The Turner Report: The whistleblower letter I wrote three weeks before I was removed from the classroom

The Turner Report: The whistleblower letter I wrote three weeks before I was removed from the classroom

The whistleblower letter I wrote three weeks before I was removed from the classroom

  • On the day before spring break in March 2013, following months of being leaned on by R-8 Administration about the contents of the Turner Report and shortly after East Middle School Principal Bud Sexson had begun asking questions about my book Scars from the Tornado, Sexson came into my classroom and said HR (Tina Smith) wanted my computer. He gave me no reason. I not only gave him the computer, but about 10 minutes after that, I took him another computer that I had used for school work. I had nothing to hide.
  • I had heard enough horror stories about the way the Joplin R-8 School District Administration to know that this was not going to turn out well for me.Since it made no sense to go to Sexson, Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer or Superintendent C. J. Huff with the information I had, I decided, after careful deliberation to send the information I had to a member of the Joplin R-8 Board of Education.
  • In this message, dated and sent March 16, 2013, a full 23 days before I was removed from the classroom and escorted out of the building in full view of my students and my fellow teachers. I told my story.
  • I updated this with another message to the same Board of Education member after I was removed from the classroom detailing what had happened.
  • My story, unlike those that have been told about me by Joplin R-8 Administration, has not changed. The facts seldom do. 
  • The board member's responses to my messages are printed in italic.

  • I have been told you are looking for information about the problems that have been going on at East Middle School and in the Joplin School District.
    I probably should have been in touch with you or someone else long ago, but like so many others I kept thinking that things had to get better. I am convinced now that not only are things not going to get better, but they are going to grow much worse.
    After having a cohesive, strong faculty, initially at South and then at East with Ron Mitchell as principal, the past three years have been filled with fear, division, and misleading messages being sent to the public. I am not entirely comfortable writing about this to anyone, but after 36 years of serving the taxpayers, first as a newspaper reporter and editor, and now as a classroom teacher, I feel I owe it to my students, their parents, and the rest of those who are footing the bill for this school district.
    My first clue that things were going to be radically different with the Sexson administration came during a fire drill his first year at East. While I was calling the roll for my class, I became aware of a disturbance behind me. I initially thought two of my students were clowning around pretending to fight, so I stepped between them and told them to settle down. One student, an eighth grader who weighed well over 200 pounds, gave me a hard shove, nearly knocking me to the ground. Before I could do anything, he gave me a second shove, this one causing me to fall. Another teacher escorted the young man to the office.
    Within minutes after we returned to the building, the assistant principal Jarrett Cook pulled me out into the hallway and asked if I really wanted to do anything about this since it could cause a problem with this student’s education. I had the feeling this was not something that Mr. Cook wanted to ask, but something he had been directed to ask. I felt like I was being put in an untenable situation, but how else do you answer a question like that? I said I did not want to cause his education to suffer. The class period ended five minutes later. I checked the school e-mail and saw there was already a message from Mr. Sexson, who said he wanted to clear up any rumors that were going around. “Mr. Turner was not assaulted.” He had never talked to me about it. The student was put in ISS briefly and then was back in my classroom like nothing had ever happened.
    I was assaulted and our resource officer was never even asked to investigate.
    Since that time, the situation at East has deteriorated. I cannot tell you for certain what the situation is in other grades, though I understand it is similar, but our eighth grade teachers are not allowed to send a student to the principal until he or she has had seven classroom referrals (paperwork more than anything) We are required to conference with the student as an eighth grade team after the third referral, call his parents after the fifth and then he pretty much gets a free referral before he can physically be sent to the principal’s office. We are told this does not apply to emergency situations, but we are strongly discouraged from having any emergency situations. We believed when this started that when the seventh referral occured that the student would receive punishment that fit the situation. That has not happened. Some have received an after-school detention, a lunchroom detention, or even just a conference with the principal. Initially, we were told that after a student reaches the seventh referral to send him to the principal for each succeeding offense. Now we are told if the student goes back to class and causes problems later that day not to send him to the principal’s office because “the punishment has not had time to work.”
    The veteran teachers have adjusted to this as well as we can, but it has been a nightmare for younger teachers in our building.
    The teachers are the only ones who fear any punishment.
    Since none of the classroom referrals go into any statistics that ever reach the board or the state, it makes it appear that we have remarkable discipline and a strong educational atmosphere. Nothing could be further from the truth.
    I had been told by reliable sources that Dr. Besendorfer was pushing these kinds of evasions years ago, but they did not begin taking place in our building until the past three years.
    I cannot tell you for certain that any time Dr. Besendorfer tells the board that the teachers are wanting to do something that it is not the truth, but the times that I was in complete possession of the facts I knew they were being twisted.
    When I was on the ALL team during its first year, I was at the meeting when the idea of the 7:15 a.m. Wednesday weekly professional development sessions was first brought up.
    We were given time to discuss the proposal at our tables and the South table (this was before we went to East) had a concern. We knew that there were many parents who liked to have their high school or middle school age children pick up elementary children, which would not be possible under the new arrangement.
    When Dr. Besendorfer asked for comments, one of South’s teachers brought up this problem and said it could cause a hardship for the parents.
    Dr. Besendorfer answered, “The parents will just have to get used to it.”
    Dr. Besendorfer never asked the ALL team members if we favored the 7:15 a.m. meetings. We were asked specifically only if we were in favor of having more professional development. After that, she went to the board and said the ALL team was completely behind her proposal. If we had been asked, there would have been opposition.
    Those tactics have also been used at East with the current situation over standards-based grading. We have been told that no one is going to force us to use any particular form of grading, but we are spending the entire semester devoting our professional development time to standards-based grading. The teachers who were hired for this building this year were all asked if they were willing to use standards-based grading and felt it was something they were going to have to do.
    At our professional development sessions, the same type of subterfuge is being used. We are not being asked if we prefer standards-based grading, we are asked if we want a “grading system that shows what the students actually know.” The idea, of course, is that the only system that does that is standards-based grading. Who can say that they truly oppose a grading system that shows what students actually know? My guess is that we will never be asked specifically if we approve standards-based grading, but at some point, Dr. Besendorfer, or Bud Sexson will go before the board and say that East’s teachers are totally behind the concept.
    It has, in fact, been a nightmare. I am having to deal with eighth graders who went through standards-based grading in seventh grade. They were used to a system where they only had to provide certain pieces of “evidence” to show that they have mastered a concept. They no longer feel they should be required to turn in every assignment because they did not have to do so in the standards-based grading classes.
    I am sure you are aware it would be just as easy to manipulate standards-based grading as any other type of system.
    One of the biggest problems that we have had in the Besendorfer era is that teachers are continually being pulled out of the classrooms.
    Even though he is teaching a tested area, our eighth grade math teacher has already been taken out of the classroom 16 times this year to attend meetings or seminars. I also teach a tested area and three years ago, I was pulled out 14 times before the MAP tests.
    I am a firm believer in professional development, but with all of the time we are already setting aside for development, doesn’t anyone believe that students benefit when they have their regular teachers in the classroom?
    A couple of weeks ago, 30 communication arts teachers, including me, were going to be sent to hear a speaker in Springfield. Not only did this mean we had to hire 30 substitute teachers, but the district was also going to pay for a bus to take us there. The trip was canceled due to the weather.
    Three years ago, approximately 75 district teachers had substitutes so they could attend a workshop at the Butcher’s Block. Not only did the taxpayers pay for the substitutes, but I am sure the district had to rent Butcher’s Block and when I looked up how much this speaker charged, it was normally $10,000 a pop. In addition, the reason he was here is because we sent five district employees, including Dr. Besendorfer, to hear him speak in Dallas. Instead of passing along the information during our professional development meetings, we spent thousands to bring him here.
    The use of the 7:15 a.m. meetings has also been a problem. The first year we had them we were required to spend the first five weeks having meetings to learn how to hold meetings. The system used, I might add, was the same one that Dr. Besendorfer used at the ALL meetings.
    Apparently, it did not take, because we had to spend the first few weeks this year learning once again how to properly hold meetings.
    One of the myths that our administrators has been pushing is the one that says the teachers who are leaving this district are doing so because of the tornado.
    I have talked with several teachers who have left and I have yet to run into one that left because of the tornado. In fact, we had many teachers who would have left earlier had it not been for the tornado. They had that much loyalty to the children.
    At East, I have seen some talented young teachers leave, even though they did not have jobs lined up, because they were tired of the meetings, meetings, and more meetings culture and because they did not feel they were being backed up by administrators when it came to disciplinary issues. These were not teachers who could not cut it in the classroom. One of them was a teacher I mentored during her first two years in the classroom. She was one of the best young teachers I have ever seen. She belongs in a classroom and it is a shame that not only is she not in a Joplin classroom, but she is not teaching at the moment.
    Since Dr. Huff became superintendent I have had to deal with threats over my blog, The Turner Report.
    Despite the fact that I have never had one negative thing to say about the Joplin School District in the blog and have done my best to bring favorable attention to the district, there have been numerous occasions when messages have been sent to me through Bud Sexson that “administration” is concerned about something I have written.
    I have been asked not to mention that I am connected to the Joplin Schools and have been threatened for writing things about friends of Dr. Huff and administration.
    Since the tornado, I have publicized the various speaking engagements of people like City Administrator Mark Rohr, Fire Chief Mitch Randles and Dr. Huff.
    A few months ago, Dr. Huff sent me an e-mail asking me not to publicize when he was going to be out of state because his family “has been receiving death threats.” I have complied with that wish. I am assuming the speeches he does not want publicized are the ones that are lined up through the Washington Speakers Bureau.
    I am sure you are fully aware of the pre-recorded message Dr. Huff sent to all district employees right after the tornado telling us that if we spoke to the media it would be considered insubordination and would be a firing offense.
    This attempt to control everything that comes out of the school district may lead to the message Dr. Huff and Dr. Besendorfer want to convey, but it has also led to a board that for the most part does not have any idea of what is going on in the school district.
    The final straw that led me to write this letter came after the book Scars from the Tornado: One Year at Joplin East Middle School was published earlier this month.
    When Carthage Press Managing Editor John Hacker and I published the book 5:41: Stories from the Joplin Tornado, I promised that proceeds would be used to publish a book featuring material written by East students who went through the tornado and about our first year in the warehouse school.
    When the 2011-2012 school year started, Dr. Besendorfer sent an e-mail message, which was passed on to me by Bud Sexson from a company that said it would publish books written by students. The company would take money from the school and give money back and then would publish the books through Amazon’s Create Space. I told Bud that I, too, published my books through Create Space and that we could create a much better book without going through another company. He agreed. Later, I even asked him to write the foreword for the book.
    As time has passed, Mr. Sexson seems to have forgotten that he was ever told about my book at all. To cover the cost of publishing and getting copies of the book to all staff and students at East, I paid for promotional advertising for my other book through Facebook and Google (both YouTube and Google Ad Words). After a week, it was apparent the advertising was not working, so I canceled Facebook and YouTube and thought when I canceled YouTube I was canceling Google Ad Words. That did not turn out to be the case and I later found that my credit card had been billed $4,000. I delayed publication of the book until it occurred to me I could keep my promise by offering free e-books. That was done earlier this month.
    A few days ago, Bud Sexson came to my room, called me out into the hall and said Administration was wanting to know about my book.
    Yesterday, right before I left for spring break, Bud Sexson came in to my room and said “HR wants your computer.” I turned over my computer.
    I believe that request came from Dr. Besendorfer.
    The fact that I have been doing this book has been public knowledge for nearly two years. During the past few months, I have shared with my Turner Report readers and Facebook friends, not only the status of the book, but also my unfortunate mistake with Google Ad Words. I have also been discussing with Facebook friends, students, and parents about which good cause the money from the book should go to. At last writing, we have been considering a Scars from the Tornado Foundation, with the young people who wrote the stories in the new book serving as the directors. The money would go to other schools that find themselves in the same situation as East, whether it be from hurricanes, tornadoes, other natural disasters, or something as horrific as Sandy Hook.
    This has all been in the public discourse for quite some time. I have said all I wanted to do was to recoup the money I invested in the book and I am not even in a particular hurry to do that.
    I have never tried to hide anything from anybody. That has been something I have always tried to practice, both in my days as a reporter and since I entered teaching.
    I do not appreciate Dr. Besendorfer treating me like a criminal after I have been nothing but an asset to this school district for the past 10 years.
    I apologize for taking so much time and space for this, and I feel a bit ashamed that it took something like Dr. Besendorfer’s most recent action for me to finally write what I should have told someone long ago.
    One final thing: Everything that Dr. Besendorfer is doing in the Joplin School District she did in Reed’s Spring and it brought exactly the same results- a divided, fearful faculty, good teachers leaving many times to take lesser paying jobs, and a board that heard a twisted version of the truth.
    In fact, her failures at Reed’s Spring are addressed in her doctoral dissertation and many of those same failures have been repeated here.
    Thank you for taking the time to read this. If you have any questions, please feel free to write or call me.

  • Randy... thanks for taking the time to "educate" me on what is happening at East. Listening is the easy part. Now I have to figure out the proper method to address the issues. There might be two more board members that will listen, with open minds, to the issues at East. All others will swallow, hook, line and sinker what the administation tells them. I wish I could promise some results but I can't. Just know that I am working behind the scenes trying to discretely pass on the issues (to anyone that will listen and have the power to do something about it) that have been brought to my attention. Keep fighting the good fight and please continue to keep me apprised on the newest bizzare happenings at East. Also, I'm happy to listen to any student, parent, teacher or staff member at East that would like to talk.

I wanted to provide you with an update on my current situation.
About five minutes before I left the East building on the Friday before spring break, our principal, Bud Sexson, came into my room and said, "H. R. wants your computer." He did not provide me with any explanation, but said that the computer would be returned to me on Monday when we returned from the break.
Not only did this leave me hanging over spring break wondering what I was supposed to have done wrong, but when we returned, my computer did not get back to me until late Thursday afternoon. At no point did Mr. Sexson explain what was going on or tell me there had been a delay. When it was returned, it was simply left in my box in the mail room.
Nothing further was said until two days ago. During seventh hour, my planning period, Assistant Principal Jason Weaver came into my room and said he and Bud wanted to see me in the conference room.
Bud and Tina Smith were waiting when we arrived. The first thing Ms. Smith did was to show me a document saying I was not allowed to record the conversation. After that, I was asked to remove my IPhone from my pocket. I then had to show them that I was turning it off and hand it over to them.
After that, Ms. Smith began asking me whether various blogs belonged to me. After each one, I said yes. She then asked me if I wrote a sexually explicit book called "No Child Left Alive." I said I had, and the book had sex scenes, but that it was not sexually explicit. She surprised me by asking if I had ever encouraged students to download the book for free and discuss it. I said I had not.
She then showed me an entry on my "Room 210 Discussion" blog from December, in which I did encourage people to download the book, read it, and feel free to discuss it. I pointed out that the site only has about five visitors per week and that most likely none of them were students. I have long since stopped using that page for any communication with students, but unfortunately, I did not change the description at the top of the page which points out I am an East Middle School teacher and that the page was set up for discussion of the types of issues that the students discuss in my class.
The blog entry was a copy of a blog I posted that day in Daily Kos. I also posted it in another seldom-used blog I have called Room 210 for Teachers and it was also on my primary blog The Turner Report. The mention of the discussion was made in passing toward the end of the post. I have reposted several of the articles I have written about education on my blogs. This was nothing new. I did not reprint the blog on either of my websites which are read by students, my class blog or the Journalism Club blog. I have also never suggested that the students read "No Child Left Alive," much less discuss it.
I had not been asked about any of this beforehand and I was not allowed to give any explanation. I was told, "You will have a chance to do that later."
After that, I was asked if I wrote a book called Scars from the Tornado. I said I did. I was asked if I was advertising the book for sale on my school websites. I said I was.
I did not have a chance to point out that I had given away 1,111 e-book copies of Scars of the Tornado or that this book has been nothing but positive for the school, or that I have been talking over various plans to turn over much of what the book will make (and that is not likely to be much) to charity, something which I have publicized for quite some time, and which I have talked over with Bud Sexson. If I am trying to make a killing on this book, I have certainly taken a poor approach.
After that, I was asked to turn over my building keys and was told I was being placed on paid administrative leave and that they would try to complete their investigation as soon as possible. The 3:30 bell had just rung a minute or so earlier. Ms. Smith said I would need to go back to my room, get any personal items I would need and turn over my computer and IPad. At that point, she, Bud Sexson, Jason Weaver, and our school resource officer walked me down the hallway to my room, all while the kids were leaving and could plainly see that something was not right.
When we reached my room, I handed over the computer and IPad, then was escorted out of the building by Officer Hirshey, all while the buses were loading, just outside the door, all in sight of the students, who were definitely watching. Unfortunately, I had left my jacket in the building and had to return, again escorted in and out by Officer Hirshey.
I have been told that I cannot talk to any students or staff members, so I have had to ignore a number of messages from people who are concerned about me.
it also adds to the idea that I did something that was horribly wrong.
Considering the nature of the questions that were asked and the way I was treated, I feel like Angie Besendorfer is not only trying to run me out of the Joplin School System, but that she is also trying to destroy my reputation and she plans to either go after my teaching license or threaten to do so to get me to resign.
I probably should not be writing about this to you, but as you know, I am not the only teacher who is being treated this way at East, or for that matter in the Joplin School District. And the same bullying tactics were used at Reeds Spring.
I thank you for your time and consideration and for any help you can provide.
I would advise you to get an attorney.


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