On a 4-0 vote Tuesday night, the North Kingstown School Committee voted to terminate a high school math teacher at the end of the school year, citing numerous instances of insubordination.
Chairwoman Cheryl Clarkin was absent.
Superintendent Phil Auger alleged Shelley McDonald failed to attend a PARCC exam training session and a PARCC infrastructure trial, and failed to administer the online assessment exam in March at the district’s request. Additionally, McDonald allegedly refused to administer the PARCC in December, which prompted Principal Denise Mancieri to send the math teacher home for the day, Auger said. Near the end of the 2013-14 school year, then high school Principal Thomas Kenworthy, according to Auger, sent a letter of reprimand to McDonald after he became aware she was turning off a wireless router in another teacher’s classroom.
“As superintendent of schools, I cannot allow district staff to be insubordinate to their superiors,” Auger said at the meeting, which was heavily attended by McDonald’s colleagues.
Typically, termination matters are handled in executive session, but the employee can request the hearing be public.
Mary Ann Carroll, the school district’s legal counsel, said the School Committee needed to vote on the matter Tuesday because March 1 is the deadline to notify teachers of layoffs and/or terminations for the following school year. She also said the hearing was a “pre-hearing,” not necessarily a final decision.
National Education Association Rhode Island Deputy Executive Director John Leidecker said McDonald plans to appeal the decision to the School Committee, either via a public evidentiary hearing or in private.
In executive session Tuesday, the School Committee also approved the suspension of another teacher for the remainder of the school year, followed by termination. That teacher’s name was not made public.
Two years ago, McDonald, who has taught in North Kingstown for eight years, had advocated to halt Wi-Fi installation in the district’s schools, offering studies, testimony and literature relating to the alleged dangers of Wi-Fi to humans.
Following Tuesday’s meeting, McDonald, who was diagnosed with Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity Syndrome, said she began having problems around 18 months ago, experiencing sinus pressure and pain that turns into migraines, at times. When she is in areas with Wi-Fi, she finds it difficult to think, McDonald said, among other issues.
“It slows down my thinking,” she said. “It makes me confused and dizzy.”
During a March 2014 meeting, McDonald pressed Auger to sign a “statement of accountability,” assuring the district’s insurance covered health matters allegedly caused by Wi-Fi. At that meeting, McDonald was joined by Town Councilor Kerry McKay, who said due diligence needed to be done “to see if there are any potential alternatives” to Wi-Fi installation if the potential existed for harm to the town’s children. Auger said at the meeting – and reiterated Tuesday night – the state Department of Health has said Wi-Fi is not harmful to humans.
In her statement to the school board, McDonald said she thinks she was being recommended for termination because she regularly advocates against Wi-Fi, for the health and well-being of herself and others in the building.
Leidecker said he regarded McDonald’s termination as “retaliation” because she “chose to speak out.” He alleged McDonald’s requests for accommodations, such as disconnecting Wi-Fi in her classroom and not using Chromebooks in her class, were denied without investigation.
He provided a letter from McDonald’s doctor that stated her symptoms were “causally related” to Wi-Fi wave exposure. Leidecker alleged school officials “demanded” to see McDonald’s medical records, but the math teacher was reluctant to divulge that information, instead inviting committee members and the school’s legal counsel to speak with the doctor directly.
McDonald also said two years ago, Auger threatened to terminate her if she continued to raise her concerns about Wi-Fi health issues – he denies that claim.
“I persist despite Dr. Auger’s warning because a very serious health risk exists in our classrooms,” she said, “and I have a responsibility to my students and their families to advocate the school remove that threat.”
Auger said the hearing was not about her advocacy, but rather the issue of employees “picking and choosing” which rules they’ll follow.
“That will lead to problems of efficiency in getting our mission done,” Auger said.
McDonald said she did not skip the PARCC infrastructure trial, the email invitation was mistakenly sent to another math teacher with the same last name, Brian McDonald instead. She said she uses technology in her classroom on a daily basis, and has taught in classrooms equipped with smartboards. She said she was unaware of specific directives to use technology, but that she uses what is available to her “in a safe and responsible manner, when appropriate.”
Leidecker read evaluations from McDonald’s colleagues, which called her an“effective” teacher and “the kind of teacher you want to retain.”
She said she never refused to attend technology-based training sessions, noting she participated in “several” PARCC training sessions. McDonald said she requested to be trained on hard-wired computers, rather than on wireless devices, because exposure to electromagnetic fields “makes [her] sick.”
“I’ve made that clear; I never refused to give an assessment” she said.
Leidecker argued Pearson, the company that runs the PARCC exams, also requires teachers to agree to its terms, which include teachers disclosing personal information such as Social Security numbers, addresses and other personal information, prior to administering the test, which caused McDonald to be reluctant to click “agree.” Leidecker also said Pearson regards this information as “assets” the company may sell off.
Auger said the district received written clarification from the state Department of Education that Pearson has access to teacher names and subject areas, but not personal information. He said the district “does not pass along” Social Security numbers to the company.
Auger also said the district has yet to receive McDonald’s formal response as to whether she will agree to the terms to administer the PARCC in April. Leidecker said the RIDE clarification was received Monday and there are still open discussions about disclosures the teachers must make. McDonald can’t say “at this point” if she would agree to the terms because a final document of what information Pearson will gather has yet to be provided, Leidecker said.
Auger said no other teachers “to his knowledge” refused to sign the Pearson agreement before administering the PARCC.
Committee member Lynda Avanzato acknowledged McDonald contacted committee members several times about her concerns, but said the situation morphed into “doing something that is not part” of her job.
Carroll said McDonald requested a meeting and two letters were presented to school officials, one from a Wakefield-based walk-in clinic stating the teacher was allergic to electromagnetic radiation and another noting McDonald had migraine headaches while in school. Carroll said the district requested a release to speak with McDonald’s doctor, but McDonald denied that request in an April 6 letter to Auger, citing possible strain on the doctor/patient relationship.
In an April 15 letter, Auger wrote McDonald had not offered “sufficient documentation” to support her request for accommodations.