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School hiring practices questioned after Nashville hires Ooltewah teacher with troubled past

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HAMILTON COUNTY, TN (WRCB) -

A Hamilton County teacher who resigned in 2014 following years of warnings and reprimands, was hired a year later by Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Jason Hamrick was a teacher at Ooltewah High School from 1999 until 2014. Then-principal Ed Foster filed frequent complaints against Hamrick as early as 2001. Hamrick’s record was then clean from 2008-2014.

Among the written documentation notices were suspicion of inappropriate behavior with students in and out of the classroom. One notice in his personnel file is critical of him for allowing male students at his home for a sleepover.

When Hamilton County administrators confronted Hamrick about numerous complaints in early 2014, he resigned. 

School officials submitted information to the Tennessee Department of Education and Hamrick was reprimanded for “conduct unbecoming of an educator.” His teaching license in Tennessee remained active.

HAMRICK’S PATH TO NASHVILLE

After an apparent 18-month hiatus from education, Nashville school officials hired Hamrick to teach in August 2015. He remained on the job until February 2016 after someone alerted officials to his past.

When Channel 3 Eyewitness News asked Metro Nashville Public Schools about the process, senior communications officer Janel Lacy emailed the following statement:

“Mr. Hamrick was hired as a teacher at Johnson Alternative Learning Center at the beginning of this (2015-16) school year. He cleared the criminal background check, provided letters of recommendation from previous employers, and the hiring principal contacted the references on his application. When (our) district staff who previously worked in Hamilton County became aware that he had been hired here, the Human Resources & Talent Services department was notified of his previous job history. He was placed on paid administrative leave for not being forthright about his background when filling out his job application. His employment status is currently under review. Regardless, he will not be allowed to return to a Metro Schools classroom.”

Lacy said there were no complaints about Hamrick during his six months of classroom time in Nashville. Hamrick did not respond to Channel 3’s requests for comment.

POSITIVE RECOMMENDATIONS FROM HAMILTON COUNTY

Documents obtained by Channel 3 show Hamrick received positive recommendations from two assistant principals at Ooltewah High, including one who is no longer with the school. Neither served as his immediate supervisor. There were no letters from Hamrick’s principals, two of whom had been critical of Hamrick’s performance, according to his Hamilton County personnel file.

Nashville’s hiring without knowing the full story of a teacher’s past is not unique. Lawmakers around the nation have expressed concerns about poor communication between school systems and the lack of a teacher history database, especially from state to state. 

Hamilton County central office administrators say they were surprised their Nashville counterparts did not ask more questions about Hamrick, or even type his name into an Internet search engine. (Hamrick’s troubles in Hamilton County were documented in a Chattanooga Times Free Press article in 2014.)

Lacy acknowledges mistakes were made in Hamrick’s hiring process; the district’s Human Resources directors made changes to ensure a more thorough screening of applicants in the future.

Lacy told Channel 3 Eyewitness News, “At the time Mr. Hamrick was hired, we did not require principals to contact an applicant’s current or most recent direct supervisor. Documentation of this contact is now included in the district’s ‘Recommendation to Hire’ form that must be submitted to HR before a formal job offer can be made.”

During his application process in Nashville, a letter of recommendation submitted by Ooltewah High assistant principal Sylvia Hutsell stated:

“Having known Jason for more than ten years in a professional relationship, I know him to be capable, dependable, and honest.” 

Ms. Hutsell continued, “He is punctual and dependable in attendance, preparation, and deportment.  I recommend him for employment without reservation.” Ms. Hutsell did not respond to our request for comment.

Ronda Lyons, former Ooltewah assistant principal now assigned to the same position at Lookout Valley Middle-High, also signed her name on a recommendation letter:

“I have known Mr. Hamrick for the past ten years and four of those years I was his direct supervisor. He has done an excellent job in fulfilling all his duties and responsibilities. As a teacher and coach, Jason was dependable and committed to his students.”

Ms. Lyons told Eyewitness News, “The recommendation letter was based upon my observations and knowledge of him as a classroom teacher during my time as assistant principal at Ooltewah High from 2006 until 2010."

Although the letters are undated, both were submitted to Nashville administrators after Hamilton County Human Resources director Stacy Stewart reported to the state that Hamrick resigned for “good cause.” That report is dated March 10, 2014.

Under “Details,” Stewart wrote, “Insubordination. (He) defied directive from district administration to not fraternize with students outside of school.”

LONG LIST OF COMPLAINTS

Hamrick was first reprimanded on February 23, 2001 by then-Assistant Superintendent Lonita Davidson for “requiring purchase of basketball season passes in exchange for grades.” The reprimand also stated Hamrick “required students to do manual labor at his home in exchange for grades.” She concludes, “Your actions could be interpreted as extortion.”

Two years later, in February 2003, parents met with principal Foster, “requesting removal of Hamrick as basketball coach based on several issues, including inappropriate comments about a party, (“I’ll bring the beer, you bring the women”), vulgar language, and “making a student get out of the car and run a mile on a busy highway.”

In each of the 2001 and 2003 incidents, according to documents, Hamrick admitted he used “poor judgment.”

By May of 2003, Foster had removed Hamrick from all coaching responsibilities.

During the same month, Davidson and Deputy Supt. Robert Smith reprimanded Hamrick again for “sleeping in a hotel room on a roll-away cot with three male students while serving as chaperone on a school trip to Boston, New York City and Washington D.C.” The letter of reprimand says Hamrick chose to sleep there “rather than stay in a separate room, or with other male chaperones.”

On the same week-long trip, other chaperones reported being unable to locate a male student. He was later found in Hamrick’s room lying on the bed. Hamrick was also in the room, saying he was “loading digital pictures on my laptop computer.”  He later told Foster, “I can’t defend my actions during the trip.”

The allegations continued in October 2007 when an individual sent an email to Ooltewah High accusing Hamrick of criminal behavior involving an underage male.  The writer left his name and phone number. The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office interviewed the accuser who stated he did not want to press charges. 

FOSTER TO HAMRICK: “NEVER SUPERVISE STUDENTS ALONE”

Two weeks later, Principal Foster verbally counseled Hamrick “to never supervise students alone.”

In April 2008, Foster again reprimanded Hamrick after hearing from students who discussed “personal issues” involving Hamrick.

In the four-page letter of reprimand, Foster firmly warned Hamrick about continuing to ignore previous warnings about “poor choices you have made in interaction with students.” 

The allegations included “pulling young boys out of class who are not your students…meeting with them in private.” According to Foster’s letter to Hamrick, “You continue to place (yourself) with in one-on-one situations with students that create the appearance of impropriety.” 

Foster warned Hamrick to have no communication with students outside his classroom time, which should include only curriculum, and “do not private discussions with students about their personal lives.”  Foster’s letter was written 13 days after a meeting on these issues. Assistant principal Hutsell, who later wrote on of Hamrick’s recommendation letters, was present at the meeting.

Foster told Eyewitness News that he stands by the contents of his letters of reprimand, and has no comment on Hamrick’s recent employment in Nashville.

Channel 3’s review of Hamrick’s personnel file shows no further allegations until February 26, 2014, when statements from two 11th grade students alleged the following: “One verified he had spent the night at Hamrick’s house around 20 times during his 9th grade year.  The other verified he had been paid for completing manual labor at Hamrick’s home.”

HAMRICK RESIGNS FROM HAMILTON COUNTY

When Hamrick was called into Hamilton County’s central office the next day regarding the allegations, he resigned immediately, waiving the usual thirty day notice.

Hamrick then applied for a Georgia Teaching Certificate. A paralegal for the Georgia Professional Standards Commission requested copies of Hamrick’s personnel file as part of the review process. In August of 2015, the Commission denied Hamrick’s application for a Georgia Teaching Certificate without stating an official reason. Metro Nashville Schools did not request the file and hired Hamrick not long after.

Metro Nashville Schools says it has changed procedures to avoid similar missteps in the future. Among those, according to Lacy, “HR has recently advised principals that it is best practice to Google all job applicants as part of the hiring process.”

School Patrol

David Carroll covers education news and issues at schools across the Tennessee Valley.

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