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HARRISON COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD v. CHERYL MORREALE

FEBRUARY 01, 1989

HARRISON COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD
v.
CHERYL MORREALE



BEFORE DAN LEE, PRATHER AND PITTMAN.

DAN LEE, PRESIDING JUSTICE, FOR THE COURT:

Cheryl Morreale, a teacher's aide employed by the Harrison County School Board, was discharged from her job following a pre-termination hearing before the School Board. On appeal to the Chancery Court of Harrison County, the chancellor reversed the Board's decision on the ground that Mrs. Morreale had been denied due process, and remanded the case for a hearing before an impartial hearing officer. From that judgment, the Harrison County School Board appeals. We reverse the chancellor's judgment and reinstate the decision of the Harrison County School Board.

FACTS

 When this cause of action arose, the appellee Cheryl Morreale was employed by the Harrison County School Board as a teacher's aide at Bel-Aire Elementary School. Mrs. Morreale's son, Larry Morreale, was a student at the North Gulfport Seventh and Eighth Grade School. On or about January 22, 1986, Larry was suspended from school for five days as a result of a fighting incident on a school bus. On January 22, 1986, two other students at North Gulfport School were involved in a fighting incident in the gym. This incident was totally unrelated to the Morreale incident. The two students involved in the gym incident were sent to the vice-principal's office with discipline notices written up by Coach Larry Allen Strohm. These discipline notices, which were standard forms, each consisted of three copies. As was common practice, the vice-principal noted on each of the forms the action taken - both of these students were given a warning - and the copies were distributed as follows: one copy to the student to be taken home and signed by his parent and returned; one to the teacher issuing the discipline notice; and one to the office, to be kept in the student's file.

 On learning that Larry Morreale had been suspended from school, while the two boys involved in the gym altercation had only been given a warning, Coach Strohm, who knew Cheryl Morreale on a casual basis, decided to intervene. In violation of school regulations, Strohm went to the school office and photocopied his copy of each of the discipline forms involving the two gym students. Strohm then gave this confidential information either directly to Cheryl Morreale or to Larry Morreale to give to his mother. Strohm knew that his action was contrary both to the school rules and to federal regulations prohibiting the disclosure of personally identifiable student records except with the

 written consent of the student's parent or guardian.

 On January 27, 1986, Mrs. Morreale attended a meeting of the Harrison County School Board in order to object to her son's suspension and to protest what she claimed was inconsistency in the school's discipline policy. In support of her allegation that the school was inconsistent in applying discipline, Morreale distributed to the board members and to several other persons present at the meeting, photocopies of the "teacher's copy" of the discipline forms issued to the two students involved in the gym incident. Both of the students were cited by name in the documents distributed by Morreale. The unauthorized release of personally identifiable records such as these subjects a school to the potential loss of federal funding. See 20 U.S.C. 1232 (g)(b)(1) (Supp. 1986). When asked where she had obtained these confidential documents, Morreale stated that she had obtained them from "the students." Coach Strohm's name was not mentioned.

 Following the January 27th Board meeting, the principal of North Gulfport School began to investigate this breach of confidentiality. In the course of his investigation, he interviewed Coach Strohm, who admitted that he had unlawfully copied the documents and given them to Mrs. Morreale.

 After learning that Mrs. Morreale had obtained the discipline forms through unlawful means and then had lied to the Board concerning the means by which she had obtained them, Harrison County School Superintendent Henry Arledge contacted Morreale's principal, Christine Skinner, at Bel-Aire Elementary School, and requested Morreale's file. Morreale's file revealed that she had been called in by Skinner for a conference on December 4, 1985, concerning misconduct with the school's two physical education coaches. On December 3, 1985, Morreale had called Skinner at home to ask if she could bring mistletoe to school the following day to play a joke on the coaches. Skinner told Morreale that she could not bring the mistletoe to school. The following day, both physical education coaches went to Skinner to complain that Morreale had placed mistletoe over the door to the gym and had tried to kiss them as they came in. After the conference with Skinner, Morreale signed a form which acknowledged that a conference had been held and which reflected that the topics discussed were "conduct with PE coaches" and "insubordination."

 At the February 24, 1986, meeting of the Harrison County School Board, Superintendent Arledge recommended that Morreale be suspended from her job as teacher's aide. The Board voted to accept this recommendation. The reason given for Mrs. Morreale's suspension was: "For making false statements to the Harrison County School Board in their meeting held on January 27, 1986,

 and for violation of the Family Rights and Privacy Act." John Ellis, an attorney representing Mrs. Morreale at the February meeting, requested that the Board conduct a hearing for Mrs. Morreale at the School Board meeting to be held on March 3, 1986. The Board agreed to grant this request. On February 25, 1986, Superintendent Arledge wrote Mrs. Morreale advising her of her suspension and also of the hearing to be held on March 3rd. The letter stated in part:

 This suspension is the result of your conduct concerning your giving false statements to the Harrison County School Board at their January 27, 1986, meeting wherein you presented the School Board with copies of two discipline forms concerning two children not related to you nor under your jurisdiction as a teacher aide. . . .

 In addition, you have been cited for failure to follow the instructions of your principal, Ms. Christine Skinner, at the Bel-Aire Elementary School on December 4, 1985, wherein you brought certain items to school after being instructed not to do so. (Insubordination). . . .

 The letter also informed Morreale that she was entitled to be represented at the hearing by counsel and to put on any witnesses and evidence she desired to present.

 At the board meeting on March 3, 1986, Morreale's counsel requested a closed hearing and also requested that the board members recuse themselves and that a hearing officer be appointed. These requests were denied, and an open hearing was conducted before the Board. Various witnesses testified that at the January 27th board meeting, Morreale had distributed copies of the discipline forms to the Superintendent, the board members and the Board's attorney. All witnesses to the incident (except Morreale) were certain that Morreale stated that she had received the forms directly from "the students." Morreale's counsel argued that the phrase "the students" could have referred to Morreale's son, and in that case Morreale would not have been lying when she told the Board she got the forms from "the students." The North Gulfport principal, however, testified that he was certain that Morreale was referring to the two students in the gym incident and that she was thus trying to mislead the Board. North Gulfport's vice-principal testified that Morreale had spoken with him after her presentation to the Board, and that she had expressed concern that the two gym students (whom she then mentioned by name) might get into trouble for giving her

 copies of their discipline forms. The parents of the two gym students testified that Morreale had distributed the ...


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