticism of our education system and the attempts to reform it, and I endorse many of his views. (His recent piece for HuffPo—“A Warning to Young People: Don’t Become a Teacher”—was outstanding, if depressing—my youngest son wants to become a teacher.)
So, nothing I say is because Randy Turner is a friend of mine or an admirer. I don’t know him and have never met him.
That having been said, there is something fishy about what has happened to him. First, he has taught in this school district for ten years and has been honored for his efforts. No matter what one thinks of the charges against him, or his defense, any fair-minded person reading the essentials of those charges can easily see that the matter wasn’t so urgent that it could not have waited until the end of the school year, which was just six weeks away when a cop walked him out of the building—in view of the kids who were still at school at the time.
Second, if Randy Turner is known for anything outside of Joplin, it is for his general criticism of so-called education reform and the problems those reforms have caused and continue to cause for the classroom teacher. My daughter teaches high school English and I have heard her express nearly the exact criticisms of today’s classroom experience that Turner has offered, including his criticisms of what he called “overambitious administrators.”
My suspicions are that the hasty and apparently excessive actions taken against him have less to do with some naughty words in a novel than with silencing a contrarian, someone who is not afraid to speak up about what teachers actually experience in the classroom.
Third, I’m especially bothered by the actions of the district’s superintendent, the much-praised C. J. Huff, who has become something of a local hero for the way he handled the devastation the tornado did to several of our schools, including my son’s high school. Huff, who deserved commendation for many of his actions after the tornado passed through (I thanked him in person myself), has enjoyed very positive publicity in our local paper.
But something I read in the Joplin Globe (amazingly, the story appeared two weeks after the teacher was placed on administrative leave) about the Turner case really bothers me. The paper reports that Huff said a “district employee” complained about Turner on April 4 and he was removed from the classroom four days later. Then the Globe reports:
After an investigation into the complaint by the administration, a 28-page “statement of charges” was given to Turner on Thursday, Huff said.
That would have been on or about April 25. The Globe continued:
Huff said the investigation included “a review of any and all evidence” related to the complaint as well as interviews with people who might have had relevant information. Speaking in general terms, he said the people who were interviewed could have included district employees, students or parents.
Now, a fair interpretation of Huff’s statement, that the investigation included “a review of any and all evidence,” would lead one to believe that Turner himself was given the opportunity to substantially contribute to the investigation, to contribute “relevant information.” Yet, that didn’t happen.
Turner posted on YouTube the actual audio of an interview that the district’s human resources director did on the day Turner was removed from the school. The part of the interview in which she asked him questions lasted about four minutes. Four minutes. Turner said he was never questioned again, so those four minutes constituted his involvement in the so-called investigation.
I remind you that the subsequent charges against him were listed in 28 pages. And I remind you that the so-called investigation began somewhere around April 4 and concluded somewhere around April 25. Thus, there were more or less three weeks to interview Turner and get more information before the charges were filed against him. But he got four minutes.
The Globe reported that Superintendent Huff said,
Under the school district’s due-process procedure, Turner can request a hearing in front of the Board of Education, at which time he would be allowed to “state his case,” Huff said. The board would review any evidence against him and then determine whether to continue his contract, Huff said. If a hearing is not requested, the board still would meet to consider whether to continue the contract, he said.
Now, that’s a funny way to do an investigation, isn’t it? You do an initial four-minute interview with a well-respected employee who has been accused of something, spend a couple more weeks talking to others and looking at websites and reading his books, then you never go back and talk to the accused again? Wasn’t there some other questions that the investigators might have had regarding something they discovered?
Or was the whole thing a done deal before Turner ever had a chance to speak on April 8?
Based on my extensive experience as a union representative, as one who has sat in on many “investigative” interviews of employees accused of wrongdoing, I can pretty much guarantee you that the district had determined before April 8 that Turner was guilty of some district policy infraction (there are many policies, of course, that one can trip over), and that the only reason for the “investigation” was to gather evidence to “convict” him before the Board of Education.
Again, based on my experience dealing with these kinds of matters, Mr. Turner, like many of the employees I represented, was already guilty in the eyes of management before he was asked the first question. The questions were designed not to obtain facts or shed light on known facts, but to build a case against him. Thus, there was no need to talk to him and have him further explain his side of the story as the phony investigation proceeded.
It’s true enough he will get his chance to “state his case” before the Board, as Superintendent Huff said. That hearing will happen on May 9.* But think about the odds against Turner. You have the school district’s superhero superintendent, and all the school district’s resources, stacked against a teacher who got four minutes—during an interrogation ambush and without any union representation—to contribute his side of the story, and obviously after conclusions were already drawn.
I don’t like his chances.
But there are, as the Globe reported, some local students and parents trying to help him. A site offering a petition to the school board to “Allow Randy Turner To Continue Teaching” has now reached 229 supporters. And a Facebook page has been created that now has 570 “likes.”
As for Turner’s state of mind at this time, he says:
I don’t want to let people know that I am worried to death about losing a job I love and worried that the steps that have been taken against me could end up marking the end of my teaching career.Though I feel like a young man, let’s face it- I’m 57 and I have a pacemaker. Schools aren’t going to be lining up to add me to their faculties.
I had been a bit concerned when I have heard that parents had planned to pull their students out of school May 9 to attend the hearing. Now that won’t be necessary, since the last day of school is Tuesday, May 21.On a sad note, this pretty much guarantees, barring some sensible intervention in this matter, that I have already spent my last day with this year’s eighth graders.