Smith v. Bd. of Sch. Trs. of the Monroe Cnty. Cmty. Sch. Corp., 53A01–1211–MI–511.

Docket NºNo. 53A01–1211–MI–511.
Citation991 N.E.2d 581
Case DateJune 27, 2013
CourtCourt of Appeals of Indiana

991 N.E.2d 581

Stephen G. SMITH, Appellant–Petitioner,

No. 53A01–1211–MI–511.

Court of Appeals of Indiana.

June 27, 2013.

[991 N.E.2d 584]

Kevin W. Betz, Jamie A. Maddox, Courtney E. Campbell, Betz & Blevins, Indianapolis, IN, Attorneys for Appellant.

James L. Whitlatch, Holly M. Harvey, Bunger & Robertson, Bloomington, IN, Attorneys for Appellee.


BARTEAU, Senior Judge.

Stephen G. Smith appeals the trial court's order affirming the decision of the Board of School Trustees of the Monroe County Community School Corporation (“Board”) to terminate Smith's teaching contract. We affirm.


We consolidate and restate the issues as:

I. Whether there was substantial evidence to support the Board's decision to terminate Smith's contract.

II. Whether the Board followed proper procedures in terminating Smith's contract.


Smith had been employed as a teacher by the Monroe County Community School Corporation (“MCCSC”) for approximately twenty years. During the 2010–2011 school year, Smith taught in the social studies department at Bloomington High School South and coached the freshman boys' baseball team. On April 14, 2011, Smith suffered a severe injury when he was hit in the head by a baseball. Although Smith had suffered a potentially life-threatening injury, he returned to work on April 25, 2011. Not long after his return to work, Smith was present at a social studies department meeting on May 11, 2011. At the meeting, Smith interrupted several times in a loud, threatening manner with obscenity-laced comments. Smith's comments and behavior were reported to administrators by at least one of the teachers that had been present at the meeting, and several administrators, including Peggy Chambers, the assistant superintendent for human resources and personnel, met with Smith the following day. At the conclusion of this meeting, administrators put Smith on administrative leave with pay and with certain restrictions. Following the meeting, Smith received a letter from Chambers confirming his administrative leave and outlining the specific restrictions. The letter indicated that Smith must attend counseling sessions, that he was suspended from MCCSC property and campuses, that he was prohibited from attending any MCCSC sponsored activity or event, and that his employment status would be re-evaluated by July 15, 2011. The letter also stated that any violation of these directives would result in further disciplinary action, including termination.

On the day of Smith's meeting with administrators and the commencement of his administrative leave, he went to a local park where the freshman boys' baseball game was being held and dropped off equipment for the game. After doing so, Smith called Chambers to tell her of his actions. During the call, Chambers reminded Smith that he was not to be on school grounds or at a school activity or event. Chambers did not make a recommendation for Smith's termination at that time.

[991 N.E.2d 585]

Due to the scheduling of an evaluation of Smith, his administrative leave was extended beyond July 15, 2011. On July 11, 2011, Chambers sent Smith a letter notifying him that his administrative leave was being extended to August 10, 2011. Although the letter stated that Smith's administrative leave was being extended, it was silent as to the restrictions that had been placed upon him when he was originally placed on leave in May. However, Chambers informed Smith in a phone conversation that the restrictions of his leave, including the prohibition from school property, were also extended.

On July 26, 2011, Smith went to Childs Elementary, a school in MCCSC, to return a key to Joani Lentz, a Childs Elementary staff member. Upon entering the school, Smith spoke to Kendall Knight, a school custodian, and to Chris Finley, the school principal. Smith inquired whether he was allowed to be on school property, and Finley responded that he was not. Smith left the building without incident, and Finley reported this occurrence to administrators, who then commenced the process of cancelling Smith's teaching contract. Following the conference at which both sides presented witnesses and evidence, the Board voted to terminate Smith's contract. Smith appealed the Board's decision to the trial court, and the trial court affirmed the Board's decision, concluding that the Board followed proper procedures in terminating Smith's contract and that its decision to do so was supported by substantial evidence. Smith now appeals.


The first issue is whether the Board's decision to cancel Smith's contract was supported by substantial evidence. In reviewing a school board's decision, we stand in the same position as the trial court; that is, our review is limited to determining whether the board followed the proper procedures and whether there is substantial evidence to support the board's decision. Hierlmeier v. N. Judson–San Pierre Bd. of Sch. Trs., 730 N.E.2d 821, 823 (Ind.Ct.App.2000). Under this standard, we may not review the weight and effect of the evidence upon which the administrative decision is based. Id. We may vacate a school board's decision only if the evidence, when viewed as a whole, demonstrates that the board's decision is clearly erroneous. Id. at 826.

In order to cancel a teacher's contract, a school board must demonstrate that the teacher's conduct falls within the grounds enumerated in Indiana Code section 20–28–7.5–1(e) (2011).1 In the instant case, the Board cancelled Smith's teaching contract for insubordination, neglect of duty, and other good or just cause pursuant to Indiana Code section 20–28–7.5–1(e)(2), (5) and (7).

Indiana Code section 20–28–7.5–1(e)(2) defines insubordination as “a willful refusal to obey the state school laws or reasonable rules adopted for the governance of the school building or the school corporation.” Rules adopted for the governance of the school building or the

[991 N.E.2d 586]

school corporation can include an unambiguous order of the school principal. See Werblo v. Bd. of Sch. Trs. of Hamilton Heights Sch. Corp., 519 N.E.2d 185, 191 (Ind.Ct.App.1988), vacated in part by Werblo v. Bd. of Sch. Trs. of Hamilton Heights Sch. Corp., 537 N.E.2d 499 (Ind.1989). They can also include an order given to the teacher by a school trustee. See Stiver v. State ex rel. Kent, 211 Ind. 370, 1 N.E.2d 592, 594 (1936). However, before a teacher can be terminated for violating a school corporation's rule, the evidence must establish that the rule was unambiguous and reasonable. Werblo, 519 N.E.2d at 191.

Smith first argues that there was no rule in place when he went onto the property of Childs Elementary School on July 26, 2011. In the alternative, he claims a rule existed, but it was ambiguous and unreasonable.

The rule pertinent here is the prohibition of Smith from going on any MCCSC property. This rule was put into place following a May 11, 2011 social studies department meeting during which Smith was very agitated and boisterous and made numerous obscenity-laced remarks. A fellow social studies teacher testified to the Board that at one point in the meeting, referring to his class schedule, Smith asked, “Who do I have to kill to get this changed?” Appellant's Corrected App., Vol. I, p. 113 (Tr. p. 32). At the conference before the Board, Smith denied making this statement. The teacher reported in a written statement, “[Smith's] blow-up in the department meeting far exceeded anything I have witnessed in any employment situation. I do not know if his threat of violence was real or simple venting, but it far exceeded behavior I expect from my co-workers and teachers.” Ex. 9, Appellant's Corrected App., Vol. II, p. 374. The same teacher also reported that upon Smith's return to work following his head injury, he had on several different occasions made disparaging remarks about his students and the administration. Id. The evidence of Smith's behavior at school following his head injury supports a finding that the rule prohibiting him from MCCSC property was reasonable for the protection of the students and staff of Bloomington High School South, as well as the entire MCCSC.

The rule was adopted by MCCSC and was issued to Smith in person on May 12, 2011 by the interim superintendent, the school principal, and Chambers. The rule was also put into writing to Smith by Chambers. Smith concedes that this rule was in place from May 12, 2011 to July 11, 2011.

On July 11, 2011, Chambers sent Smith a letter indicating that MCCSC was extending his administrative leave until August 10, 2011 due to the scheduling of his evaluation. The letter was silent as to the restrictions that had been placed upon Smith at the commencement of his leave in May. However, Chambers testified unequivocally at the conference before the Board that on July 11, 2011, she had a phone conversation with Smith in which she informed him that a letter extending his administrative leave had been sent to him and that his prohibition from school property remained in effect during the extension of his administrative leave. Conversely, Smith testified at the conference that there was no discussion of the continuation of his prohibition from school property during his July 2011 conversation with Chambers.

Although Smith's testimony contradicts that of Chambers, we are not to reweigh the evidence. See Hierlmeier, 730 N.E.2d at 823. Chambers' testimony establishes that Smith was told explicitly on July 11, 2011 that his prohibition from MCCSC property was to remain in effect during

[991 N.E.2d 587]

the extension of his administrative leave. Thus, the evidence supports a finding that an unambiguous rule existed prohibiting Smith from being on MCCSC property on July 26, 2011.

Next, Smith contends that he did not willfully disobey the...

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