Sisson defends Lake Norman Charter’s policies, staff
by Staff Writer
The chairwoman of the Lake Norman Charter School Board of Director, contradicts several assertions made by a Davidson couple who attended the board’s June 9 meeting and challenged the fairness of the school’s disciplinary procedures.
The Herald Weekly asked Chairwoman Tricia Sisson, other board members and school General Manager Tim Riemer a series of questions about the school’s policies based on the couple’s account of how school officials treated their son during a search of his and other students’ rooms on a class trip to Asheville. The teen was accused of having marijuana. The couple withdrew their son from the eighth grade last month, saying the school had threatened him with expulsion while refusing to discuss evidence against him.
“You are aware that both state and federal law prohibits us from commenting on a specific student’s situation without consent from the parents. That is true even when the parent stands up in a public meeting or writes to a paper and says things that are demonstrably not true,” Sisson wrote in a lengthy response to most of the questions. “So I cannot comment on specific student matters unless the parents give us written permission. I am, however, happy to comment on policies.”
Here is a list of the Herald questions and Sisson’s responses:
• In a statement presented at June 9 board meeting, the parents said Riemer told them more than a year ago, long before their son’s conduct was questioned, “that no one has ever won a (disciplinary) hearing at Lake Norman Charter School.”
The parents cited that statement as one reason they and other parents had withdrawn their children rather than appeal punishment.
Sisson denied such a record. “We expect our educators to vigorously apply our student conduct rules,” she wrote. “We expect them to apply discipline consequences when they have solid evidence that the school’s discipline rules have been violated. In the vast majority of cases, discipline sanctions are upheld because the evidence supports the action.
“In other instances, we at the board level never hear about a situation because the educators investigate and find that no rules have been broken. In a few other instances, the hearing officer has rejected a recommendation for long-term suspension and/or exclusion because the student and his parents presented evidence that the student did not break the rules.”
• Also on June 9, the parents said school officials held their son for five hours without notifying his parents, despite his request. The Herald asked about such a delay, and Sisson did not acknowledge the search and questioning that occurred May 4 in Asheville.
Instead, Sisson responded: “I am not sure that I understand your question, but we don’t ‘hold’ students on suspicion of violations. A student may be called to the office to be interviewed by the principal or other educator. That is not ‘holding’ a student, and no school of which I am aware calls parents merely because a student gets questioned by an educator.
• The parents also asserted their son “was suspended for four days before any formal written notification of the charges were given to us.”
Sisson responded: “I am not aware of any instance when this happens. When a student is suspended for up to 10 days, federal law requires that we give the student oral notice of why he is being suspended. We do that, and we immediately inform parents – either orally or by email, or both – of the short-term suspension. If the administration decides that the conduct warrants a longer-term suspension and/or exclusion, then federal law requires we give written notice and an explanation of the student’s hearing rights. That letter goes out once a decision is made to seek these more serious sanctions, but there is no requirement that it go out the same day that the student receives the short-term suspension. In each instance, plenty of notice is given so that the parents have time to prepare for the hearing.”
• The parents said they could find no policy or procedures on disciplinary hearings and how they are conducted.
Sisson responded: “If a student is facing a possible long-term suspension and/or exclusion, his parents are sent a letter detailing the student’s rights and the procedures. For appeals to the board, there is a policy explaining this that is, and has been, available on our website.”
The school’s policies are not readily apparent on the charter school’s website. After a lengthy search, a Herald reporter found a 1 1/4-page Parent Appeal Policy, which gives only a single, vague paragraph about disciplinary hearings: “If the issue remains unresolved, the parent may appeal first to a member of the administrative team and finally the managing director. Administration has the responsibility to attempt to contact the parent within two school days and reach a decision on the matter within five school days of when contact is made. Should a decision not be reached within five school days, communication will be made to the parent as to when a final decision will be made.”
• The parents also said school administrators refused to disclose any evidence against their son or allow them to challenge it or how the investigation was conducted.
Sisson disputed this assertion entirely. “Parents are given that very opportunity in every hearing. They get to see whatever evidence the administrator presents, and they get to cross-examine each witness called to testify. In cases involving drugs, the police often confiscate the drugs found in the possession of the student. That is out of our control.
“Any parent in that situation can certainly approach the police department to examine whatever the police took. Again, that is not something we can do anything about. If a police officer looks at a baggie full of a green leafy substance and looks at the light-bulb vaporizers and lighters found with it and he comes to the conclusion that the substance is marijuana, a school official is certainly entitled to rely on that officer’s conclusion.”
Buncome County Sheriff’s Lt. Randy Sorrells said a deputy “retreived a small amount of marijuana” from a school administrator “for destruction purposes.” He made no reference to a vaporizer or lighter.
• The teen’s parents also questioned the school’s policy of Riemer serving as the final hearing officer. “How can he be impartial when he has a vested interest in the outcome?” they asked.
Sisson defended Riemer’s ability to act impartially. “Lake Norman Charter uses Tim Riemer, our managing director, as the hearing officer for long-term suspensions and/or exclusions,” she said. “Your question raises the issue of whether an employee of the school can be impartial when another employee (the principal) is bringing the charges. Partiality would be an issue if the principal (who Mr. Riemer supervises) sat as the hearing officer when Mr. Riemer was an advocate. It is because Mr. Riemer does not report to anyone conducting a hearing before him that he can sit as an impartial hearing officer. I believe that other small school systems and charter schools select hearing officers in a similar fashion.”
• The parents maintain that Lake Norman Charter’s policies are structured so that parents are pressured to withdraw a student from school rather than appeal to the board.
But Sisson said Lake Norman Charter follows the same procedures as other school systems.
“The North Carolina General Assembly chose to make charter schools very different from traditional public schools,” she wrote. “By giving charters the power to ‘exclude’ students who violate student conduct rules, the legislature, in effect, said that charters were going to be able to protect their classrooms so that learning can take place. Parents flock to Lake Norman Charter because we offer a college-prep course of study in an environment where parents know that all the other students will be motivated and that if students commit serious conduct violations, they will be excluded from Lake Norman Charter and may return to the public school to which they are assigned...
“We are very proud of the success of our students at Lake Norman Charter School. Our school is supported by an outstanding teaching and administration staff and involved and enthusiastic students and their families. (Lake Norman Charter) currently has a waiting list that exceeds its total available enrollment. Additionally, our families have supported us through the most recent budget rally by contributing in excess of $300,000 in donations and corporate matches toward a limited operating budget for the 2011-2012 school year.”