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Published in Print: March 31, 2004, as Suicide Spurs Va. District To Revise Misconduct Probes

Suicide Spurs Va. District To Revise Misconduct Probes

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The Roanoke, Va., city school district has fine-tuned its policy on investigations of alleged employee misconduct following a teacher’s suicide last year.

Ronald Mayfield Jr., a teacher at Woodrow Wilson Middle School, was put on administrative leave last Oct. 1 after a student in his class of English-language learners accused the teacher of hitting him. On Oct. 16, Mr. Mayfield, 55, jumped off the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge over the Roanoke River and died, unaware that he had been cleared of any wrongdoing and that the investigation had been concluded.

Urged by members of Mr. Mayfield’s family, who believed his death could have been avoided had he known the status of the investigation, the district formed a committee to examine the district’s existing policies.

"We had never had a situation like this," said Paul D. Britt Jr., the executive for human resources in the 13,000-student district in southwestern Virginia. "The death of Mr. Mayfield brought it more to the forefront."

The committee, which is made up of teachers, administrators, parents, and other district employees, recommended that employees who are placed on administrative leave be given an update on the investigation every three to five days. The school board approved the policy this month.

More frequent communication, Mr. Britt said, also keeps parents of the involved student aware of any developments or decisions by the police department or the city’s child-protective-services agency.

False-Accusation Policy

At the same time, the school board also adopted a policy stating that "students shall not willfully or maliciously make false accusations/reports against school personnel or other students." School administrators will determine the consequences.

Mr. Britt could not confirm that the student had falsely accused Mr. Mayfield, but said, "That’s a good question."

The committee, which met five times between November and February, and will continue to meet annually to review the policy, also recommended that a page be added to the employee handbook stating that the same rules about making false accusations also apply to employees.

Accusations made by one employee against another employee are more common than those made by students, according to Mr. Britt.

In addition to reviewing the policies, the district distributed a brochure to employees to help them understand the steps taken when an investigation is under way. Two "town meetings" were also held this month to give the public an opportunity to ask questions about the policy changes.

Frank Rogers, a Roanoke lawyer representing the Mayfield family, said the changes were probably a step in the right direction, but said they were still reactions to an employee’s questionable placement on administrative leave.

"Fundamentally, it should be asked whether that is the right response to an allegation" in the first place, he said.

John Mitchell, the deputy director of the educational issues department of the American Federation of Teachers, said that districts should be "very assertive that staff are innocent until proven guilty."

If a local union begins to detect a pattern of false accusations of abuse made by students, its officials might consider helping teachers pursue lawsuits against students for slander.

"When a teacher is falsely accused, districts need to have strong policies that there will be severe repercussions for the student," Mr. Mitchell said. "We don’t want to be aggressive or hurt the student, but trifling with someone’s reputation is something that should not be taken lightly."

Vol. 23, Issue 29, Page 5

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