The Opelika City Schools Board of Education agreed Monday to pay $320,000 to settle a lawsuit with former Jeter Primary School Special Education Teacher Meagan Norris, who said she was terminated in retaliation for advocating for one of her special education students.
The board, in a public statement, said it has "determined that its employees behaved appropriately at all times."
The board statement continued: "Settling a case is always a difficult decision, but the board, on advice of its attorneys, agreed it was better to settle now rather than expend more time and money on complex and uncertain litigation. Our district and districts across the country are facing extraordinary challenges and we have made this choice so that we can continue our focus on the needs of the students and families in Opelika.”
The board of education said the termination was a result of performance-related issues and not a retaliation, as Norris had alleged.
In November 2017, according to a memorandum opinion and order from U.S. District Judge R. Austin Huffaker Jr., Norris observed that Physical Education teacher Deborah Bailey segregated one of Norris’ students during class with the use of a taped barrier, and that the student’s individualized educational program required that he or she be mainstreamed with general education students during P.E.
“Norris voiced her opposition to this practice to Principal [David] Carpenter on November 2, 2017,” the court memorandum read. “According to Norris, she told Carpenter ‘this cannot happen,’ ‘it’s segregation, it’s hurtful, at the end of the day, forget the legal side of it, it’s just mean.’ Carpenter disputes that this conversation ever occurred, although he acknowledged having a conversation with Bailey about the inappropriate use of the tape barrier in early November.”
The judge's memorandum stated the tape barrier was removed the following day but was reintroduced the next Monday and stayed through the end of the semester and into the spring semester. The student’s father met with Norris in March 2018 to complain about the ongoing segregation of the student, the memo said.
After a family member of the student videotaped the meeting with Norris in which she said she had repeatedly brought up her complaints about the taped barrier to the principal, the family filed a request for a due process hearing with the state department of education on the grounds that their child had been denied educational services. Norris attended a pre-resolution meeting regarding the family’s concerns in April, according to the court memorandum.
While the hearing was ongoing, Physical Education teachers Bailey, who knew the family had met with Norris, and Leann Scroggins told the principal they saw Norris drop another special education student after holding him by one leg and one arm, the judge's memo said.
“Principal Carpenter spoke with Norris’s two assigned paraprofessionals, [Tracie] Dunn and [Brandie] Allen, neither of whom confirmed the incident reported by the P.E. teachers,” the court memorandum read. “Two days later after a discussion with Superintendent [Mark] Neighbors, Principal Carpenter reported Norris for child abuse to the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR). Norris was not informed of the allegation before Principal Carpenter filed the report, nor did he give her an opportunity to tell her side of the story.”
In May 2018, the superintendent recommended the board of education not renew Norris’ contract. The investigation by DHR found no indication of child abuse by Norris and closed its investigation in June 2018.
Though Carpenter and others said performance issues were the basis for the decision to not renew Norris’ contract with Opelika City Schools, she had received favorable written performance evaluations during her two years as a teacher at Jeter Primary School, the judge's memorandum stated.