R2 board OKs stricter conduct for teachers

COLUMBIA – Weeks after brushing aside adopting greater accountability measures for their own conduct, the Richland Two school board voted 6-0 for similar conduct rules for district staff.

On March 26, board members combed through the five-page policy, which lists numerous behaviors classified as “misconduct.” Many behaviors focus on teacher-student interactions.

Board vice-chair Monica Elkins-Johnson said she thought the staff conduct policy might discourage students from confiding with teachers who they trust.

“Not all students have a relationship with school counselors,” Elkins-Johnson said. “This [policy] is stating that they can only have these conversations with a school counselor.”

Superintendent Dr. Baron Davis said the district always encourages dialogue between students and staff. He said the policy is aimed at students in crisis situations, such as suicide.

“Advice is absolutely not counseling,” Davis said. “We just want to encourage a student, [who] for example is having suicidal [thoughts] or harming themselves, we need to immediately get that student to a trained professional to de-escalate that situation.”

Board member Teresa Holmes expressed another definition of misconduct, which includes “refusing to follow a supervisor’s instructions and directions.”

“It’s too subjective that you have to follow instructions without them being clarified,” Holmes said. “You could tell me to go down the hall and if I don’t go, I didn’t follow your instructions. It’s too subjective.”

Discussion of staff conduct comes on the heels of an ethics controversy involving a quorum of the board.

At least three members have been fined by the S.C. Ethics Commission. Board chair Amelia McKie owes the most at $51,750.

In February, board members voted 4-3 against the policy revision that would’ve authorized stripping board members of officer titles “for cause,” provided a supermajority approves.

Board members found in violation would still retain their elected post.

Those voting in the majority to reject the measure took issue with the phrase ‘for cause,’ calling it vague.

Board member James Shadd III, who was fined $13,000 by the ethics commission in 2014, took issue with the proposed misconduct policy’s “for cause” terminology, voting against the proposed policy on Feb. 12.

He suggested the policy proposal was reactionary, saying sanctions for legal troubles some board members face already exist in state law.

“What does ‘just cause’ mean?” Shadd III asked.

A search for the phrase “probable cause” in the state ethics statute generated 19 results. The phrase “just cause” appeared three times.

Many of the board members voting down the policy were themselves in violations of various state ethics laws.

“Because of recent events, I have made sure that I’m a stickler to policy now. I’ve become a policy guru,” McKie said in February.

McKie would’ve been impacted by the policy change had it passed.

“I would greatly shun having a nebulous policy,” she said. “If you want a policy that tightens things up a bit, I’ve got that.”

Richland Two board members voted against the policy revisions following an investigation by The Voice that numerous board members violated state law by going months, and in some cases, years without filing campaign finance and/or conflict of interest forms.

Also at the March 26 meeting, the board discussed language of the district’s profanity policy.

Elkins-Johnson, the board’s vice-chair, asked if the policy applies to coaches. District staff said it does.

Violations of the policy are “grounds for placing an employee on administrative leave, with pay, pending an investigation and possible recommendation for termination of employment,” the policy states.

Ironically, Elkins-Johnson is facing a disorderly conduct charge following an obscenity-laden outburst after a recent school board meeting.

At the Feb. 22 board meeting, while reading from a prepared statement, Elkins-Johnson apologized “for the language that I used” during an altercation at the Jan. 22 board meeting.

A Richland County Sheriff’s Department incident report states that Elkins-Johnson cursed and made threatening comments during a dispute involving McKie’s husband and the sister of state Sen. Mia McLeod.

Elkins-Johnson was charged with disorderly conduct. She’s tentatively scheduled to appear back in court later on April 29, according to Richland County court records.