Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 in Review: The Books that Got Me Fired

(This post from April 2013 includes the audio of Joplin R-8 Human Resources Director Tina Smith's "interrogation" of me. Once the audio was released, my recording of the conversation for my own protection was added to the list of charges against me.)

(The following is my latest Huffington Post blog.)

Two weeks ago today, I walked out of my classroom for perhaps the last time.

It wasn’t anything I planned. Even when I wrote for Huffington Post a couple of weeks ago recommending that young people not become teachers, I never stopped loving my job. I never lost my enthusiasm for teaching eighth graders the finer points of writing.

My students are still in my classroom every day and will be until May 21.  I miss them greatly and hope, perhaps against all hope, that I will get a chance to be with them at least one more time before the school year ends.

That usually doesn’t happen, however, for teachers who have to be escorted from the school building by a police officer in full view of students who were boarding school buses to leave for the day.

You would think that I committed murder or engaged in one of those horrific relationships that bring shame to the teaching profession. That is not the case.

My crime- I write books.

It was just 15 minutes before my police escort that the assistant principal at Joplin East Middle School came into my room during my planning period and said, “They want to see you in the conference room.”

I went into the conference room and found the assistant principal, the principal, and a lady whom I had never seen before. She introduced herself as the school’s human resources director.

The first thing she did was whip a document out. “We prohibit the recording of district meetings like this,” she said, showing me the policy, “so I am going to ask you do you have your cell phone on you and is it turned on?”

“Feel free to check,” I said, as I took it out of my pocket.

“So I’m just going to ask that you turn it off, completely please, and I’m going to ask you to leave it out.”

Once I placed the phone on the table, the questioning began. I was asked about a number of blogs I have, including The Turner Report, my classroom blogs and a few blogs I started, but which had never really taken off.

One of those, which the woman took a particular interest in, was called Room 210 Discussion. I started the site 10 years ago when former students told me they would like to continue having the sorts of discussions they had when they were in my class. I created it and for a few months it was popular then it died down and for the most part, I had just put it out of my mind. During the fall of 2010, I thought once again about starting a discussion site. I changed the description at the top of the blog home page to indicate it was a place for discussion for students and former students, but I never followed up on it. I only used it sometimes to copy and paste some of my blog posts to increase the chance they might catch the attention of a search engine.

After asking me about my blogs, the woman caught me off guard by asking, “Did you write a sexually explicit book called No Child Left Alive?”

I told her I had written a book by that title and that it had sex scenes, but it was not sexually explicit.

She then asked if I had ever encouraged students to download the book and discuss it.


With a dramatic flair, she whipped out a page that had been printed from that Room 210 Discussion site and pointed out to me a part that encouraged people to download the book for free and discuss it. I knew what had happened and tried to explain the website was not used for classroom purposes, probably had only about 5 to 10 visitors a month and it was unlikely any of those were students.

She cut me off, saying I would get my chance to give my side.

I never did.

She wasn’t finished, however. She asked me if I wrote a book called Scars from the Tornado. I said I had. It was a book that I wrote, along with students from East Middle School who shared their experiences in the May 22, 2011, tornado and during our first year in our warehouse school.

“Did you advertise that book on your classroom websites?”


No further questions were asked. I was told I would be placed on “paid administrative leave” while an investigation was conducted.

The bell had just sounded and the shouts of students joyously dashing into the halls, another school day behind them, forced the woman to raise her voice.

After that, I was escorted to my room by the principal, assistant principal, the human resources director, and the police officer. ‘

“We don’t want to draw a lot of attention,” she said, as our parade began, drawing a lot of attention. I handed my school keys to the principal, removed a few personal belongings, and was taken out of the school by the policeman.

As he took me past students and out to my car, I realized I had left my jacket in my classroom, so he escorted me back into my room and back out to my car.

And I left East Middle School, perhaps forever.

For the next 10 days, I waited to hear the results of this “investigation.” Since I had provided the woman with a telephone number, I assumed I would be called for more questions.

That never happened.

On Thursday, I was reading when there was a loud knock on my door. A man sent by the school district delivered an envelope containing 28 pages of charges against me.

Much of it centered on what they termed as “immoral conduct” because I had allegedly encouraged students to read obscene material. I was never allowed to explain that the download reference on my blog, which was not a classroom blog, was from a December 16,2012, Daily Kos diary written just after the murders at Sandy Hook, in which I noted at the end of the piece that No Child Let Alive dealt with the subject of school violence. I invited the Daily Kos readers to download it and discuss it. I had then copied and pasted it into Room 210 for Teachers and Room 210 Discussion. It obviously was never intended for children. That is one of the reasons why the book was published under my real name, William Turner, instead of Randy Turner, the name I normally use.

I was also charged with profiting from the work done by my students in the Scars from the Tornado book and of not getting parental permission to use the material. I had never been asked about either thing, only if I advertised it.

I gave away 1,111 free e-copies of Scars to fulfill a promise I made that all students and staff at East would get one and I had also offered the same deal to the community. Tough way to make a profit.

In addition, as I had written in another blog post, I invested nearly $5,000 in the book and despite that, I had been talking to my fellow teachers, students, and parents about ways to put proceeds into a charity. One of my fellow teachers had suggested a Scars from the Tornado Foundation, with money going to other schools like Joplin’s, Tuscaloosa’s or Sandy Hook that went through tragedies. The students who contributed to the book would serve as a board of directors. All of this had been publicized in my Turner Report blog, as well as on Facebook, and I had also talked the idea over with my principal.

As for those parental permission slips, as I write this, I am sitting a few feet from a folder full of signed parental permission slips.

She never asked.

So a book that has been nothing except positive for Joplin, Scars from the Tornado, is being used to remove me from a job I love.

Why is this happening?

It appears the biggest problem is that in No Child Left Alive, a novel about a year in a dysfunctional high school, I wrote about problems I had heard about from teachers across the United States, including those in Joplin.

I would surmise, that perhaps one of the characterizations in the book offended an administrator. All I know is that when our superintendent issued a statement about my leave, he did not say it was a parent who turned me in, or a student. The complaint came from “a district employee.”

My understanding is that district officials are challenging my claim that I received no opportunity to defend myself. Not only was I treated the way I said I was, but my students and fellow faculty members were treated the same way as they were interrogated in efforts to get them to say something bad about me.

Hopefully, the audio will prove how, in a school district which prides itself on a no tolerance policy for bullies who prey on children, there seems to be no protection from bullies who prey on teachers. 

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