The Tennessean, Tuesday, 05/22/01

Teacher, aide who hit students may be charged

By JENNIFER BARNETT Staff Writer

Two Metro school employees face possible criminal charges in separate cases after parents complained to police that the workers hit the children.

Dorris Armstrong, a physical education teacher at Whites Creek High School, is accused of hitting a student on the arm with a baseball bat during an altercation May 15 in the school's gym, said Tamara Sadler, director of employee relations for the school district. The 15-year-old boy's arm was bruised, and he filed a complaint with the Metro Police Department's Youth Services Division, police spokesman Don Aaron said.

In the second case, special-education aide Jennifer Gipson is accused of hitting and kicking an 8-year-old student at Whitsitt Elementary. The boy, Nikolas Owens, has cerebral palsy and epilepsy and is unable to speak, said his mother, Rhonda Prowell. In both cases, the employees were removed from the classroom with pay, Sadler said. School officials won't take further action until the criminal cases have been resolved, she said. Armstrong and Gipson bring to three the number of school employees accused of striking students last week.

Metro police arrested David Heustess, a kindergarten teacher at Kirkpatrick Elementary, on a charge of misdemeanor assault after a mother claimed he slapped her 6-year-old son in the school's cafeteria. ''It's really troublesome,'' Sadler said. ''I don't know what we can do to avoid these type situations.'' Armstrong, who did not return messages left at his home yesterday, has worked for Metro since 1969, Sadler said. The incident happened after a class had been outside playing softball, Sadler said. Beyond that, witnesses have given conflicting stories, said Sadler and police detective Ron Brannom, who is investigating the complaint. Neither would release the student's name.

Armstrong and the student apparently got into a heated argument, possibly related to an earlier fight involving another student, Sadler said. Other students held the 15-year-old back from the coach but at some point let him go, and the two began arguing again, she said. Reports conflict on whether Armstrong already had the bat in his hand. Armstrong said in a statement that he felt threatened by the student and used the bat to defend himself. The student is taller and weighs more than Armstrong, according to reports. ''It's not good judgment to swing a bat,'' said Graciela Escobedo, assistant superintendent for human resources. ''What we try to enforce is you should never touch a child in a harmful manner, especially when you have something in your hand. . . . We tell teachers to defend themselves by covering themselves, not to swing when something's in your hand.''

Prowell filed a complaint with Metro police yesterday after three adults reported seeing Gipson hit Prowell's son after the boy ran off toward a set of swings during the school's field day on Friday, said Ed Moran, a detective with the Youth Services Division. One also said she saw the aide kick and drag the boy, Moran said.

A woman who answered the phone at Gipson's residence refused to let a reporter speak to her. Gipson has worked for Metro schools since October 1999. Jennifer Barnett covers education for The Tennessean. She can be reached at 726-5964 or jbarnett@tennessean.com.