PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

May 2, 2014

Attorney hears PAISD teacher's appeal of contract nonrenewal

Erinn Callahan
The Port Arthur News

PORT ARTHUR — Several witnesses testified that Port Arthur teacher Ruby Gunner violated several district policies during an altercation with a student last April, but an attorney representing the Robert E. Lee Elementary teacher argued that PAISD did not adequately define any of those procedures during a non-renewal appeal hearing at the administration building on Friday.

Gunner, who was acquitted of injury to a child in March, said she never expected the encounter that spurred the school board’s decision not to renew her contract would turn physical.

“I had no reason to believe the student was going to hit me,” she said.

The incident was Gunner’s second dispute of the day with the 12-year-old student. Earlier that morning, Gunner blocked the door when the boy tried to leave her classroom to attend a parade after he had been instructed to remain in the classroom. He then retaliated by kicking her.

The student left Gunner’s classroom and ran to the counselor’s office, where he was then sent to teacher Trudy Goza’s room for his next class. Gunner said she chose to confront the student when she heard him boasting to other classmates that he had kicked her in the stomach.

“As an educator, it is my responsibility to discipline the students,” she said.

Gunner asked the student if he was bragging, then told him, “Kick me now.” She said that’s when he attacked her, leaving her with little choice but to attempt to subdue him.

“Nothing says that if you’re attacked, you cannot defend yourself,” Gunner said. She added that Goza called her name, but otherwise made no attempt to assist her.

However, former Lee Elementary principal Rizvan Quadri said that Gunner disobeyed school and district procedure when she opted to confront the student instead of immediately reporting the first incident to administration.

“There could have been a better way,” Quadri, now principal at Garcia Middle School in Sugar Land, testified via telephone.

A better way, Quadri said, would have been to immediately report the incident to school officials. The former principal said that students caught fighting are typically sent home.

But counselor Marilyn Thompson said the boy made no mention of fighting — only that he was in trouble for not completing his homework and “Mrs. Gunner had hit him in the face” — no mention of his role. Thompson testified that the student “would have been in really big trouble” if she had known of his role.

Because the student did not present a written referral, Thompson opted to keep him in her office until it was time to switch classes.

“I saw no need for him to sit out or go home,” she said.

Thompson said that it was not uncommon for the student, who had a history of behavioral issues, to visit her office when he was upset. She was on her way to ask Gunner about the incident when she learned of the fight in Goza’s room from another student.

“Being that we had had incidents before, I wanted to see for myself,” she said. “I didn’t want to take a child’s word.”

PAISD attorney Melody Chappell said in her closing argument that the crux of the case was not about self-defense, but a decision Gunner made that jeopardized students’ safety.

“The moment she chose to confront the student, she violated district policy,” Chappell said. “Whether she touched him first or not, she escalated the situation.”

Gunner attorney Judy Sadler countered that the district never explicitly stated which policies Gunner was in breach of, and accused PAISD officials of attempting to end the teacher’s 40-year career.

“This is a situation everyone regrets, and Mrs. Gunner’s choices were not intentional,” Sadler said in her closing argument. “There’s not a question that he physically assaulted her, and there is no evidence that she violated a specific policy.”

Beaumont attorney Larry Simmons, Jr., served as the hearing officer. Simmons has 15 days to make a recommendation to the board regarding the renewal of Gunner’s contract.

Email: ecallahan@panews.com

Twitter: @ErinnPA