Mason school board settles one suit, gets hit with another

By Lawrence Smith | Aug 24, 2007

POINT PLEASANT – Despite settling one lawsuit, the Mason County Board of Education has been named a defendant in another. Ironically, both suits arise from problems at the same Bend-area school.

According to court records, the Board settled a dispute with William and Jane Bird over alleged flooding construction to nearby New Haven Elementary caused to their home after a heavy rain in 2005. The board, along with co-defendant Mid-Atlantic Construction, which was the contractor for the project, reached an out-of-court settlement with the Birds on June 21.

However, no sooner than the Board reached its settlement with Birds than it was slapped with wrongful termination suit. In that case, Katherine Parrish, a former teacher at New Haven Elementary is appealing a decision by an administrative law judge upholding the Board's decision to fire her for alleged mistreatment of special needs students.

Using a 'sock' for discipline

According to court records, Parrish, though her attorneys James M. Casey and Jeremy Vickers of the Casey Law Offices in Point Pleasant, filed her appeal with the circuit court on Aug. 8. Casey and Vickers ask Mason Circuit Judge David W. Nibert, who has been assigned the case, overturn the July 9 decision by Denise M. Spatafore, administrative law judge for the West Virginia Education and State Employees Grievance Board, upholding the Board's decision to terminate Parrish.

In the synopsis of her opinion, Spatafore said Parrish was "terminated as the result of allegations that she had physically mistreated students in her special needs preschool classroom on several occasions." Specifically, Parrish was accused of placing a "body sock" – a tube-like piece of fabric which is open on both ends – around two students on different occasions, and "pull[ed] the sock over the entire child while laying [sic] on a cot, tucking the ends under the cot so that the child was covered head to toe."

In her findings of fact, Spatafore said the allegations arose from placing students, identified as C.F. and J.C., into the body socks in September and December 2006, respectively. Parrish, Spatafore found, also was alleged to have placed those and other students hard on the bleachers, and pulled them by the ankles toward her as a means of discipline.

After school administrators learned of injuries the children sustained, and an investigation was conducted by child protective services, Parrish, who had been employed as special needs teacher by Mason County Schools since 2000, was placed on unpaid leave on Dec. 19. According to Spatafore's findings, school administrators in their Dec. 19 letter informed Parrish they would recommend the Board terminate her employment.

The Board did just that at its Jan. 18 meeting. Parrish, according to Spatafore's ruling, did not attend the meeting.

Prior to her termination, Parrish initiated a grievance proceeding against the Board. Though Wendy Campbell heard the case at Level IV on April 10, it was transferred to Spatafore upon Campbell's retirement.

In her ruling, Spatafore "found that the evidence establishes that Grievant's conduct constituted willful neglect of duty." In testimony provided by not only other special education teachers, but also Parrish herself, "that the body sock's purpose is to comfort and calm and [sic] child who has sensory issues" and "no one ever used a body sock in this manner."

In a footnote to her ruling, Spatafore said she felt "compelled" to make not of her personal inspection and observation of the body sock and cot.

"[I]f a child were placed inside the sock with the ends tucked under the cot," Spatafore said, "the fit would be extremely tight and to be confined under it would clearly be terribly unpleasant, if not frightening (especially for a young child)."

Those personal observations are part of Parrish's appeal to circuit court. In addition to saying that Spatafore's findings "are contrary to the law and the lawfully adopted rules and written policy of the employer," Casey and Vickers argue her findings are "arbitrary, capricious and characterized by abuse of discretion and clearly unwarranted exercise of discretion."

Invoking God's name

In reaching a settlement with the Birds, the Board was absolved of any responsibility. According to William Bird, he and his wife agreed to accept and undisclosed sum of money from MAC.

However, though he lauds his attorney Bart Ketchum, with the Huntington law firm of Greene, Ketchum, Bailey and Tweel, for the work he did, Bird says he was done wrong by the legal system.

"We were satisfied with our lawyer, but we don't feel like we got what we were due," Bird said. "What damages were done could have been taken care of right away."

Also, Bird added that though MAC accepted responsibility for the flooding of the Bird's basement, they were merely acting on the Board's instructions.

"From the beginning," Bird said, "the contractor did what the Board told them to do."

In their suit filed in January 2006, the Birds allege that a heavy rainfall on July 18, 2005 flooded the basement of their home. The flooding, they allege, was direct result of excavation done on the back side of New Haven Elementary as part of the project to consolidate it, and Mason Elementary.

The Bird's estimated they sustained about $55,000 in damages to their home as a result of the flooding.

Initial attempts to reach a settlement appeared likely. According to Bird, the Board sent a representative to his home to inspect the damage.

His conclusion led him to believe the Board would take care of it, Bird said.

However, Bird later received a letter from the Board saying the responsibility for the flooding was MACs fault. In both its initial correspondence, and reply to the lawsuit, MAC maintained the flooding was "an act of God."

In an earlier interview with The Record, Bird wryly replied, "God may have made it raid, but God didn't do the digging, but God will see I'm compensated."

Personal injury suit still pending

In addition to Parrish's, a suit filed by Charles and Mitzi Spangler against the Board is still pending. Like the Birds, the Spanglers filed their suit last year.

In their suit, the Spanglers allege that Mitzi sustained injuries on Dec. 14, 2004 when waiting to see Larry E. Parsons, superintendent of Mason County Schools, she was led into a darkened room by a Board employee, and fell as a result of an uneven floor. Parsons, and Board President Michael "Micky" Cottrill are named as co-defendants in the suit.

According to court records, the last filing in the case, as of press time, is a request for discovery submitted by the Board on October 6.
Neither Cottrill nor Parsons returned repeated telephone calls seeking comment on the suits.

Mason County Circuit Court case no. 07-AA-119 (Parrish)

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