Julia P. Bryant Elementary School music teacher Thomas Sye has his job back after a hearing that turned the Bulloch County Board of Education chambers into a courtroom for more than four hours Tuesday.
Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson had recommended that Sye, who is in his 29th year as a teacher, including 12 years at JPB Elementary, be fired after administrators at the school alleged that he pulled a kindergarten child by the arm to the school office or, according to one assistant principal, “yanked” the child from a doorway there Jan. 17.
But also according to sworn testimony, including that of a school nurse, the child was not hurt.
As a longtime teacher, Sye was entitled to a fair-dismissal hearing, with the BOE in effect serving as the jury. Andrew Lavoie, an attorney with the Statesboro firm Edenfield, Cox & Bruce, represented the superintendent.
“There was a situation where Mr. Sye took the student from the music class to the (school’s) central office, and at the threshold of the central office the student was resisting going into the office, and there was a motion or an action by Mr. Sye to effectively pull, or maybe even yank, the student through the threshold of the door and into the office,” Lavoie asserted in his opening statement.
The hearing convened at noon. Jeffery L. Arnold, a Hinesville attorney who is also judge of the Long County State Court in Ludowici, served as hearing officer.
Alan Lowe, an attorney from the Savannah firm Lowe & Schoolar, represented Sye. In addition to cross-examining the superintendent and his witnesses, Lowe called several of Sye’s co-workers and parents of students who testified that he is a beloved teacher.
“You just don’t fire a teacher who has performed this long a service for a school when all he was trying to do was to prevent another child from getting beaten up,” Lowe argued. “The incident where he took the student by the arm to the office is not an isolated incident at this school. Unfortunately, this school has had some serious discipline problems this year.”
Wilson first up
The first witness sworn in was Wilson, who noted that the charges in his letter recommending termination were insubordination, willful neglect of duties and “any other good and sufficient cause.”
“I’ve taken the action I deemed appropriate,” Wilson said when Lowe asked if he thought firing Sye was “a bit harsh” in light of his 29 years of service.
“Yes, I recognize that Mr. Sye is a great teacher,” was also part of Wilson’s testimony.
Assistant Principal Stephanie Compton, who has served at JPB Elementary since July 2016, first answered Lavoie’s questions about her responding to call to assist Sye in his classroom with a different student Thursday, Jan. 16, the day before the main incident. Sye had pointed to one student and said he “needed to go” to the office, Compton testified.
The student, Sye told her, had refused to go to timeout in the back of the room.
But the student, who wasn’t being disruptive when Compton arrived, had a behavior intervention plan indicating that the child tries to avoid activities, Compton said. So instead of removing him from the class, she stayed to observe.
Sye didn’t seem happy with this and said, “I guess next time I’ll just put him in timeout myself,” Compton testified.
She said she then told Sye, “We cannot put our hands on students, remember that, only if they’re hurting themselves or someone else, we have to do that.”
That Compton told him this one day and that he did what he did in taking a student to the office the next day was the basis for the administration’s claim that Sye had been insubordinate.
The incident on Friday, Jan. 17, occurred at the end of the school day. According to Sye’s testimony and his attorney’s statements, Sye had the kindergarten students line up to leave the classroom when two boys started fighting. He told them to stop and they did, for a few seconds, Lowe said.
“And then one of the students proceeded to start pommeling the other student, hitting the student with his fist … and at that point Mr. Sye stepped in.” Lowe said. “He felt that he could not stand idly by while one student beat up another student.”
In his closing statement, Lavoie argued that breaking up a fight was one thing but that Sye’s actions in taking the student to the office were another and that a line had been crossed.
A paraprofessional testified that Sye “had him by the hand” and told her he was taking the student to the office. A school secretary referred to the teacher “dragging the student into the office” but also said the child was not crying or screaming and did not seem to be resisting.
Their destination was the office of Assistant Principal Al Dekle, in his first year at JPB after two years at Langston Chapel Elementary School. Dekle alone testified to seeing Sye “yank” the child from the frame of the main office door. Dekle had heard “a commotion” and got up from his desk to see what it was about, he said.
“When I got there I saw one of our students standing in the door, and Mr. Sye had him by the hand, but the young kid was holding the other hand in the door frame, refusing to come in,” Dekle said. “At that point I witnessed Mr. Sye actually yank the kid off of the door, with force.”
But school nurse Shelby Conner, whom Dekle asked immediately afterward to do an evaluation of the student, testified that she found “everything normal” and that the kindergartner had tried to tell her about the conflict with the other student.
“I asked him, ‘Are you hurt, and he looked at me, confused, like why am I asking that, and he said, ‘No, I’m not hurt,’” Conner said.
DFCS and video
Compton had also contacted the Department of Family and Children Services. DFCS, she testified, decided not to investigate further.
The Board of Education received into evidence a video, from a security camera, of Sye walking with the student across the main commons area of the school for about six seconds.
Sye, his own last witness, testified that the child pulled against him but did not pull on the door frame. “He stopped moving; I stopped moving,” he said.
“I’m strict. I don’t think I’m harsh, but I’m strict,” he said in answer to a question from his lawyer. “I do have my expectations of the children; I do.”
Usually, teachers call on administrators to take children to the office for discipline, the assistant principals said. But several JPB Elementary School employees testified that other teachers and administrators occasionally have to hold onto students or even literally carry them to the office.
Some parents testified that Sye has been a positive influence and that their children had missed him while he was away from school.
With Arnold allowing a couple of short breaks, the open hearing lasted until about 4:20 p.m., when the board members went into closed session to deliberate. When they returned about 20 minutes later, Chairman Mike Sparks announced that, finding a lack of evidence, members had unanimously decided not to act on the recommendation for dismissal.
So officially, Sye never lost his job. But he had been out of school since a meeting with administrators Jan. 21.
“I’m of course very happy,” Sye said Tuesday evening. “I think that the truth came out in the hearing and that there was certainly no evidence, as the board described, to warrant my being fired.”
He expected to be back at school Wednesday.
“I go back to work tomorrow. I can’t wait to see the kids,” he said.