Courts

STUART–A Patrick County jury unanimously ruled Wednesday night in favor of former Stuart Elementary principal Muriel Waldron, giving her $500,000 of the nearly $6 million she sought in her defamation lawsuit.

Waldron had claimed that Patrick County Schools Superintendent William D. Sroufe maliciously made false statements against her in a performance evaluation letter when he removed as principal of Stuart Elementary on April 24, 2015, and reassigned her, which Waldron says hurt her reputation. Sroufe denied the allegations.

“I’m thankful the jury gave me my due process,” Waldron said after the jury’s ruling was announced. “If the (Patrick County) school board had done that, it would have stopped right there…. If it (referring to her lawsuit) helps one kiddo, it was worth these long two years.”

One of Waldron’s allegations was that Sroufe did not follow the school division’s principal evaluation and improvement process and that Waldron was not given due process with the school division to defend herself.

“I look forward to the appeals process,” Sroufe said Wednesday night, adding that he wanted to thank the jury for its service. He said he and others will continue to act in the best interests of students in Patrick County.

The trial began Monday focusing on approximately three allegedly false statements in Sroufe’s performance evaluation letter to Waldron. On Wednesday morning, immediately before the defense began to put on its case, Judge Martin F. Clark Jr. said the jurors would be allowed to consider only one of those three statements. He gave no reasons why and told the jury not to speculate why. The one statement from Sroufe’s letter that proceeded at trial Wednesday alleged that Waldron failed to ensure that the Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams understand Virginia Alternate Assessment Program (VAAP) participation criteria and apply them appropriately. That resulted in students taking Standards of Learning tests who would not have been required to do so.

According to a Virginia Department of Education website, the Virginia Alternate Assessment Program is designed to evaluate the performance of students with significant cognitive disabilities who are working on academic standards that have been reduced in complexity and in depth, compared with the regular academic standards called Virginia Standards of Learning. SOLs establish minimum expectations of what students should know and be able to do.

According to a Virginia Department of Education brochure, after a child has been found eligible for special education, a team will develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for the child.

Several defense witnesses testified that personnel at Stuart Elementary thought incorrectly there was a limit on the number of students who could be placed in the Virginia Alternate Assessment Program at that school because of what is called a 1 percent cap; and that some special education students at Stuart Elementary were taking and failing regular Standards of Learning tests but not being taught the regular curriculum and that some special education students were not being considered for Virginia Alternate Assessment Program.

Shannon Brown, who became principal of Stuart Elementary in 2015 after Waldron was reassigned, testified that personnel at the school misunderstood the 1 percent cap. According to trial testimony, the 1 percent cap applies at the school division or state levels, not for individual schools, and it is used only for state testing purposes, not to determine how many qualifying students may be placed in Virginia Alternate Assessment Program at a particular school. (The 1 percent cap is determined by dividing the number of VAAP proficient/advanced scores by the number of students tested at each grade level.)

However, Anita Epperly, a longtime special education teacher at Stuart Elementary, testified that a previous special education director for Patrick County Schools told her there was a certain limit on how many Stuart Elementary students could be placed in the Virginia Alternate Assessment Program because of the 1 percent cap. Epperly said she had been following that directive for years and that no one had ever told her to do anything differently until the matter involving Waldron came up.

Waldron’s lawyer contended that significantly more students at Stuart Elementary have qualified for VAAP since Waldron was reassigned, arguing that Patrick County Schools wanted more students to be placed in VAAP in an effort to get schools’ test scores up on state measures. Sroufe’s lawyer and some school system officials denied that.

However, Karen Wood, formerly Patrick County Schools’ director of the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) program, testified that in late March or early April 2015 she overheard an office conversation in which she alleges Patrick County Schools Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Cyndi Williams expressed to Special Education Director Ann Fulcher that there were not enough students in VAAP in Patrick schools, especially at Stuart Elementary School. Wood alleged Fulcher then told Williams that she would see what she could do.

Williams denied ever discussing with anyone the possibility of moving students into VAAP as a way of getting schools’ test scores up, and she said no Patrick schools have improved their accreditation statuses by moving students into VAAP.

No limit

A deposition (testimony of a witness taken before trial) of John Eisenberg was read in court Wednesday. Eisenberg is the assistant superintendent of special education and student services for the Virginia Department of Education. Eisenberg said a number of factors, not just IQ, should be considered when an Individualized Education Program team is determining whether a student qualifies for the Virginia Alternate Assessment Program. Besides IQ, factors include such things as learning characteristics (such as how a child learns or learning style), and conceptual, social, daily living and occupational skills, among others. Eisenberg said there is subjectivity in making the determination of whether a child qualifies for VAAP and people can disagree.

Eisenberg said it would be a misunderstanding to say that there is a limit on how many Stuart Elementary students can be placed in the Virginia Alternate Assessment Program because of the 1 percent cap.For the specific Stuart Elementary special education students Eisenberg was provided information about, he said, “I wouldn’t rule any of these students out” as to Virginia Alternate Assessment Program eligibility.

However, Eisenberg said he couldn’t say -- without reviewing more documents and talking with members of Individualized Education Program teams at Stuart Elementary – whether they understood the Virginia Alternate Assessment Program criteria and applied it correctly in those cases.

Ann Fulcher, who became Patrick County Schools’ current special education director in December 2013, testified that about April 2015 she went to Stuart Elementary to talk with Waldron. Fulcher said she was concerned that only a small fraction of the students in a self-contained classroom (for special needs children) had been placed in the Virginia Alternate Assessment Program, and questioned why more students weren’t being considered. Fulcher said she was not suggesting that all the students be placed in VAAP but that they be considered for eligibility, and she wanted a certain VAAP form filled out to see if they qualify.

“I never once said you’ve got to do a VAAP on a student,” Fulcher said.

Fulcher also said she was concerned that special education students might be taking Standard of Learning tests but had not been taught the regular curriculum.

When questioned by Waldron’s lawyer Roger Willetts, Fulcher said that at that point she had just looked at the IQs of certain special education students, but that she did not consider other factors. Willetts pointed out that was contrary to VAAP protocol.

Fulcher also testified at one point that she does not know the specific criteria the Individualized Education Program teams used at Stuart Elementary in determining students’ eligibility for VAAP or whether they applied the criteria correctly.

Sroufe takes the stand

Sroufe testified Fulcher expressed to him her concerns about the Virginia Alternative Assessment Program issue at Stuart Elementary, including Fulcher didn’t think Stuart Elementary personnel understood the 1 percent cap, that a VAAP eligibility form had not been filled out for some children, and that she feared some children were not being considered for VAAP.

Sroufe said he discussed the VAAP and other performance issues involving Waldron with the Patrick County School Board in a closed session and that he also got advice from an attorney. Sroufe also said some school board members had gotten some calls months before related to Waldron, but Sroufe didn’t say what they were about.

Sroufe indicated a last straw was when Waldron didn’t turn in some special education students’ grades to him when he told her to. (Waldron has said circumstances prevented her from meeting Sroufe’s deadline but that she turned them in the next morning, on April 24.)

Sroufe said Waldron was told to come to his office on April 24, 2015, and he told her at that meeting that she was being reassigned and not to go back to Stuart Elementary. Sroufe said after that meeting, he went to Stuart Elementary and told the staff there Waldron was being reassigned. Sroufe said he was following the procedures an attorney advised him.

Sroufe said, based on what Special Education Director Ann Fulcher told him, “I think Mrs. Waldron didn’t understand VAAP (Virginia Alternate Assessment Program) criteria.” He said he also felt Stuart Elementary was not following the correct VAAP protocol, that some special education students were not even being considered for VAAP, and that some special education students were taking and failing Standards of Learning tests (based on regular curriculum) having not been taught regular curriculum.

As Sroufe said he would appeal the ruling, the case now moves to another court. A first hearing for any appeal would not happen until the summer at the earliest.

Paul Collins reports for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at paul.collins@martinsvillebulletin.com

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