(Mississippi) The Clarion-Ledger, February 22, 2001

It could scare off good instructors, some say , By Sherri Williams, Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer

The plight of a Tupelo educator who was forced to disrobe for a search after being arrested after verbally chastising a student could deter teachers from disciplining children, a state education leader says.

"The police department used poor judgment, particularly after the teacher was cleared with the school system," state Board of Education member Frank Melton said of Lawhon Elementary third-grade teacher Karen Johnson.

Johnson submitted to the search last week at the Lee County Sheriff's Department after being booked on a simple assault charge filed Nov. 28 by Bridget Cunningham, parent of a student Johnson had disciplined last November.

Although the Lee County sheriff says it's policy for all misdemeanor and felony suspects to disrobe for searches, "this is a clear example as to why we cannot keep good teachers in the classroom," said Melton, chief executive officer of WLBT-Channel 3 in Jackson.

"For those kids who do not get good discipline in the home, the next line of defense is in the school. We do not want to discourage teachers from disciplining students. The community needs to support these teachers. If they don't, we are going to lose teachers."

Melton's concerns are justified, said nationally recognized teacher Michael Marks, who leads the Mississippi Association of Educators.

"In all my born days, I've never been asked to comment on a teacher who had been strip-searched," said Marks, a longtime Hattiesburg educator.

"Professionalism is what we stand for," Marks said. "One of the things that keeps people from entering the profession is that they are not treated as professionals."

Marks said that if such searches "become commonplace, then we will find ourselves in even more of a shortage of teachers.

"We ask ourselves why we have a teacher shortage," he said. "It's because of things like this that terrify people."

But something else about the incident horrifies veteran Jackson gifted education teacher Lucy Hansford: a lack of trust in teachers.

"My heart aches for her (Johnson's) nudity, but my heart breaks because of the lack of trust that parent had in her," said Hansford, who taught elementary students for more than 20 years before moving to the Jackson district's central office.

"It's hard to teach," Hansford said. "You work long hours. It's a thankless job. But some teachers spend more time with the children than their parents do."

Often, she said, a teacher must touch a child to get his or her attention or to help the child focus on the lesson or situation at hand. Cunningham alleged that Johnson held her child's chin as she talked to the child.

"This is heartbreaking," Hansford said. "This is more about communication between a parent and a teacher. Do parents not trust us? When I read about (Johnson), I was horrified."


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