Christa Price lost her job as a second-grade teacher after she protested Principal Dan Doerhoff's decision to discipline a fourth-grader by making the girl pick up rocks in front of East Lynne School.
A lone girl lugging a bucket of rocks into the woods.
That is what teacher Christa Price remembers about that day last September.
She thought the punishment was extreme, even dangerous, for a fourth-grader who had refused to do her schoolwork. What she did next cost Price her job and caused seven other teachers in the tiny East Lynne School District to quit in protest. Only two classroom teachers are staying.
Dan Doerhoff, school superintendent and principal, says he is through with rock punishment, but he stands by his decision to fire Price for insubordination.
Two years earlier, the girl had been Price's second-grade pupil at East Lynne School in Cass County. Just after the school year ended, a truck struck the girl while she was riding her bike. Price visited her at Children's Mercy Hospital.
So when Price saw the girl picking up rocks, unsupervised, near the blacktop highway in front of the school, she went to Doerhoff's office. Price told Doerhoff that she was concerned for the girl's safety and that the punishment made the school look bad.
Doerhoff dismissed Price's complaint.
On her free period, Price went out and picked up rocks with the girl. The next day, other teachers went out, too. Some graded papers while the girl worked.
When contract time came, Doerhoff recommended that Price be fired for failing to support the administration.
Price was wrapping up her fourth year in East Lynne, and until then, her performance evaluations had been glowing. By all accounts, she inspired young children to learn. Parents liked her. Colleagues praised her.
“I love this woman,” the mother of the girl who was punished said Tuesday. “What happened to Christa is beyond belief.”
The mother acknowledged that she and her husband agreed to the rock punishment, but, she said, the only alternative Doerhoff offered was a suspension.
State law prohibits Doerhoff from commenting on discipline and personnel matters.
But eight of the school's 10 classroom teachers will be gone after this week. Doerhoff is under fire from patrons while trying to hire replacements. School board President Keith Riggs' phone won't stop ringing.
Recently at a crowded meeting of the school board, some parents called for Doerhoff's job. Other parents support him.
Doerhoff, who has led the district for seven years, said he has a good relationship with the board. Riggs declined to comment on that point but said Doerhoff had done a good job for the district.
The board's next meeting is in June.
Although he has discontinued the practice because of the uproar, Doerhoff said rock punishment was not that strenuous. The rocks, left from construction work, were small. He added that the girl wasn't in danger because she was being monitored by a security camera.
Jenny Neemann, a teacher who resigned, scoffed at the reasoning.
“Somebody could have nabbed her in 10 seconds,” Neemann said.
The girl's punishment covered parts of three days. Doerhoff cut it short the third day when the other teachers began keeping vigil.
Ted Feinberg, assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists, questioned Doerhoff's decision to have elementary pupils pick up rocks.
“Is he a feudal lord building a pyramid?” Feinberg asked from his office in Bethesda, Md. “School discipline is not the same as hard labor in prison.
“School discipline needs to have an educational purpose. What was he teaching this girl — how to pick up rocks? This would only cause frustration, anger, embarrassment and more oppositional behavior.”
“It made me feel like a slave,” the girl said. [Emphasis added]
The departing teachers said Doerhoff is a good superintendent, that he has done good things for the district. It is his principal role they object to.
Vicki Hartsell, who taught at the school for seven years, said none of the seven teachers who resigned wanted to leave.
“Christa Price is an excellent teacher, and she got fired because she stood up for a child,” Hartsell said.
Price got more than fired.
Doerhoff has refused to sign the certification renewal that Price needs to get another teaching job. He said Tuesday that signing now would not be consistent and “could put me a pickle.”
But according to Jim Morris, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the department's Kansas City-area supervisor has offered to speak to certification officials on Price's behalf.
On Tuesday, the seven teachers who resigned issued a statement, which said in part, “If a teacher who advocates on behalf of safety of a student is not fit to be a teacher at East Lynne or anywhere in Missouri according to this administration, then none of us are fit to teach at East Lynne.”
Doerhoff said he thinks the statement of support is mainly for show. He said some teachers were upset by what happened to Price, but they were leaving because they got better jobs or were moving from the district. He said one teacher had decided to stay home after having a baby.
Not true, said Neemann, the new mother.
“I told him exactly why I was leaving … it's him,” Neemann said. “I loved the school and I loved the kids, but I didn't like what he did to Christa Price.”
Even though Price lost her job, she does not regret challenging Doerhoff. Though two years removed from the second-grade classroom, Price and the girl still had a “hallway hug” relationship.
“The first thing I told her when I went out there was, ‘Don't fill the bucket so full.' ”
To reach Donald Bradley, call (816) 234-7810 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org .
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