EHS students walk out over Alexander's suspension

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Elizabethton High School students want to put Ed back in education.
   One day after school principal Edwin Alexander was suspended from his duties, scores of high school students walked out of the school Tuesday morning protesting his removal.
   Roughly 250 students gathered in the commons area of the high school before first period Tuesday morning, according to students who spoke with the Star at locations off campus.
   The students left the building shortly after school began, standing outside before filing into the gymnasium after Blevins said she wanted to address them. The high school's enrollment is approximately 810 students.
   Scores of students later walked out of the high school -- many chanting "We want Ed!" -- and gathered at the flag pole behind the building.
   "I think Mr. Ed is a great principal, and if I have to invite him as my prom date I will," said Laura Browning, a senior. "He has been here since my dad was in school."
   Blevins suspended Alexander without pay on Monday. The decision came after Blevins said she was adopting the findings of an investigation of Alexander that he had harassed the school vocational director Adeline Hyder.
   Elizabethton Police arrived on scene and blocked entrances to the high schools. Police also instructed media representatives at the scene to leave the school's campus.
   Police Chief Roger Deal spoke with the media on Tuesday afternoon and said police had received a telephone call at 8 a.m. advising them students were refusing to go to class.
   "So far, everything has been pretty peaceful," said Deal of the protest. Deal said the only incidents that occurred involved students possibly lobbing plastic pop bottles in the air that may have struck two students. He also said the high school's student resource officer, Sgt. Kenny Hardin, was talking with students.
   "We were in the commons area and then we went to the flag pole," said EHS senior Rebecca Gragg, one of several students who voiced their support for Alexander. "I want him to hand me my diploma."
   Gragg said students went to the gymnasium at the request of Blevins to talk about why Alexander was not at school.
   Cody Jennings Jr., a junior, said students had discussed the protest on Monday after word spread through the community that Alexander had been suspended.
   "In my opinion, I think Mr. Alexander is the best thing that could happen to this school," said Jennings.
   Students returned to class shortly before noon after Blevins left the building. Classes continued on schedule throughout the rest of the day, according to Blevins. Students and citizens painted vehicle windshield's with the phrase "We Want Ed".
   Speaking with the Star shortly after leaving EHS, Blevins said she had talked to students after they gathered in the gymnasium.
   "I spoke with the students who were truly interested in the case," Blevins said. She said students wanted to know why Alexander was gone and questioned the timing of the decision.
   "The law requires us after a set number of days to render a decision on a grievance," said Blevins. "We need people to understand we were following our policy that requires us to make this decision."
   She said police were summoned to the high school to prohibit television cameras from videotaping students on campus.
   Blevins denied Alexander was given an ultimatum of retiring or being suspended.
   Elizabethton Board of Education Chairman Dr. Bob Sams said Blevins' decision reflected a policy decision of administration and was not privy to the school board.
   "Legally, this is an administrative matter," Sams said. "The only hearing that is legal, is if Mr. Alexander appeals this decision. My thing now is to stay entirely informed, but we'll have to get all the evidence. If it is appealed I want to hear the evidence and vote on it."
   After school was dismissed, students and parents gathered along the sidewalk on Bemberg Avenue with signs and placards in support of Alexander.
   "We feel it is not fair," said protester Clarence Sheffield, who said two of his grandchildren attended EHS. "It is all about politics."
   Sheffield was one of several parents and students rallying support for Alexander along the sidewalk at 2:30 p.m. He and other parents said they were not surprised at all that students chose to show their support of Alexander on Monday morning. "It didn't surprise me at all because all of the students are behind Mr. Ed," said Sheffield.
   "I don't know why the school board let this happen," said Tammy White, who's son attends EHS. "I had Mr. Alexander for a teacher and they could not find a better principal. We're hurting for good teachers and we won't keep the good ones we've got."
   White said she and other parents would resume a peaceful protest of Alexander's removal just outside school grounds this morning.
   Speaking with the Star on Tuesday night, Alexander said he had fielded numerous telephone calls of support throughout Tuesday. He also said he would appeal his suspension to the school board.
   "I am very appreciative of the kindness that the community has shown," Alexander said. Alexander said he had sent a memo to Blevins on Tuesday of his intention to appeal his suspension.
   Alexander is a 28-year school system veteran. He has been the high school's principal for 11 years.
   In a memorandum to Hyder and Alexander dated March 31, 2003, Blevins said she was adopting the findings of the report submitted by attorney David E. Duggan of Maryville into Hyder's allegations as her own. The memo by Blevins said she "must sustain Hyder's grievance wherein she complains that Alexander wrongfully subjected her to harassment and intimidation."
   Hyder, who filed a grievance against Alexander in November, claimed he questioned her integrity, loyalty and her friendship with the schools' director.
   After the grievance was filed, Duggan was appointed to investigate. In the report submitted to the Elizabethton City Schools administration, Duggan writes that he found " ... Mr. Alexander has engaged in certain improper personal actions toward Ms. Hyder, although, I do not find that he is guilty of all the allegations Ms. Hyder has made."
   He reported that Alexander had improperly confronted Hyder about her attendance at a workshop in Gatlinburg.
   Duggan's report found Alexander did not eject Hyder from the high school as alleged in her complaint. His report also found no evidence that Alexander engaged in any type of harassment or discrimination against her.
   Seniors are scheduled to graduate on May 24, and the school prom is slated to take place on April 26. Blevins said all scheduled school functions would go on as planned and no events would be canceled.
   Duggan states in his report, "It appears that each of these persons involved in this investigation is a valued member of the Elizabethton City Schools."
   He cited a document provided to him and dated May 1, 2002, in which Alexander received a perfect score on his personnel evaluation that was executed by Blevins.
   Duggan also cited an evaluation dated April 30, 2001, in which Hyder was given the highest scores possible for her personal characteristics, including competence, communication skills, human relations skills and team relationship.