NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Less than a week after an article detailing her concerns about her treatment by the school district was published, a New Hanover County School employee says a series of upsetting incidents occurred at her workplace, including being asked to sign an evaluation with some negative marks — and backdate it over a year, an apparent violation of district policy.
In late August, NHCS employee Sherri Yelton agreed to publicly discuss her experiences at Forest Hills Elementary School. Yelton claims that she entered a chaotic and hostile workplace when she started there as a data manager in Fall 2015. After reporting a number of concerns – including racial inequity, safety concerns, and other issues – Yelton said she faced escalating harassment from her superiors. Yelton also claimed she did not receive adequate training to handle her new job responsibilities.
The school district maintains that Yelton struggled to meet workplace expectations and that her concerns were properly vetted through the district’s employee grievance system (although her concerns about racial discrimination, including Forest Hills’ controversial Spanish Immersion program, were ruled ‘non-greivable’).
In the end, the school board found that some of Yelton’s safety concerns had merit, but that there was no evidence of a hostile workplace and – when it came to her job performance – found against her after a series of appeals. Yelton was transferred to Wilmington Early College High School (WECHS), a demotion that resulted in a significant pay cut. A federal complaint, filed by Yelton, was dismissed after investigators found no evidence of retaliation by the school.
On Wednesday, September 4 – less than a week after the article published, and the day before Hurricane Dorian struck the region – Yelton said she was approached by WECHS Principal Regina Wooten. It was an administrative day, with few other employees there, and Yelton said there was no one else around when Wooten asked her to come into the office.
Wooten then asked Yelton to sign two ‘employee improvement plans’ one for the current 2018-2019 year, and one for the 2017-2018 year. According to Yelton, she was asked to sign and backdate the 2017-2018 evaluation to June 19, 2018, and Wooten also signed and backdated the document.
The backdated evaluation was positive, overall, noting that Yelton was “an asset” to WECHS, but giving her ‘below standard’ marks for several areas, including being “honest and trustworthy” and using “discretion in handling confidential matters.”
Yelton said she asked if the document would be used against her and was told ‘probably not’ by Wooten. Although she said she felt uncomfortable about it, Yelton said she signed because she was being asked to do so by her supervisor.
According to text messages between Yelton and Wooten’s personal cell phone number (as listed on several documents, including one from the North Carolina English Teachers Association), Wooten later thanked Yelton for signing and for not contacting the media. She also noted that the WECHS staff had “embraced” Yelton, despite the fact that Yelton had not come to WECHS by choice.
Yelton said she had been informed she was on an improvement plan following a 2018 evaluation. Despite asking for a copy of that evaluation she said she didn’t receive one, although she said was told by Wooten if she didn’t meet the conditions she would be fired by NHCS Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley. Yelton said she was unaware she had been placed on a 2019 improvement plan. The first time she saw copies of either evaluation was on September 4, she said.
Reached at her WECHS office on Tuesday, Wooten did not deny the incident but said an important parent call had come up, promising to call back. Wooten hung up without asking for a contact number and did not call back. Wooten also did not respond to further calls to her office, emails, or messages left on her personal cell phone.
Superintendent Markley said the district could not comment on an “improvement plan” as it is part of an employee’s personnel file. Markley added that, in general, “it is not the policy of the district to backdate documents, especially those that relate to personnel.”
The following week, Yelton took Thursday, September 12 and Friday, September 13, off of work. During that time, Yelton said the WECHS data manager opened her locked desk drawer, apparently looking for access codes to ‘e-text’ versions of textbooks.
It is not clear how Yelton’s desk drawer was unlocked. Yelton said she believed she had the only key to it. Further, WECHS staff were apparently unable to relock the desk, and instead moved Yelton’s notebooks, files, and key box and stored them in the data manager’s office until Yelton returned to work.
Yelton also noted several incongruities with the story of why her desk was opened, including the fact that she does not have any current access codes, and that all of WECHS’ textbook information is kept in a free-standing cabinet – marked ‘textbooks’ – that is separate from her desk.
Yelton said she had kept private items, including medical information and personal passwords, in the desk and felt deeply uncomfortable that others had access to them.
Markley gave a similar reason for the search of Yelton’s desk.
“The principal indicated that a student needed an access code for an online textbook and that code could be found in the desk. Since the person assigned to that desk was not there, another person opened the desk to look for the access code,” Markley wrote in an email.
However, neither Markley, the district, or the board of education addressed whether NHCS employees should have the expectation that their locked desks would be private in their absence.
It is not clear if the WECHS employees who searched Yelton’s desk found what they were looking for.
A final incident occurred earlier this week, when Yelton learned from an employee at another school that her desk phone had been rerouted to Wooten’s personal cellphone.
On Wednesday morning, Yelton received an email from a support associate at Laney High School, noting that a school bus had been in an accident, delaying a WECHS student who was being held at the Laney cafeteria. According to the email, the WECHS front desk phone – which Yelton usually answers – was rerouted to a message, which gave Wooten’s personal number.Yelton said this was unusual, even when she was out sick as it was common procedure to have another employee handle her desk phone.
All Board of Education members were invited to comment on the situation, specifically or generally, but so far there has been little response. One board member responded to say they had inquired with Board Attorney Wayne Bullard about whether employees’ desks could be considered private, but had not yet received a response.
Board member Judy Justice responded to say she could not speak to the specifics, but stated that “our school district needs to adhere to the policies and the law and – if we don’t – whoever is violating it needs to be held accountable.”
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