07/01/04 — Respected teacher says politics caused her to leave Wayne

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Respected teacher says politics caused her to leave Wayne

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on July 1, 2004 1:59 PM

A respected high school science teacher says she is leaving the Wayne County public schools because of politics in the school system and her unwillingness to compromise her integrity.

Julie West has been at Southern Wayne High School for the last 10 years and was named the county's High School Teacher of the Year in 2001. She also served as co-adviser of the National Honor Society for nine years. That role turned out to be the catalyst for her departure.

"It's been a battle," she said, "mostly with parents."

She said she took the position as co-adviser seriously and worked hard to upgrade the integrity of the organization. She said she encouraged students to adhere to the strict code of standards set by the National Honor Society.

The society lists four criteria for students to be inducted into membership: grades, service, leadership and character.

In January, Mrs. West said, grades of all sophomores, juniors and seniors are reviewed by a faculty council. The council also considers whether there are any infractions that would prevent a student's eligibility, such as disciplinary problems or suspensions. Club advisers are not allowed to vote.

When this year's slate of 63 candidates was presented, Mrs. West said, the council ruled that eight students were ineligible.

"It all boiled down to character issues," she said. "Scholarship and service were evaluated, and discipline records for everyone were reviewed."

As a result, when the invitations to join the National Honor Society were mailed, they were not mailed to the eight students. A few days before the induction was scheduled, Mrs. West said, she was told by her principal that a change had been made and six of the eight would be allowed into the honor society.

"I was told that I would have to call those students, tell them I was sorry, that I had made a mistake and they would be inducted on Monday," she said. "I was told to do that before I left school that day."

She said she complied, but resented the edict.

"If it was my crow to eat, I would have eaten it," she said. "But I did everything I was supposed to do. The guidelines were followed to a 'T.'"

Gene Byrd, who was principal at Southern Wayne last year, disputed Mrs. West's account. He also said nobody was inducted who did not qualify. Byrd, who will be at Eastern Wayne Middle School in the fall, said he requested a transfer for the coming year due to his wife's health problems. Richard Sauls will become principal at Southern Wayne.

Byrd said he received the list of students who were ineligible for the Honor Society before the faculty council saw it and that he did not override the council's decision.

"I got them before they ever went that far," he said. "These kids were not recommended by the faculty council."

He said one student was ruled ineligible by the council and he backed the decision.

Mrs. West also alleged that some of the documentation about disciplinary problems was expunged from at least one of the students' records and cannot be found.

"I never dreamed that it would happen, so I didn't keep my printout," she said. "If you go back today, it's been erased from the student's file."

Byrd said there have been unfounded rumors in the community about Mrs. West's resignation. The rumors included speculation that one or more of the students might have been disciplined for wearing trousers too low or often being tardy. But he said these infractions were not severe enough to preclude admittance into the National Honor Society.

One rumor said a relative of a school board member, Shirley Sims, was one of the students and Byrd was pressured because of that, but Byrd said he received no pressure from anyone. Mrs. Sims said she knew nothing about the matter until it was over.

Byrd also said he did nothing differently than had been done by administrators before him at this school and other schools across the county, "so it really shouldn't be an issue."

"It was completely my decision," he said. "I let them in, and they deserved to be there."

Mrs. West said she would not be surprised if the decision came from higher up. Byrd maintains it was completely his decision.

Dr. Steve Taylor, superintendent of schools, said he had no part in the ruling and that he did not learn about the situation until after it occurred. He told the News-Argus he preferred not to discuss the matter since Byrd had already responded.

Mrs. West said she found the situation disturbing and that it has been a disappointment to the staff at the school.

"They took it as a terrible affront," she said. "Their decision was overruled. It was kind of a slap in the face to the ones who made the decision about who would and would not be inducted into the National Honor Society."

She said that in previous years, what the faculty council said was honored.

"Everything we fought for for the last nine years, to get it where it was, kids finally knew that we meant business," she said. "Now they have to start all over again."

Mrs. West, who has taken a job with Johnston County public schools, said she has no ill feelings toward the school. She called Southern Wayne a fine institution and said she does not want to give any other impression.

"I'm not leaving Southern Wayne," she says. "There a lot of great people at Southern Wayne, students and faculty alike. I'm leaving Wayne County and the politics of the school system."

Diane Price also taught at Southern Wayne. She recently retired and has been hired to teach English at Wayne Country Day School. She recalls the outpouring of support Mrs. West received when she announced she was leaving.

"It was the last day of school during a staff luncheon," she said. "She explained that there had been some undue influence in the National Honor Society induction process."

Mrs. Price said she recalled having heard that programs for the honor society ceremonies had to be reprinted at the last minute, but at the time she had attributed that to a spelling mistake.

Mrs. Price said Mrs. West remarked that faculty council recommendations had been negated in the honor society selections.

"She felt like, in spite of her regard and love for Southern Wayne and the faculty with whom she had worked for so many years, she was going to have to leave," Mrs. Price said.

Mrs. Price said the announcement clearly affected Mrs. West. "As she went to sit down, she was crying," she said. "At that point, the entire faculty stood up and gave her a prolonged standing ovation."

"In a time when honor is cheaply evoked," Mrs. Price says, "her decision and her actions speak to her integrity and her honor in a way that's exemplary."