The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

July 4, 2013

Teacher/coach has hearing with Raleigh BOE, then terminated

Lawyer says he filed appeal with state grievance board

By Jessica Farrish
Register-Herald Reporter

BECKLEY — A Woodrow Wilson High School teacher accused of exchanging inappropriate notes and texts with a student was fired Wednesday by Raleigh County Board of Education members, following a lengthy hearing.

Four BOE members — President Rick Snuffer, Larry Ford, Cynthia Jafary and Sally Susman — unanimously voted to fire Michael “Chuck” Cooper, 38, following a nearly six-hour hearing that was closed to the public.

Member Richard Jarrell was not present.

Cooper’s attorney, David Hart, said he filed an appeal with the West Virginia Public Employees grievance board Wednesday.

“My biggest concern was that the board would look past what the law requires them to do and just look at the politics of it,” said Hart. “If you look at what they’re required to look at to justify termination, I don’t think the facts supported that.”

The appeal will be heard by an administrative judge and then may be appealed by either party to Kanawha County Circuit Court.

Board members voted to uphold a recommendation by Raleigh Schools Superintendent Jim Brown to ratify Cooper’s suspension, in addition to the termination.

Snuffer stood by the board’s decision following the hearing.

“It’s regrettable, but at the end of the day, mistakes were made,” said Snuffer.

He said that while “close to 100 percent” of Raleigh County teachers obey the law, the school system is a “reflection of society.”

Snuffer emphasized that he was not stating the texts were of a sexual nature but that after weighing evidence, BOE members judged the communication did not meet a professional standard required for teachers and that it was not related to classwork.

While teachers are allowed under county code to text students, Snuffer said the communication should be related to classwork.

“There’s a line there,” Snuffer added.

Trap Hill Middle School teacher Lori Lester was fired June 17 for allegedly  “sexting” images of herself and inappropriate comments to the son of a Raleigh school secretary.

Snuffer said he’s “amazed” by how people will make statements on electronic media that they would not make in person.

He added that board members will be reinforcing to employees the importance of maintaining professional conduct in text messages and on other electronic media. Current school policies, including ones related to electronic media, are under review.

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A Beckley Police detective also testified during the nearly six-hour meeting, according to Hart.

Detective Morgan Bragg testified that Beckley officers examined the texts from the student’s phone in Cooper’s case, Hart said.

Hart added he’s confident that no criminal charges will be filed against Cooper, based on evidence presented in the case.

However, Beckley Police Chief Tim Deems said after the Wednesday hearing that a criminal investigation is still being conducted by Det. Bragg.

Bragg stated that Cooper had initially told school officials that he had not exchanged texts with the girl.

The juvenile also stated that no texts had been exchanged and agreed to allow Bragg to search her cell, Bragg added.

He said the messages had been deleted, however, police “were able to retrieve messages that had been between him and her,” Bragg reported.

“We’re working with the Prosecutor’s office to find if there could be possible criminal activity,” he added. “The investigation is still ongoing.”

Both Deems and Bragg characterized the deleted texts as “inappropriate” for a student/teacher relationship.

Deems said the texts did not reach a level that was criminal, but the investigation continues.

“We wanted to give (Cooper) a fair opportunity to have a (school) hearing,” Deems said. “That’s why we’re releasing this now.”

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According to Hart, the mother of a girl at Independence High School also testified that her daughter was sent texts that were of a sexual nature by a teacher at that school last semester.

Hart said he presented a copy of a letter in which Independence Principal Chris Perkins stated that he was made aware of the incident and had reported it to the Raleigh County Schools Central Office.

As of the last day of school, Hart said, the teacher was still employed. Perkins could not be reached immediately for comment.

Hart said he believes BOE members voted to fire Cooper for “political” reasons.

“It’s a situation where you’re dealing with people who answer to the voters and who are always concerned something is going to happen in the future,” he said.

“Terminate the teacher, and you don’t have to worry about someone worrying you were too soft on them.

“I can certainly see where they would have some concerns about voting, even if maybe it’s not justified by the facts of the law.”

He added that the decision placed a hardship on Cooper’s family.

Cooper was hired last school year as head football coach at Independence High School.

Hart said he’s unsure how the football program will be impacted by the termination and the appeals process, which he does not expect to be speedy.

“If this appeal’s successful, (Cooper) would have a very strong argument that he would have to be restored to his coaching position,” said Hart. “I don’t anticipate that we will be able to resolve the appeal prior to the time they’ll start practicing.

“The decision really puts the kids over there that will be playing football in a tough spot.”

Practice is expected to start Aug. 5, he said.

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