The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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July 1, 2013

WWHS teacher says exchanged texts weren’t of a sexual nature

Termination hearing set for Wednesday by BOE

BECKLEY — The Woodrow Wilson High School teacher who was accused in May of having an inappropriate texting relationship with a female student said Friday that the communication was never inappropriate in a sexual way.

Michael “Chuck” Cooper, 38, of Beckley, was recently hired as the head football coach for Independence High School. He is facing a termination hearing Wednesday before Raleigh County Board of Education members at the direction of Raleigh Schools Superintendent Jim Brown.

Cooper said that because his case was publicized at the same time Trap Hill Middle School teacher Lori Lester was fired for allegedly sending sexual texts to a 13-year-old student, many people in the community assumed that his case involved sexual content, too.

According to Cooper and his attorney, David Hart, that assumption is false.

“It’s been a month of hell,” said Cooper. “It really has.”

Hart said the incident didn’t start with texts but with notes that were passed back and forth through Cooper’s teacher mailbox in the WWHS office.

“The implication has been that these were somehow sexually inappropriate,” said Hart. “They’re not.”

Hart said that some texts were also sent between Cooper and the student, and that those texts were not sexual in nature, either.

“There have not been any messages whatsoever that have been inappropriate in that way,” Hart emphasized.

Cooper, a social studies and history teacher, said the incident started in May, when a note showed up in his teacher communication mailbox.

“The very first one said, ‘I miss your class. I hate my new first block.’

“It had a heart for a signature,” said Cooper. “I thought it was a fellow co-worker playing a joke on me.”

Over the next few days, the notes kept appearing in the school mailbox, according to Cooper.

He asked his co-worker about the notes, and the co-worker denied having placed them there.

The notes were on “random” things, said Cooper, such as getting the IHS weight room “fixed.”

“There were several of them there, and there was never a signature,” recalled Cooper. “It wasn’t like a flowing conversation. It was almost like she was trying to start a conversation.”

He wasn’t sure, at first, who was sending the notes, and he eventually scribbled a line back, he said.

“I wrote back on the bottom of one of her (notes) and just answered the question,” said Cooper.

He learned the student was a girl he’d had in class the previous semester. He added he’d never had any in-depth conversations with her and had rarely spoken with her outside class.

When Cooper was asked why the girl would send him a note, Hart interjected that the girl’s mother told him that “there are a number of girls her (daughter’s) age (at WWHS) who had a crush on Chuck.”

A series of texts from the girl occurred over the next several days, but they were not sexual in any way, according to Hart.

Hart declined to share the body of the texts in order to protect the student’s privacy. He added that an officer with Beckley Police Department had given the texts to him.

Cooper explained that he, like many other teachers, is accustomed to receiving texts from students.

One student, a female classmate and lifelong friend of Cooper’s 17-year-old son, often texts Cooper to say she won’t be needing a ride to school.

Another student, a male, once texted Cooper that he was preparing to become violent with another WWHS teacher. Cooper immediately pulled the student out of class and defused the situation, he said.

“I would say every teacher in that building has been sent or received a text message,” said Cooper. “There are teachers who don’t coach or do clubs, but they have kids who have their numbers. There are teachers who communicate that way quite a bit.”

Cooper added that he didn’t believe he was being inappropriate when texting the student in the current case.

He said he realizes now that it was “a huge mistake.”

Male and female teachers often communicate via text with students of the opposite sex, he added.

“But would the board deem that the girl who texted me and said, ‘I’m not going to school today,’ inappropriate, just because she’s a girl?” Cooper asked. “I feel like there’s some inconsistencies.”

According to Hart, there is no policy in the Raleigh school system that governs student-teacher texting.

Cooper said that in the case over which he is now facing a termination hearing, the notes and texts occurred over a period of two weeks late in the last semester.

WWHS principal Marsha Smith became aware of the issue May 28, when another student pulled the note from Cooper’s mailbox in the office and gave it to a PRO officer, according to Cooper.

The PRO officer notified Smith, who then requested a hearing with Cooper.

Smith also notified the mother of the student, Cooper said.

On May 30, Cooper met with Raleigh Schools Superintendent Jim Brown.

“I did not know (the communication) was inappropriate,” said Cooper. “I knew that (the administration) didn’t like the communication, but I didn’t think I was going to be terminated because of it until I went to Brown’s office.”

Cooper said he did not take a union representative into the meeting with Brown, despite other teachers having urged him to do so.

During the May 30 meeting, Hart alleged, Brown stated that Cooper had been in a similar incident at another school and that he would probably be fired. (Brown was not immediately available for comment Friday.)

Hart said that Brown’s statement is false and that Cooper’s personnel file proves Cooper has never had a similar charge.

Cooper said he has not been allowed to coach or teach and hasn’t been paid since the hearing.

Cooper, a married father of a 17-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter, said while the incident has been hurtful, he has received support from family, the sports community and fellow teachers.

“The public’s perception is a lot worse than what the messages obviously were,” said Cooper.

According to Hart, the student’s mother has stated that while she is in favor of a reprimand and would like to see development of a countywide policy to address student-teacher communication, she does not think Cooper’s communication with her daughter warrants a termination.

“The board is obligated under West Virginia law to use progressive discipline,” said Hart. “Starting with a step of termination would be inappropriate, especially when you’re dealing with the facts as we know them, and the board really doesn’t have a policy to govern this.”

Hart said that the lack of policy opens the way for the BOE to handle different situations involving teacher-student communication in an inconsistent way.

“We’ll have another witness at (Cooper’s) hearing, who her daughter received sexually explicit text messages from a teacher,” said Hart. “We have evidence that it was reported to the central office, and the central office did nothing about it.

“The teacher was on the job the last week of school that year,” said Hart. “(The mother) got a letter from the school saying, ‘We referred it to the central board.’”

Hart alleged that in the Lester case, Lester sent sexually explicit images and texts to her 13-year-old student. He added that the student’s mother worked as a secretary in the Raleigh school system — a fact he will be presenting to BOE members July 3.

“The superintendent asked (the mother) for her cell,” charged Hart. “When she wouldn’t give it to him, he threatened to terminate her over things she had on her Facebook page.”

The attorney said there will be “false security” if the public accepts Cooper’s case as proof that the superintendent’s office is faithfully addressing inappropriate relationships between students and teachers.

“I hope they don’t terminate a good teacher and a good coach who has been coaching for 17 years without ever having had a bad report,” said Hart. “The hope is they deal with this.”

BOE President Rick Snuffer said Sunday that he and fellow board members have purposefully not viewed any information that would “prejudice” them prior to the Wednesday hearing.

He noted that Brown had obviously seen something that he judged inappropriate enough to request termination and that that information will be presented to BOE members Wednesday.

Snuffer added that state law regulates inappropriate behavior between students and teachers, even without support of a county policy.

— E-mail: jfarrish@register-herald.com

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