A petition in support of a former Walnut Grove Elementary teacher, who recently resigned, has gained support from the community and the circumstances of her departure may become the subject of a lawsuit against the Williamson County School District.
Melanie Lemon was a 2nd-grade teacher at Walnut Grove Elementary School for the past seven years. She handed in her letter of resignation on May 12, effective May 24, after a series of incidents in which she felt “bullied” by the administration. Lemon resigned to “get the administration to back off and leave her alone,” she said. Lemon said she was bullied to the point of resignation by the administration and that it had been ongoing for most of the 2016-17 school year.
The most recent on record incident leading to Lemon’s resignation was an investigation that led to a three-day suspension for the elementary school teacher in April. The investigation came about after an alleged incident involving a parent’s complaint that Lemon pushed their child’s arms down and/or grabbed their wrist and said “stop it” before a play on March 9, according to a Williamson County Schools report. The investigation resulted in a formal reprimand and Lemon was reinstated on April 24. She was put under video monitoring in her classroom with a teacher monitor also sitting in to watch her in the classroom.
A letter of suspension by the WCS Superintendent Dr. Looney to Lemon states that she said she did not specifically remember touching the student at the alleged time. But she said she could have put her hands on the student’s shoulders to redirect the student because that is something she often did with this student. She said saying “stop it” would also not be unusual with this student.
Lemon said that touching students is a normal part of managing elementary-aged students at times, and unremarkable one at that. She said that the administration took the parent at their word and that its investigation was disingenuous and ignored many potential witnesses who would have been present to see the alleged incident.
Support from Parents & Teachers
The petition started on May 14th and within 36 hours surpassed its goal of 1,500 signatures. As of the writing of this story, 1,822 people have signed the petition. The petition was presented to the Williamson County School Board on May 15 at its regular meeting to highlight Lemon’s alleged mistreatment.
Supporters of Lemon dressed in black and spoke on her behalf at the meeting. Supporters included former students, parents and co-workers. Each person in the public comment part of these meetings is given three minutes to speak. Lemon’s supporters read from a prepared statement in relay form, which Lemon assisted in preparing.
The first to speak was Shirlee Bowden, who taught at Walnut Grove from its inception in 1990 until her retirement two years ago, and taught with Lemon for several years.
“Superintendent Dr. Looney took me out in the hallway before I spoke and wanted to nicely tell me that the board is not in charge of personnel and hiring and firing, but he knows what I am going to say. I worked in WCS for nearly 30 years until two years ago, and I don’t have anybody I want you to hire or fire. I just want to talk about something that you might not be aware of,” Bowden said to the school board.
She has since talked to the Williamson Source, explaining that she feels Lemon was bullied at her job.
Bowden Alleges Intimidation by WCS Superintendent
“Be Nice might be the schools’ slogan, but it is not what happened with Melanie Lemon,” she said. “She was bullied by her bosses over the year and targeted and this was an opportunity to find a reason to force her out. This ‘be nice’ campaign is kind of humorous. because your administration operates on a bully system. They do it with the nicest voices.”
In a recorded interview with the Williamson Source, Bowden alleged that Dr. Looney threatened Lemon’s career:
“He [Dr. Looney] came and tapped me on the shoulder and took me outside,” Bowden said. “And he said, ‘I know what is going on. I followed it on social media. You just need to know that the Board has no jurisdiction over hiring and firing.’ I said, ‘I know that.'”
“He [Dr. Looney] said, ‘Melanie Lemon will never teach in Williamson County again.’ I said, ‘She doesn’t want to.’ And then he said, ‘If you go through with this, she will never teach in the state of Tennessee again.'”
When asked if she believes Dr. Looney’s intent was to intimidate her to prevent her from speaking before the board, Bowden said, “Yes, of course.”
Bowden said she has written the Board a letter letting them know what the superintendent told her before she spoke at the meeting.
Watch Public Comments from Lemon Supporters at WCS Board Meeting:
Excerpts from Public Comment at WCS Board Meeting
“She was the kind of teacher you wanted your kids to have. She possesses compassion, is knowledgeable and funny, a loving kind of teacher that students invite to graduations, high school and college, their weddings, their baby showers. Kids at the ball field see her and run over with open arms to hug her,” Bowden said. “She is a hugger. She went into school every day excited for the opportunity to interact with her students.”
“Melanie had a horrid year, and you did not get the full story,” Bowden told the board. After Bowden spoke, Jeremy Spillman, a parent, spoke next.
Spillman outlined Lemon’s side of the story. He said that after a disagreement that occurred between Lemon and current Walnut Grove Principal Kate Donnelly in the early part of the 2016-17 school year, Lemon spent the rest of the school year “feeling bullied” by the administration and from that point on she felt “targeted.”
“At an open house event in August, Melanie sought the principal’s help for some parents who needed help with their child,” Spillman said. “It was turned around to make Melanie feel like she did something to upset the parent. She tried to face the situation head on by telling the principal how she felt, but the principal did not seem interested in how Melanie felt.”
“Several meetings were held in which Melanie tried to explain how she felt unsupported. They were fruitless. Instead, Melanie was bullied,” Spillman said.
“I know you haven’t heard this because teachers and staff are afraid to come out and stand up for themselves. They fear retaliation,” Spillman told the board.
Spillman outlined another incident that occurred after the August open house, in which he claims Lemon was bullied again.
After finding out a fellow teacher’s child had leukemia, Lemon and two other teachers decided to “do a fundraiser outside of school selling t-shirts,” he said.
Lemon was asked to get a list of t-shirt sizes needed so that they could be ordered for students. She went to the school bookkeeper and got the list, which listed sizes but not names, Spillman said.
“The principal called Melanie into her office and berated her for doing this, citing privacy laws,” he said. “But since she did not divulge any private information she didn’t realize and privacy laws were violated.
She was also told, Spillman said, that the school could not be involved in a fundraiser. So Lemon and other teachers started a private Facebook page to continue the effort.
“The principal again called her into her office and told her this was illegal,” he said. “Other teachers were not reprimanded . . . Melanie only felt she was coming to the aid of a friend. For this, she was bullied.”
It is not clear whether Lemon’s actions regarding her fundraising efforts would be illegal or not; the personnel and disciplinary records on Lemon given to the Williamson Source by WCS include no mention of this incident.
Response from Williamson County School District
The school district gave the Williamson Source the following statement:
“On May 2, Dr. Looney communicated his concerns to Mrs. Lemon that she was leaving her students unattended in the classroom as well as spending too much time on the computer. On May 12, Mrs. Lemon resigned effective May 24. We understand she has now hired an attorney. If she and her attorney somehow try to litigate her resignation, we will aggressively defend Williamson County Schools.”
The Williamson Source is following additional developments in this story and interview with Melanie Lemon, and will provide further updates as warranted.