Miss. SC: School board's decision to fire teacher 'well-reasoned'

Jessica M. Karmasek Jun. 12, 2012, 2:25pm


JACKSON, Miss. (Legal Newsline) - The Mississippi Supreme Court last week upheld a county school board's decision to fire a teacher after she refused to take a drug test.

The Court, in its opinion Thursday, said it found no error in a state Court of Appeals decision and affirmed.

Laura Shontelle Barnes was a teacher at Taylorsville Elementary School in Smith County School District for 11 years before she was fired on May 12, 2009.

She was fired for refusing to take a drug test, a violation of the school district's drug and alcohol policy.

On July 17, 2009, the Smith County school board held a hearing in which it heard evidence from Barnes and the district on the events surrounding May 6 and May 7, 2009.

Principal Yvonne Dees received reports on May 7, 2009 that Barnes was lying on her classroom floor with her eyes closed the day before.

According to testimony presented at the hearing, children were still in the classroom. In fact, five or six of the students informed other teachers that Barnes "fell out" and that she needed help.

When the teachers approached Barnes, who was still lying on the floor, she told them she was in severe pain due to an ovarian cyst. The teachers agreed to watch the children, and she left work at noon that day.

The decision was then made by school officials to request that Barnes submit to a drug test pursuant to the district's drug and alcohol policy. She refused.

Smith County Superintendent of Education Jimmy Hancock, in a letter dated May 12, 2009, informed Barnes that her employment was terminated.

The board affirmed Hancock's decision.

Barnes appealed the decision to the Smith County Chancery Court.

On March 10, 2010, the court reversed the board's decision and reinstated the teacher's employment, finding that the board's decision was "arbitrary or capricious" and was not supported by substantial evidence.

A month later, the board filed a notice of appeal with the Court of Appeals.

In a 6-4 decision, the court reversed the chancery court's holding, finding that the board's decision to affirm Hancock's termination of Barnes based on her refusal to submit to a drug test was not arbitrary or capricious.

Barnes filed a motion for rehearing, which was denied on Jan. 10.

On Jan. 19, Barnes petitioned to the state's high court, arguing that the Court of Appeals failed to properly consider "all relevant evidence" that would have precluded her termination.

The Court said it disagreed with Barnes' argument that the appeals court failed to properly consider all relevant evidence.

"The Court of Appeals considered evidence from both Barnes and the district regarding her refusal to take the test and her request to take the test later that day," Justice David A. Chandler wrote.

The Court also said the board's decision was not "arbitrary or capricious."

"The policy explicitly states the consequences for an employee who refuses to take a drug test when requested," Chandler wrote.

"At the hearing, Barnes admitted to refusing the test and admitted she was aware of the district's drug-testing policy. She knew that she could be requested to take a drug test if the district had reasonable suspicion to request a test. She was aware of the potential consequences if she refused to comply."

The board relied on the policy's "clear" language when affirming the termination of Barnes' employment, the Court said, adding that the board's decision was "well-reasoned."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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