Articles Posted in Teachers

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It’s that time of year again, when sadly, many good teachers start to worry whether their principal or school administrator will issue them a non-renewal letter regarding their teaching contract. This can often happen if the teacher has been previously placed on a Professional Development Plan, or “PDP.”

One of the biggest way principals or school districts lay the groundwork in order to try and fire a tenured teacher is by putting them on a PDP early on in the school year. Laying the “paper trail” even when the accusations against the teachers are not legitimate, is the most effective legal strategy that school districts use to try and ensure that future adverse employment action against the teacher is deemed legal and fair.

One administrator estimates that 50% of the teachers placed on a Professional Development Plan (“PDP”) are successful in completing it. School administrators know this ‘game’ when they place the teacher on a PDP. Oftentimes the end purpose is not to improve the teacher’s performance, but rather simply to have legal justification for firing the tenured teacher down the road. To do this successfully, some teachers end up being set up for failure by being placed in a no-win situation.

If you are a tenured teacher who has been placed on a PDP, it is vital that you immediately seek competent, legal counsel in order to begin to fight the one-sided paper trail that will be used to justify non-renewal of your teaching contract from day one.

It is also important to educate yourself on your legal rights as a Georgia teacher. For example, if a school board terminates, suspends, or demotes a teacher in the middle of a contract year, the teacher has a right to be represented by counsel during a hearing – even if the teacher is not tenured (O.C.G.A. 20-2-940). If a school board attempts to non-renew a tenured teacher’s contract, the teacher again has a right to a non-renewal hearing. (O.C.G.A. 20-2-942).

Good Georgia Lawyer has written about the rights of teachers relating to employment termination and contract non renewal which we recommend you read here and here.

The important thing is to act sooner rather than later if you are a teacher facing a potential adverse employment action. All too often, human beings procrastinate rather than dealing with the scary things in life that we don’t want to have to face such as the loss of a job in this difficult economy. As a result, clients are oftentimes calling us after the fact rather then early on when it is much easier to help them.

Don’t end up in a case of too little, too late. The sooner an attorney is on your side, the better the chance your employment as a teacher in a challenging work environment will have a successful outcome.
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A family in Gwinnett County are very upset when their 13-year-old child was suspended after voluntarily turning in a pocket knife he had found in his school bag. After complaining, school officials agreed to decrease the number of days he was suspended and rethink the suspension policy.

The young child found the pen knife in the backyard that his aunt had bought second hand at a yard sale and given him as a Christmas gift. As soon as he found the knife, he immediately turned it into his teacher.

Even though it was obviously not the young man’s fault, common sense did not follow and the school foolishly gave the boy a four day in school suspension for violating the school policy on weapons.

Since then, though, school officials have now reduced the boy’s suspension to two days and claim they will “rethink” the policy. Says the boy’s father: “He is a very good child. We’ve never had a discipline problem with him; he is in Boy Scouts, he is very good natured.” Additionally, he told his son, “Jack, you did the right thing. What else could you have done?”

Severe and automatic punishments evolved from the ‘zero-tolerance’ movement which started in the eighties in keeping with the federal anti-weapons and drug policies. But as the AJC reports: over the years, Georgia students have been suspended under zero tolerance “for kissing a girl on the forehead, wearing a studded belt, bringing a French teacher a gift-wrapped bottle of wine and carrying a Tweety Bird wallet with a chain on it.”

In 2009, a similar incident happened when a middle school student accidentally brought a fishing knife to school and ended up being expelled, arrested, convicted of a felony and sent to an alternative program even though he voluntarily gave up the knife to the principal.

This is an example of the type of absurd, common-sense lacking decisions that sometimes occur among school districts as experienced by some of Good Georgia Lawyer’s clients. Fortunately, in response to the 2009 incident, state Senator Emanuel Jones, a Democrat from Decatur, sponsored legislation that required a hearing before taking a student into custody and prohibits charging a student as a designated felon unless the weapon is used in an assault or it is a gun. This bill was signed into law in spring of 2010 by the Governor.

If your son or daughter becomes a victim of this type of common senseless injustice, it can be very helpful to contact an attorney right away to protect your child’s legal rights. Georgia law provides that if there is the potential of a suspension longer than ten days, then O.C.G.A. § 20-2-753 requires a disciplinary hearing where the requirements of O.C.G.A. §20-2-754 are met including providing written notice, entitling the student to be represented by legal counsel and to present evidence.

In this instance, if the period of discipline is shorter than ten days, an attorney is still helpful to protect your child’s rights in these types of extreme instances. If other issues are involved–such as violations of Georgia bullying law or federal disability laws–there can be even greater need to obtain legal counsel.
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teacherstudent.JPGWilliams Oinonen LLC is happy to report recent success in representing a Georgia educator with decades of experience who had her contract non-renewed with the Fulton County School District. To add insult to injury, the school district denied her employment benefits putting this divorced mother at risk of losing her home and not being able to provide for her young children right before the Christmas holiday.

Williams Oinonen LLC generally bills clients in all employment matters but in this case, we accepted this matter on a pro bono basis as this successful educator had been a loyal client of ours in the past and was in an emergency situation in need of urgent help. It was the least we could do to help a dedicated and committed educator who had served the Georgia public schools for so many years.

We are happy to say that we were able to win our client’s appeal and she was awarded back pay and her unemployment benefits just in time for Christmas. We were humbled to receive from her the following email which she gave permission to share:

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teacherteacher.JPGHere is one letter that Williams Oinonen LLC recently received from a satisfied client who walked out of our office with a very fat check after hiring us to handle her case. This client was a school teacher who lost everything and was severely injured due to someone’s negligence. While we can’t tell you the Defendant’s name or the amount of money they had to pay her to compensate her for these injuries due to a confidentiality agreement, we can share with you what she states in her own words about us:

“Hi, my name is Nicole and I retained services from Williams Oinonen LLC. This was my first time hiring a lawyer so naturally I was very skeptical. But, my experience with Williams Oinonen LLC has been a fantastic experience. When I first sought out a lawyer, I emailed countless of law firms and most law firms didn’t even respond to my email. One law firm responded and told me I didn’t have a strong case. Williams Oinonen LLC is the ONLY law firm that even considered taking my unique case.

Ms. Oinonen took my case because she truly cares about her clients. After speaking to her for the first time, I trusted her because she was very knowledgeable about my situation and she was very compassionate, therefore I hired her (plus no one else offered to take my case!)

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emory.jpgWilliams Oinonen LLC partner Julie Oinonen was recently appointed as a Fellow at the Emory University School of Law Center for Advocacy and Dispute Resolution.

Previously, Ms. Oinonen has been a Dean’s Teaching Fellow and Post Doctoral Fellow for Emory University School of Law. She is also admitted into the prestigious Order of Emory Advocates, in addition to being awarded the Kathleen Kessler-Eidson Trial Advocacy Award and International Academy of Trial Lawyers Award by Emory University School of Law. Ms. Oinonen has a Masters of Education and Masters of Business Administration graduating Magna Cum Laude. She completed her undergraduate education at Covenant College, a Christian college located on Lookout Mountain, Georgia.

Ms. Oinonen now joins her partner, Mr. Mario Bernard Williams, who is also a Fellow at the Center. Prior to Mr. William’s career as an attorney at Williams Oinonen LLC, he worked in the field of International Human Rights throughout South America. Mr. Williams graduated with honors from Morehouse with a degree in Political Science and has extensive experience with opponent research, policy analysis and political consulting. Additionally, Mr. Williams and Ms. Oinonen have had much success working on opponent research campaigns for elected officials throughout Georgia.

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teacherteacher.JPGToday a Barrow County judge ruled against a former teacher who alleged that she lost her job due to a posting on Facebook.

Ashley Payne resigned from her job as a teacher at Apalachee High School in the Fall of 2009 after an individual who stated they were a parent sent a complaint about postings Ms. Payne had made on Facebook showing her drinking alcohol and stating that she was headed to a game of “Crazy Bitch Bingo” at an Atlanta restaurant. Ms. Payne claims she was under pressure to resign however the school district disputes this claiming she volunteered.

Ms. Payne is now graduate student at UGA and filed suit asking the court for a determination stating she was entitled to a due process hearing. It is unfortunate that Ms. Payne did not ask for a due process hearing, speak to her union advisor, or consult an attorney prior to resigning.

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footballs.JPGDear Dr. John Barge:

Our law firm urges you to submit a DOE proposed rule pursuant to O.C.G.A. §50-13-4(b) that protects our young Georgia student athletes from further injury and death due to heat related illnesses as a result of sports practice in high temperatures during the most dangerous months of the summer. As you know, just last week, two Georgia high school students have died from heat exposure during football practice – two deaths that should have been completely treatable and avoidable. These deaths are two too many.

Consequently, we ask that you take action by issuing State DOE recommendations to local county school districts, in addition to submitting a proposed rule concerning school sports safety before another student’s life is put at risk.

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This is the second part of our article concerning the rights of Georgia public school teachers relating to termination, non-renewal of contracts, demotions, reprimands and the like.

You As A Contracted Public School Employee, Teacher Or Principal Are Entitled To Proper Service:

All notices relating to suspension from duty must be served to the employee either personally, or by statutory overnight delivery, or by certified mail. Service is considered “perfected” when it is deposited in the United States mail, sent with sufficient postage stamps, and delivered to the last known address of the employee.

You Have A Right To An Attorney Present:

Any teacher, principal, or other public school district contract employee against whom such charges are brought shall be entitled to be represented by counsel and, if upon request, can also subpoena witnesses and production of documents.

The Requirements Of The Hearing:

(1) The hearing is conducted in front of the local school board, or they can designate a tribunal made up of between three to five impartial people who have expertise in academics. This tribunal will then submit findings and recommendations to the local school board who will make the final decision.

(2) The hearing will be transcribed and the board is responsible to pay for that expense. The transcript does not need to be typed unless the decision is appealed to the State Board of Education which in that event whomever is making the appeal must pay.

(3) An oath must be taken by all witnesses during the hearing to tell the truth.

(4) All questions relating to legal matters such as admissibility of evidence is decided by the chairperson or presiding officer and can be appealed. In all hearings, the burden of proof shall be on the school system, and it shall have the right to present the opening and closing.

Decision And Appeals:

The local board must make a decision at the hearing or within five days of the hearing. If a tribunal hears the matter they must offer their recommendations within five days and then the school board has ten days to make their final decision. Appeals can be taken to the state board of education.

If you are a teacher or principal who finds yourself in this situation, don’t go it alone. Remember, you are entitled to have an attorney represent you at the hearing.
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teacherstudent.JPGThe Official Code of Georgia §§ 20-2-940, et seq., governs the demotion,

dismissal, and suspension of professional, certificated school district employees in Georgia. This law also governs the termination and suspension of school district employees who have a contract for a definite term. The law applies equally to all employees who have contracts with the school district, but does not apply to at-will employees without contracts.

Termination or suspension can only be based only on the eight grounds listed in