JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Fired, criminally charged and with her state teaching license on the line, Linda Winters-Johnson admitted Wednesday that she'd been wrong to drag a special education student by the hair across the gym floor at Greenville High School.
"I am an imperfect human who has made a grave mistake," she told Mississippi's Teacher Licensure Commission
The commission, though, didn't buy her remorse. After brief deliberations, a three-commissioner panel voted to bar Winters-Johnson from the classroom for 12 years.
Raina Lee, a lawyer who handles educator misconduct proceedings for the state, said it was the longest such sanction she'd seen. Mississippi has no legal provisions for permanently revoking a teacher's license, although department officials say they plan to ask lawmakers for that power.
The move means Winters-Johnson can't even ask for her license back until the suspension is over, while the commission could have allowed the teacher to seek reinstatement after half the penalty.
"Yes, you can wipe out 20 years of experience in a minute, 20 seconds, because it doesn't take but one," Lee told the commission, rebutting Winters-Johnson's pleas.
A Washington County grand jury indicted Winters-Johnson on a misdemeanor charge of abusing a vulnerable person.
Winters-Johnson tried to argue that videos watched by millions were only part of the story, begging the commission to balance the act against her long years of service. She said she was trying to prevent the student from harming herself and that parts of the video were misleading. Winters-Johnson testified she did not forcefully strike the student with a metal cup, saying she only brushed the student's head "in an exaggerated motion."
"I was there and I know I didn't hit her with the cup," Winters-Johnson said.
She told the panel that she would accept its decision, but her lawyer said she'd consider an appeal to the state Board of Education.
The daylong hearing ended with a withering cross-examination of Winters-Johnson by Lee, after the teacher said she acted after the student had been jumping on bleachers, digging through Winters-Johnson's belongings, and leaning on an exit door.
"Do you have any remorse for your actions?" Lee asked at one point.
"I do," Winters-Johnson replied.
"Would you like to start sharing that with the commission?" Lee responded.
The hearing also showed Winters-Johnson might have gotten off lightly if the videos hadn't surfaced.
Greenville High School Principal Xavier Hodo immediately recommended Winters-Johnson be fired, after a meeting where he said Winters-Johnson told him she only grabbed the student's hair "playfully" and that "this technique had worked in the past" to calm the student.
District leaders overrode Hodo and first opted for suspension, and Winters-Johnson said she felt at one point the incident "would go away." Former Superintendent Leeson Taylor, fired because school board members were displeased by his response, testified that he feared Winters-Johnson would appeal a firing and win. Taylor said he might have chosen not to renew Winters-Johnson's contract after the school year.
"This was a situation where Ms. Johnson did not feel she needed to accept responsibility for her action until the world knew about it," Lee said.
Paula Vanderford of the state Department of Education characterized the investigation as "ongoing," meaning administrative charges could be filed against others. One question is whether any Greenville school employees deleted videos of Winters-Johnson's actions. The district also failed to report the incident to the state within the required 10 days.
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