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School board rejects bid to fire WoodheadTell North Platte what you think
Photo by George Lauby
Coach Mark Woodhead testifies
Photo by George Lauby
Supportive placards
Photo by George Lauby
George Schere testifies
Photo by George Lauby
Audience as the hearing opened.
Photo by George Lauby
Carrying placards out front, from left: Kayla States, Evelyn Blaesi, Kathi Palmer and Angiee Blaesi.
Photo by George Lauby
Audience waits for the vote, 11:45 p.m.

After deliberating for seven hours, the North Platte school board voted 4-2 Friday night not to cancel Coach Mark Woodhead's teaching contract.

Woodhead, an elementary physical education teacher for 30 years, and head girls basketball coach for a decade, can keep his job if he wants it.

The open hearing he'd requested began at 8 a.m. and lasted all day.

Before the board convened, friends and family members passed out placards and stickers that said "I support Mark" to people as they arrived. Just before the hearing began, a dozen girls basketball players walked at the front of the auditorium, holding the placards. The audience swelled to as many as 600 people, at least half of them wearing the stickers on their chests.

After 8 hours of testimony, the board went behind closed doors to deliberate at 4:38 p.m. When they finally returned and voted at midnight, the 100 or so poeple who remained to the end burst into cheers and applause.

In mid-February, Woodhead pulled a third grader by the ankles down the hallway at Jefferson Elementary, into a "time out" room. The boy had created two disturbances just prior to that in phys ed class, at one point throwing balls at the other students. Then the boy announced he was leaving for the principal's office. The class was nearly over, and Woodhead went to the office moments later. He found principal George Schere was gone, and decided the boy was still a potential threat to the safety of students, and needed to go to the school's "time out" room.

The boy was sitting quietly on the floor but refused to go. Woodhead took his ankle to try to get him up, but the boy kicked, so Woodhead took him by both ankles and walked backwards, pulling the boy out of the office, down the hall, across the teachers' lounge and into the time out room. It was a 93-foot trip. The last 23 feet was across carpet. The boy sustained rug burns on his shoulder blades.

The next morning, Woodhead reported to Principal George Schere, who testified that he verbally reprimanded Woodhead in harsh terms, and got his promise that it would never happen again. Schere said that basic, eye-to-eye agreement was solid. He also talked to the staff who saw it, to the boys grandparents who were taking care of him, and he considered the matter closed.   

Superintendent Marty Bassett said he was not informed of the episode until April, and when he learned of it, he was outraged. Bassett investigated, interviewed witnesses, reviewed school policy and a couple days later, decided Woodhead should be fired. Bassett said Woodhead had violated the district's policy to not restrain, use excessive force or corporal punishment against students, and if restraint is used, it must be reported to the superintendent. 

Bassett reportedly told Woodhead he could resign or be fired. Woodhead asserted his right to a hearing as a tenured teacher.

Woodhead testified Friday that he'd handled it wrong, but said he couldn't leave the boy in the office with just the secretary, fearing the boy might act up again. Woodhead's attorney presented copies of several of Woodhead's annual performance reviews, as far back as 1984, showing he was proficient or exemplary in all categories. 

At one point in the closed-door deliberations Friday night, the board offered a compromise, but Bassett reportedly turned it down, so the board continued to deliberate.

"Just so everyone understands," president Kathy Phares said when the board finally came out of closed session, "this has been a very difficult case for the board. We've spent a lot of time in deliberation. We only considered the evidence presented during the testimony. We are struggling mightily."

"Something like this is always a struggle, recognizing past performance as well as the action in question and the complex consequences of that action," board member Jack Price said. "It has been a struggle, mentally, emotionally and intellectually."

Board member Julie Nielsen said the board expects the school superintendent to always have the children's best interests at heart and to go by the book when it comes to any form of abuse.

"We have to follow protocol," she said. "There are no winners. It's been a very difficult situation."

During deliberations, the board's attorney Tim Thompson wrote a six-page statement called a "finding of facts and determinations," holding Woodhead responsible and cancelling his contract.

But four board members -- Mike Morrell, Kimberley Kaschke, Lisa Bianco and Phares -- voted not to accept the statement. Jack Price and Julie Nielsen voted yes. The crowd erupted into cheers and for the particpants, the months-long ordeal was finally over.

It remains to be seen if Woodhead will continue to coach the girls team, if he chooses to stay on the staff. The superintendent and top staff typically have authority over coaching assignments, and at one point in recent weeks, Bassett told Woodhead regardless of the board's decision, his coaching assignment would be revoked, according to testimony at the hearing.

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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 6/28/2014
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