A Fort Smith Public School English teacher and drill team coach had her proposed termination reversed following a public hearing in front of the FSPS Board of Education Wednesday (May 12), but she will no longer be allowed to attend on- or off-campus activities in the district.
Carie Harris was given a letter of termination March 18 following a 17-year-old FSPS student drinking at her house at an engagement party March 13. Harris, who has not been charged with any criminal misconduct regarding the incident, hired Fort Smith lawyer Nathan Mendenhall to represent her to fight the termination and remain in her position with the school district.
FSPS attorney Marshall Ney said Harris was terminated because:
• She allowed persons not of legal drinking age, including a district student, to consume alcohol in a teacher’s home;
• She failed to properly care for an FSPS student under her care on or off-campus;
• She failed to properly report the incident to a district student’s parents;
• She failed to promote the health, safety and welfare of district’s students in violation of district policy 3.27, which was the only written inclusion all five members voted true;
• She failed to maintain a professional relationship with each student both in and inside outside of the classroom in violation of Standard 1 in the Code of Ethics for Arkansas Educators;
• The district has lost trust in the teacher; and
• She engaged in conduct which materially interfaces with proper performance of duties.
Ney, acting on behalf of the district, removed the issue of failure to properly care for an FSPS student under her care from the termination cause during the hearing.
“We believe that the recommendation for termination is not supported by evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Ms. Harris,” Mendenhall said in a press release prior to the hearing. “The people of Fort Smith rely on the elected officials sitting on the school board to serve as gatekeepers to ensure the school district and its employees, including the superintendent, exercise proper due diligence when investigating matters brought to the district’s attention and that substantial evidence of wrongdoing be in existence before the school district superintendent recommends termination of a teacher, especially one having two decades of experience without blemish.”
Following the hearing and an executive session where there were “board members who agree and board members who disagree,” not all the five participating board members agreed all the violations were proven. Only one violation received complete agreement. Board president Bill Hanesworth recused himself from the proceedings because he has a relationship with one of the families involved in the incident. Board member Susan McFerran did not attend the hearing.
“The board deliberated and considered your employment Ms. Harris. The allegations that were presented against you the board doesn’t take lightly when it brought to their attention matters involving teacher licensure nor students being in the care or immediate proximity of our staff in situations that were outlined today,” said Board Vice-President Talicia Richardson.
The board agreed to continue Harris’ contract under certain restrictions including: Requiring 20 hours of professional development above the district’s requirements without pay and with topics to include ethics and substance abuse completed within the next three months; prohibiting the teacher’s participation in extracurricular activities up to and including sponsor or co-sponsor responsibilities; prohibiting her attendance at on- or off-campus activities; prohibiting her attendance at district-sanctioned events and activities where students are involved for the remainder of her employment with the district. She also is suspended without pay for three months.
Richardson voted against continuing the contract.
The student in question allegedly had an adverse reaction to alcohol she consumed during the engagement party and perhaps other substances. She was taken to the emergency room later in the night, where she stayed for four hours for treatment. The student said she texted her sister to have her tell her father that she was at the ER. Witnesses testified that while the student was at the house and was drinking, Harris did not know that the student was drinking at her house.
“It is our hope that after hearing all the evidence that the School Board will kindly reject the school district superintendent’s recommendation to terminate Ms. Harris so that she may return to her teaching and drill team instructor duties as soon as possible,” Mendenhall said.
FSPS conducted a “cursory investigation that relied primarily on hearsay and did not meet the standard of just and reasonable cause as defined by the Arkansas Fair Teacher Dismissal Act,” Mendenhall said. The investigation included an interview with the student; her mother, who has a history of animosity against Harris because Harris dated her ex-husband; Harris; and two other attendees of the party, who were interviewed on the phone following Harris’ request.
Sherri Penix, assistant superintendent of human resources and campus support, said both the other attendees said that Harris did not know the student was drinking. The student’s father, who was with the student at the ER, said he called the school in an attempt to testify about the situation, but no one would take his call. Penix said she did not talk to him because he was not the custodial parent of the student involved.
The student involved in the incident is not a student in Harris’ classroom, nor does she attend the school at which Harris taught. She also was not invited to the party, but Harris said she thinks of the student as family.
“It appears conclusions were drawn without all available information being considered,” Mendenhall said.
Harris said she never allowed the student to drink alcohol at her house and did not know she was drinking. She said did not know the student had an adverse reaction to alcohol and was at the hospital until 7:30 a.m. the following day and at that time she also was aware that both parents knew what happened to the student by the time she learned. Harris said she wanted the public hearing not just to be reinstated to her teaching duties but because the system in place that can get a teacher fired is very subjective and in this case, relied partially on the word of someone who held a grudge against her
“This type of situation is terrifying to teachers,” Harris said. “This is not just about me. This is for all teachers. This could happen to literally anybody.”
Harris has been with the Fort Smith Public Schools for nine years, where she has been a seventh-grade English teacher and drill team coach at Ramsey Junior High for five years. She has been a teacher in Arkansas for 22 years. She has a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and a master’s degree in education from Harding University.