Sunday, June 26, 2022

Former New Hanover educator asks board to address harassment, retaliation against teachers and staff

The letter asks the board to address what the former teacher calls ‘the long history of systemic harassment and retaliation against teachers and staff,’ including those who reported potential wrongdoing. So far only one board member has publicly responded.

WILMINGTON — The New Hanover County School (NHCS) district has been shaken by a series of revelations and allegations over the last several weeks, as well as the announcement of an investigation – soon to be taken up at the state level – into the school’s administration for failure to report child abuse and obstruction of justice. Now, a former teacher is asking the Board of Education to consider possible misconduct against teachers and staff, as well.

In a letter written to Board Chairwoman Lisa Estep, and copied to the other members, as well as the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, former teacher Barbara Burnett asked officials to address what she calls “the long history of systemic harassment and retaliation against teachers and staff,” including what she describes as teachers suffering “retaliation for reporting questionable behavior to a higher authority.”

Related: Former students, parents say they reported teacher misconduct to Holliday, board members, up to 20 years ago

Burnett was a teacher from 1990 to 2007, starting at Dorothy B. Johnson Elementary School and then moving to Annie Snipes Elementary School and Rachel Freeman Elementary School; this is not the first time she has expressed concerns. In 1999, Burnett first contacted administrators and board members to report alleged inappropriate and possibly criminal behavior of Richard Priode, who taught at Laney from 1997 to 2001, serving as the band director. It unclear what action, if any, the administration or board took against Priode, but he resigned, teaching at several other schools before moving to Charlotte.

A decade later, Priode pleaded guilty to a felony indecent liberties with a student; Burnett again wrote the school board and administrators – along with the Star News – to express her concern. A further decade later, she’s still addressing the same concern.

The board has not yet responded to a request for comment on Burnett’s letter, sent Friday morning, with the exception of Board Member Judy Justice, who provided a copy of her response to Burnett. Justice noted she could only speak for herself and could not respond on behalf of the entire board. (Burnett said other board members have responded to her, but not publicly.)

In her response, Justice noted she had seen incidents of harassment and retaliation against teachers in the 1990s – when she taught in the district. Justice added that when she returned to New Hanover County after retiring in 2016, it was her impression that the “negative administrative culture” had “gotten worse.”

(Editor’s note: Both letters appear in their entirety below; they have only been edited for formatting.)

Barbara Burnett’s letter to New Hanover County Board of Education Chairwoman Lisa Estep, the board, and county commissioners:

“Future school boards must not allow similar issues, and concerns to reach a crisis level.” That is the sentence in the StarNews editorial: New Hanover school board must reassert power, oversight role. I implore you to reread that editorial and keep it close at hand as you move forward. You are faced with an extremely challenging task. It will be long and arduous. I pray that you as a body, and as individuals, will find the strength to diligently gather and evaluate accurate information.

In my previous letter, I wrote from my perspective as a parent. Today, I write from my perspective as an educator in NHCS 1990 – 2007. The school environment is composed of many sectors, each impacting the others. Appropriately, the recent focus has been on students and parents. However, it is important to realize there has been a long history of systemic harassment and retaliation against teachers and staff. When a student’s teacher is being bullied, the student suffers. So do the families of the stressed teachers who, by the nature of their job, already make tremendous personal sacrifices. How can teachers be the best they can be if they too are being bullied by principals while other teachers are given preferential treatment, not held accountable for atrocious behavior, and even protected from outside officials? How many teachers reported concerning behavior that was never forwarded to appropriate authorities? How many teachers suffered retaliation for reporting questionable behaviors to a higher authority? How many administrators were held accountable for their failures to ensure corrective action? How many administrators, principals, and teachers were actually emboldened by the knowledge that no action would be taken against them?

Yes, there are some bad teachers. I encountered a few during my thirty-two-year career, teaching every level K-College in four states. I encountered one of the worst right here in NHCS after my retirement. My role then was in loco parentis. Those thirty-two years of experience gave me a tremendous advantage in navigating the system on behalf of a student in crisis. Of course, dealing with the personal crisis took priority. Addressing systemic problems in the school system paled in comparison to meeting the immediate needs of the student. Knowing that nothing had ever or would ever be done by the system, I chose to simply make verbal observations about the teacher to the counselor and principal. Other teachers provided much help and encouragement to me. They were appreciative of my involvement because they had cared and been concerned about the student . They were relieved to know there was strong support for the student as well as for them. Teachers want to help parents help their children. I was overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and physically exhausted. I was retired. Imagine how difficult it is for students and working parents who are in crisis mode and not as prepared as I was. It is impossible for each of you to share similar experiences of the multiple sectors of our system. You CAN open your ears to listen and your eyes to read.

There are amazing teachers in our system who should be honored and supported. I have been saddened to see exceptional teachers leave the system because they and their families were simply worn down and worn out by continued harassment and retaliation by principals. They were hopeless. How can our teachers give hope to students if they no longer have hope? How can teachers encourage students the value of doing the right thing when they themselves have been punished for doing just that? How can teachers help students to trust when they no longer trust?

These are serious questions you must consider. Please do NOT repeat history. Make significant changes in a long-broken system because it is, quite simply, the right thing to do.

Board of Education Member Judy Justice’s response to Barbara Burnett:

Thank you for sharing your concerns and suggestions with the entire board. I also am a retired teacher and a retired school administrator. I taught in the NHCS system for 8 years and had children go through the entire system, k-through grade 12. In this response to your letter, I speak only for myself, not for the other 6 board members.

I too have experienced some of what you have observed when I taught in the district during the 1990s.  When I returned home in 2016 after my retirement, I discovered that the negative administrative culture that you have described had gotten worse. That is one of the main reasons I ran for school board so that someone with accurate professional knowledge could help bring about positive change to our district. It is very difficult for those who are not long-time professional educators, especially if they have no outside experience in other districts, to understand that NHCS exhibits some unusual negative leadership behaviors when it comes to staff and student relations. I believe until we address these “problems” our schools won’t reach their full potential in providing a quality education for all our students.

The editorial by the Star News editorial board emphasized that “the board must reassert power, oversight role.” I agree with this statement. This is one of our main duties as listed in NC state statutes concerning the role of local school boards and it is our responsibility to carry out that law. I have been one of the citizens, and the only board member, who for seven months has asked the other board members to carry out an internal investigation into the sexual abuse occurrences and other complaints brought forward by the public since December. Due to the involvement of the NC SBI [North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation] last week the other members of the board now see the need for that investigation.

As the editorial also points out “we can and must protect our students and hold people accountable” as the NHCS Board of Education. It is now up to myself and my fellow board members to do just that. I personally am ready to take on that responsibility or I would not be carrying out my sworn duties as a NHCS board member. Please feel free to contact me if you have more concerns or insights about our district. As you pointed out we have amazing staff in our district who deserve to be honored and supported. The best way for us as a board to do that is to provide them with the oversight and accountability needed in our district so that they can thrive in a positive educational environment.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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