The contract of Lonoke High School Biology teacher Boaz Cotton was terminated by the Lonoke School Board on Tuesday night during a personnel hearing. Cotton was suspended with pay on Feb. 10 after inappropriately touching a student’s face.
A mass of students wearing green T-shirts that read “100 percent Cotton,” parents and teachers in support of reinstating Cotton filed into the high school library for the 7 p.m. public hearing that night. The hearing was open to the public at Cotton’s request.
Although the recent event involving a student was the focal point at Cotton’s hearing, it was not the only offense taken into consideration by the board.
Lonoke Superintendent Suzanne Bailey listed 14 reasons in a letter recommending Cotton’s contract be terminated: slapping a student in the face; admitting to putting his hand on the face of a student; guiding the student to the restroom to get him away from his friends; standing in the way to block the door of the restroom to others;
telling the student he could put his hand on another’s face to get even; taking off a coat as you went to the restroom; apologizing to the student’s mother for striking him; the use of profanity in front of students, for which Cotton had previously been written up for;
having lunch with students although warned not to do so and was written up for it; failure to maintain a professional relationships with students; conduct materially interferes with the continued performance of his duties as an educator; engaging in conduct that adversely reflects upon the integrity of the school district and its instructional staff;
showing an inappropriate video in the classroom during October 2013 entitled “Child Birth or Getting Kicked in the Balls;” taking a female student into the hall on Aug. 28, 2013, held her hand and talked to her closely about doing the wrong assignment, scaring her because he was “invading her space.”
Donn Mixon of Mixon Law Firm in Jonesboro conducted the interviews during the hearing. After reviewing written letters from teachers, students and parents on Cotton’s behalf, the board moved into private with Cotton and a witness to review the security video captured on the day of the event.
Upon returning to public meeting, High School Principal Marc Sherrell, assistant high school principal Karen Gibbs and Bailey gave their accounts of Cotton’s conduct in question and their involvement with the investigation involving Cotton and the male student .
According to Sherrell, Cotton openly admitted to putting his hand on the student’s face.
“He stated that he knew it was wrong and he was sorry for doing it,” Sherrell said. “Upon admitting to physically laying hands on a student, Mr. Cotton was suspended with pay until further notice.”
In regards to the incident of invading the female student’s “space” in August 2013, Sherrell said when asked, the student said she did not feel Cotton was making sexual advances toward her or threatened while he spoke with her, but based on facial expressions and actions such as holding her hand, she felt like he was talking to her like a boyfriend would. Sherrell also said the student said that Cotton uses vulgar language in the classroom at times.
Bailey’s and Gibbs’ statements coincided with Sherrell’s statement. While being interviewed by Mixon, Bailey said she did not feel Cotton is showing professionalism in his conduct.
“We are here for the safety and security for all students,” Bailey said. “We are also role models.”
Cotton also interviewed Bailey, asking her if she spoke to him following his suspension and prior to the letter of recommendation to terminate his contract. Bailey responded that she had investigated the matter, interviewed Cotton and had evidence to recommend his termination. She told Cotton she did not understand the purpose of his question.
“I watched the video and saw everything I needed to know,” Bailey said.
Every student, parent and teacher in support of Cotton rose as Chandler Elmore took a seat to speak on his behalf. Elmore said Cotton has earned the title of his favorite teacher through his ability to excel in places other teachers have failed.
“I have been challenged as a student, been provided hope as a citizen and have been shown love from whom I now call a very close mentor, role model and friend,” Elmore said. “This preparation is crucial to my future success as I intended to pursue a career in the sciences and I feel to, an solely to, Boaz Cotton I am now prepared. It is crucial to the future success of this wonderful school district that I will always call home, to obtain and retain quality teachers such as Mr. Cotton. The world needs more people like him.”
Elmore said he has also spoken to the male student involved in the incident and that the student has no hard feelings toward Cotton.
“He holds in no hard feelings,” Elmore said. “He would like to see Mr. Cotton reinstated.”
High school physical science teacher Rebekah Digiacomo also spoke on Cotton’s behalf. Digiacomo read a letter from the high school science department testifying to his teaching ability, character and requesting he be returned to his teaching position.
“He is the most qualified to fill this role and does an excellent job as evidenced by the rising EOC [end of course] and AP [advanced placement] Biology scores over the past four years,” Digiacomo said. “There is not another science teacher at Lonoke High School who would be able to offer the level of quality education he brings to his classroom.”
Digiacomo added that Cotton’s students would not be sufficiently prepared for the upcoming EOC and AP exams; that the impact of his extended absence or termination would be felt heavily and would be reflected negatively in the district’s annual scores.
“Mr. Cotton sets the bar high for his students, thus setting the bar high in the department,” Digiacomo said. “Without Mr. Cotton, we will be significantly set back as a department.”
During her personal comments, Digiacomo said Lonoke has a tradition of low standards which have been challenged by Cotton.
Cotton’s supporters remained standing, some holding hands and shedding tears, as people spoke on Cotton’s behalf, with applause following each testimony.
Before the meeting moved into executive session for discussion by the board, Cotton commented on Bailey’s list of recommendations. Cotton said because of his mixed heritage, in his upbringing he has seen family members struggle with life, some even ending up in jail or dead. He said because of this he relates to students on a different level, wanting them all to excel.
“My professionalism is to make sure my students know how to handle themselves in life,” Cotton said. “My students come first. My students come before me and that will always be my stance.”
Although the student was not identified during or was in attendance at the hearing, Cotton publicly apologized to him, the school board, faculty and his students for his actions. He admitted to touching the students face, but said he would not call it a “slap” because, in his opinion, a slap is meant to do harm. He said it was not fully thought through before he reacted and he agrees it was inappropriate for him to do.
“This is not something I want for my student,” Cotton said. “I understand that was a mistake. It was a mistake but not a tradition I will follow.”
According to Cotton, he guided the student to the rest room to isolate the student before the student made a mistake he could not recover from, such as hitting a teacher in front of other students. He said he posed questions for him to stop and think.
In regards to the incident with the female student, Cotton said as a tall man, he is often found intimidating. He said by sitting on the stairs he was trying to give the student the advantage of looking down at him rather than looking up. As for the use of language while teaching and showing of the video, Cotton said he did do both, but ceased following his write up.
Cotton did admit to continuing to allow students to eat in his classroom after being told not to do so. He said he used the time to engage with students and further their learning.
On his students’ behalf, Cotton emphasized how his being “abruptly taken away” has affected them and how they would be affected by his termination should the board vote to terminate him.
“It is not my conduct but my suspension is what is hurting my students worse,” Cotton said. “I sincerely believe it is in the best interest of the students to at least allow me to finish out the year.”
Cotton suggested the board allow him to finish out the year or to punish him through restrictions.
The hearing closed shortly before 11 p.m., after the board returned from a 76-minute executive session.
Karl Pennington made the motion, seconded by Mike Brown, to accept Bailey’s recommendation to terminate Cotton’s contract. Matt Boyles, Karen James, Mike Brown and Darrell Park voted in favor; Johnie Watson and Karl Pennington abstained; Tony Kellybrew was absent.