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Smith v. Columbus City Schools Board of Education

Court of Appeals of Ohio, Tenth District

May 18, 2017

Pamela J. Smith, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Columbus City Schools Board of Education, Defendant-Appellee.

         Appeal from the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas No. 16CVF03-2195

         On brief:

          Cloppert, Latanick, Sauter & Washburn, William J. Steele and Lora A. Molnar, for appellant.

          Wanda T. Lillis, for appellee.

         Argued:

          William J. Steele.

          Wanda T. Lillis.

          DECISION

          KLATT, J.

         {¶ 1} Appellant, Pamela J. Smith, appeals a decision of the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas that affirmed a resolution of the appellee, Columbus City Schools Board of Education, terminating Smith's employment as a teacher. For the following reasons, we affirm that decision.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         {¶ 2} Since 2000, Smith worked as an elementary school teacher at a variety of different schools in the Columbus City School district. In 2015, she was teaching at Fairmoor Elementary School. On April 23, 2015, she was in the school's office area when she overheard a commotion in the lobby near the school's front doors. Two second grade students, referred to herein as Student A and Student B, were yelling at each other. Karlynn Hornsburger, a kindergarten assistant who was working in the school's office at the time, heard the disturbance and went to address it. Michelle Kulewicz, a general instructional assistant who was also nearby, also heard the commotion and saw Hornsburger attempting to settle the students down. As the disturbance continued, Kulewicz joined Hornburger in an attempt to de-escalate the situation. Kulewicz and Hornsburger took positions back to back, each facing one student to separate them from one another as Hornsburger attempted to move Student B into another area of the lobby past a set of doors. Hornsburger testified that they knew exactly what they were doing. During this time, neither Kulewicz nor Hornsburger were concerned that either of the second grade students posed a serious physical threat to them. Kulewicz testified that she knew by attempting to de-escalate the situation she could get hit by Student A but, even if that occurred, it would not really hurt her. Neither Kulewicz nor Hornsburger called for any assistance to deal with the two students.

         {¶ 3} Upon hearing the disturbance, Smith also entered the lobby. As Kulewicz was attempting to settle down Student A, he was swinging his arms at her. Kulewicz tried to keep her hands down to block Student A from swinging. As he swung, Student A came close but did not hit Kulewicz. Smith, however, thought she saw Student A hit Kulewicz. Smith approached Student A yelling "[y]ou don't hit a teacher." (Tr. Vol I at 11.) At this point, the versions of events differ.

         {¶ 4} Kulewicz and Hornburger described how Smith then picked up Student A by his shirt, lifting him up into the air and against the wall. The student began to hit and swing at Smith. She then pushed him down to the ground, where she knelt over him with her knee on the student's chest. Smith denied touching the student. Immediately following the disturbance, Student A left the building. Kulewicz and Hornsburger called Linda Willis, the school's principal, to the lobby. Willis followed Student A out the door, trying to get the student to stop. With assistance from the Columbus Police Department, Willis was able to bring the student back to the school.

         {¶ 5} As a result of this incident, a disciplinary hearing was held. Following that hearing, appellee adopted a resolution reflecting its intent to terminate Smith's employment contract for good and just cause. The resolution cited three grounds for the termination: (1) her interaction with Student A; (2) her conduct upon learning that she was being assigned to another work location pending the investigation into the Student A incident;[1] and (3) previous disciplinary actions against her.[2] Smith requested a hearing in front of a referee. At that hearing, the witnesses testified to the above versions of events. The referee submitted a report and recommendation in which she found that Smith's conduct was good and just cause for her termination and recommended the termination of Smith's employment. Specifically, the referee noted that "[i]n the current situation, she stepped into a situation that was being handled and exacerbated the situation and Student A's behaviors. Instead of ...


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