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Students, teacher dispute Candler superintendent's comments
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Candler County Superintendent Tom Bigwood
    Students and a teacher from Metter High School dispute the Candler County school superintendent's comments last week that a student protest was brief and that students were "in class on time."
    Dr. Tom Bigwood told the Statesboro Herald Friday that a walk-out in protest of a Candler County Board of Education decision to not renew Metter High School Principal Michelle Cliett's contract only lasted a short time. However, Metter teacher Felicia Odum, as well as students Sallie Holloway and Drew Hartley said Bigwood did not accurately portray the incident.
    From their accounts, the walk-out lasted almost an hour, involved 350 students and most students left afterward and did not  attend classes.
    "We did not count them absent for the day," said Felicia Odum, who teaches art and drama and is the school's yearbook advisor. "The school was like a ghost town."
    In an e-mail to a Statesboro Herald reporter, Hartley, a junior, wrote: ' "I was one of the students that help put together the walk-out at Metter High School. Everything that Bigwood said to you is wrong."
    He said students planned the protest. "The morning of the protest the students that drove to school parked on the side of the road and (on) someone else's property that we got permission to park on the night before. "
    The other students got off the bus and out of cars and came to the flag pole in front of the school, he said. Odum confirmed that students exited the buses and "walked down the hall and out the front door. They  took their books and everything with them."
     Odum said the protest was in response to the school board's decision not to renew Cliett's contract. Neither Cliett, Bigwood or school board member Ronnie Sikes were available for comment Monday.
    About 200 people were waiting on the lawn outside the school board office Thursday while board members were in executive session. About 50 were students, she said.
    During the meeting, three students "gave emotional speeches" in support of Cliett.
     Students had gotten wind of the school board's intent because apparently Cliett had been informed her contract would not be renewed, and she was asked to submit a letter of resignation, Odum said.
    Cliett told teachers at Metter High School, and  the story leaked to students, who were upset because "they love Ms. Cliett," she said.
Board releases statement
    According to a statement released  Monday by the Candler County School board through attorney Marc Bruce,  the reason for Cliett's dismissal was not provided.
    "Dr. Bigwood has recommended, and the Board has approved, a change of principals for Metter High School for next school year. Mrs. Michelle Cliett will continue to serve as principal for the remainder of the 2007-2008 school year," the statement read.
    "The Board and Dr. Bigwood express their sincere gratitude to Mrs. Cliett for her hard work and dedication while serving as principal of Metter High School," the statement continued." Mrs. Cliett came to Metter High School and established a stable, structured and disciplined environment in which the teachers were better able to instruct and the students were safe. The Board and Dr. Bigwood wish Mrs. Cliett the best in her future endeavors."
    Odum said word around the schools is that the reason for Cliett's dismissal is low test scores.
    "This is a quote. They said she (Cliett) is not on board, that she did not  meet the county's or school's mission statements, and did not raise the Georgia High School Graduation Test or End of Course testing," she said.
    Again, Cliett was not reached for comment Monday. Bigwood did not return phone calls seeking comment Monday.
    Holloway, in the letter to the Statesboro Herald, explained why students formed the protest which Odum said involved about 350 of the high school's 450 students.
    "The point of the protest was to show the board and Dr. Bigwood, the parents, community members and media just how we felt about the situation," Holloway wrote. "As the students, the majority of decisions that board makes often affects us the most; therefore, we wanted to make sure our voice was heard.
    "We feel that the board's decision to terminate Mrs. Cliett was made long before the board meeting ... especially after a very informing and moving speech was made in support of Mrs. Cliett ... Our purpose of the protest was not to anger anyone, not to cause a sudden change of mind in the board, and not to cause trouble. We simply wanted our voice to be heard about the injustice we feel Mrs. Cliett has received and we could only hope that someone would have the wisdom and heart to listen."
The walk-out
    Bigwood was not present at the protest, and while Assistant Superintendent Hezekiah Campbell was at the school during the protest, he did not go outside and did not address students, Odum said.
    Students began gathering around 7:15 a.m. around the flagpole, and in addition to two Savannah television stations, two teachers videotaped the protest, she said.
    Since she is the yearbook advisor, Odum was there as well, she said.
    Metter High School Vice Principal Ralph Carlyle went outside and addressed students, explaining that Cliett was not at school Friday due to family matters and that she called and asked students to go back inside and  that she appreciated their support.
    Holloway also wrote about Carlyle's speech.
    "Every student standing outside protesting became completely silent and listened to everything he had to say," she said. After expressing Cliett's appreciation, he told students "We had very clearly made our point. It was at that time that we decided to respect Mrs. Cliett's wishes ... and go back into the school."
    But only about 50 of the estimated 350 students stayed, Odum said. Most of the ones who stayed were students who did not drive or have a way home.
    She said she, other teachers and students felt Bigwood's comments published in  Saturday's Statesboro Herald were inaccurate. "We want it clarified."
    Holloway wrote "The students of Metter High School do not appreciate the belittling of our attempts to speak out for what we think is right. To us, it was a big ordeal. Perhaps when one wishes  to speak of such an event and give detail, he should be present, especially if he was one of the main persons we felt needed to see what was happening and how dissatisfied we were."
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