Fort Wayne – It was in March when fourth-grader Justin Morken came home from Haverhill Elementary School one day and told his mom he thought his teacher was in trouble.
Earlier in the day, he said, school administrators had called him to the principal’s office, where they questioned him and two other children about how their teacher had behaved during the ISTEP+ exam three weeks earlier.
Justin told his mother he and the others couldn’t recall his teacher doing anything memorable – other than telling a student to erase scribbles. Nevertheless, he left school with a sinking feeling he wouldn’t see his teacher again.
Turns out, he was right.
Justin’s teacher, accused of violating protocol on the statewide proficiency test, was placed on administrative leave that day. In the months since, Justin’s mother, Kim Morken, and a group of Southwest Allen County Schools parents have expressed concern over the way the district handled the investigation of the ISTEP+ breach, alleging that their students’ teacher was unfairly dismissed.
The parents said their children should never have been questioned without their prior notification, and they want the district to alter how it investigates future alleged ISTEP+ security breaches.
We feel like young children should not be interviewed about personnel issues, at least without parents knowing about it, Morken said. Not every kid can remember what happened three weeks ago. They shouldn’t be put in that position.
SACS administrators have refused to comment in any detail on the matter, which has continued to frustrate parents.
Officials at other districts, however, point out that investigations of teacher misconduct can often be a tricky process, with students sometimes changing their stories as days go by.
The controversy at Southwest Allen concerns Laura Farner, a former fourth-grade teacher at Haverhill who said she was wrongly accused in the spring of giving students answers on the ISTEP+ exam.
Parents and others in the district believe Southwest Allen forced Farner, who had taught at SACS for 28 years, into early retirement based on the testimony of one or two fourth-graders. Parents said other teachers were also questioned as part of the investigation, though district officials would not discuss the process.
For most of Farner’s career, her performance reviews showed stellar work. But in recent years, she was criticized for failing to return borrowed supplies in a timely manner and for helping students tip over and spill out their desks when they had become too disorganized – a practice some in the field said was outdated but not uncommon among older teachers.
Farner said she initially planned to fight the allegation that she gave children answers on the ISTEP+ but elected to retire after a district official told her union representative that all of the students the district interviewed reported that she broke ISTEP+ protocol.
The story might have ended there. But Morken, a parent close to Farner, decided to conduct her own investigation. After talking to other parents, she concluded that at least six of the nine children questioned by the district assistant superintendent and school principal believed Farner had not violated any rules.
Morken eventually delivered a letter to a school board member. It was signed by 10 parents with students in Farner’s class, and the letter stated that the parents’ children didn’t think their teacher did anything wrong. Farner had 19 students in her class, 17 of whom took the proficiency exam.
Aside from frustration over Farner’s dismissal, parents said their biggest concern is that their children were questioned about Farner’s behavior without parental approval or notification, an allegation district officials would not discuss.
Parents said they were given the runaround when they asked whether notes were taken during the children’s questioning. First, they said, they were told there were no notes taken. Later, they said, they were told the notes existed but were not a public record.
Time and time again, the parents said, they asked for clarity about the situation but were given none. A website, www.laurafarner.com, has been created on Farner’s behalf.
We had a lot of questions, but we didn’t get answers, said Sandy Scott, a parent whose son was questioned about Farner’s conduct. I feel like they didn’t care about the parents’ concerns. I felt like they were more concerned about covering themselves than anything else.
When parents told district officials that their children backed Farner’s account of events, they said they were made to feel as though their children were lying. As a result of the way the investigation was handled, they said, their children ended the school year in a sour and disruptive way.
Now our kids feel like it’s their fault that their teacher’s gone, Morken said. (District officials) are saying that our kids are lying, but I don’t think they said anything about her. They used our kids to get what they wanted.
Two other parents with children in Farner’s class said they were afraid to speak on record because the principal might target their children who remain at Haverhill, which serves students in kindergarten through fifth grade. But both backed up the account offered by Morken.
Parents said others close to the situation, including staff members, were also afraid to speak in support of Farner.
A cafeteria assistant believes she was fired from Haverhill after she accompanied Farner to the central office and asked whether Farner could be present while her personnel file was copied. Several parents present during the exchange confirmed the cafeteria worker’s version of events.
Although Southwest Allen Superintendent Steve Yager declined to comment for this story, citing a district policy not to comment on personnel matters, he said the concerned group of parents was not sharing the truth with the media.
This employee (Farner) elected to retire, he said. The issue is over.
School board President John Bloom also declined to comment on the situation, though he expressed confidence in the district’s administrative staff and its ability to conduct thorough, responsible investigations.
Although some parents are concerned by the way the district conducted its investigation, it appears to have violated no state rules. According to Indiana Department of Education press secretary Lauren Auld, the state has no mandates about how districts should conduct investigations into allegations of misconduct.
Bill Diehl, East Allen County Schools accountability director, said it’s legal for a school district to question students without first notifying parents. But East Allen, he said, would most likely let parents know before officials questioned elementary students about an ISTEP+ security breach.
Parents are going to call down the next day and say, What’s going on there?’ he said. So you might as well be proactive and take care of it.
Diehl, a former principal, said it’s virtually impossible for a school district to conduct investigations into teacher misconduct without upsetting some parents, staff and students.
He said it’s important to note, however, that Southwest Allen administrators likely conducted a thorough investigation and talked to many people, including adults, about the situation.
He also emphasized that people, and children in particular, are prone to change their story as time passes.
If kids go home, and they start talking about this, accounts can change, he said. (Officials) want to investigate as quickly as possible before accounts and stories get changed.
According to Fort Wayne Community Schools spokeswoman Krista Stockman, it’s not uncommon for FWCS principals to talk to students without notifying their parents after an initial complaint just to get a sense of what’s happening in a classroom.
After a formal investigation is launched, however, she said the district would notify parents that their children were going to be questioned.
Kim Smith, a parent of a student in Farner’s class, said she hopes the district can learn from this experience and try to amend its ISTEP+ investigation procedures.
She and other parents hope a law is passed to prevent district officials from questioning students during formal investigations without prior parental notification.
We really need to look at the way children are interviewed at school, she wrote in a letter to the Southwest Allen board president. We need to look at the manner that children and parents are dealt with when a teacher abruptly leaves the classroom for any reason.
We need to look at ISTEP+ protocol and how to protect teachers. In Mrs. Farner’s situation, it was a few fourth-grade girls making accusations that we will never know for sure are true.