Appeal process underway in defamation suit

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    A former school principal who was reassigned in 2015 was awarded $500,000 Wednesday in a defamation lawsuit against Patrick County Schools Superintendent William Sroufe.

    Sroufe thanked jurors for their service, and said he looked forward to working through the appeals process.

    Muriel Tamara (Tammy) Waldron, a Spencer resident, testified she had spent more than 25 years working in the county’s school division in a number of positions, including teacher, coach and principal before she was reassigned in 2015.

    The lawsuit alleged Waldron was removed without notice and in a manner that damaged her reputation.

    Sroufe testified the reassignment was conducted according to the advice of a Richmond attorney.

    “I didn’t do anything that was not at the direction of my attorney,” Sroufe said.

    He also testified that Waldron signed a three-page written reprimand in months before her removal as principal and subsequent reassignment. Details of that document were not discussed during the trial.

    However, Sroufe testified he was within his rights to reassign Waldron, that school board members knew about the issues and supported the decision in advance of Waldron’s April 24, 2015 removal and reassignment.

    The day she was removed as principal, Waldron said Sroufe asked for her keys, key card and suspended her work-related email account, according to testimony. Additionally, Waldron was not permitted to return to her office at Stuart Elementary School to gather personal effects, but she was directed to ride with Andrea Cassell, another school administrator, who would retrieve them for her.

    Sroufe also visited the elementary school, and told staff members that Waldron was no longer principal, according to testimony.

    She was later assigned to Quest, an alternative school that is surrounded by a fence with barbed wire, according to testimony. From her vantage point there, Waldron said she can see Stuart Elementary School. The last two years have been devastating, she said.

    Filed by her father, Roger B. Willetts, of the Waynesboro firm Edmunds & Willets P.C., Waldron sought damages of more than $5.5 million in the suit that alleged some school administrators wanted to place ineligible students, or “kiddos,” as she called them, into alternative (special education) classes such as the Virginia Alternative Assessment Program (VAAP) to increase the school division’s pass rates on certain standardized tests.

    Jurors were directed to consider three statements included in letter from Sroufe to Waldron. The letter stated, in part, that Waldron failed to ensure certain testing was done; failed to ensure certain students were screened for possible inclusion in alternative programs; and failed to ensure certain staff members understood the criteria, or applied it appropriately, when considering students with disabilities for the VAAP.

    VAAP is available to students with significant cognitive disabilities in grades 3 through 8, and to high-school students who are working on academic standards that are reduced in complexity and depth, according to the state Department of Education’s website. Students who are eligible to participate in the VAAP are required to take the Aligned Standards of Learning (ASOLs) as opposed to the regular Standards of Learning (SOLs) tests.

    Individualized Education Program Teams (IEP Teams) in each school use assessment tools to determine student eligibility based on a number of factors. The team also completes a document that is to remain in students’ cumulative folders, according to expert testimony from John Eisenberg, assistant superintendent of the Division of Special Education and Student Services.

    That document was not included in some student files, according to testimony.

    Karen Wood, a witness for Waldron, said she spent more than 40 years working in the school. She testified she overheard a conversation at the end of March/mid April 2015 between Ann Fulcher, director of special education, and Cyndi Williams, assistant superintendent of instruction.

    Wood testified the conversation included a statement by Williams that there were not enough VAAP students, particularly at Stuart Elementary School, “to get our test scores where they need to be.”

    Wood testified Fulcher replied, “We will have to see what we can do.”

    Both Williams and Fulcher were adamant when they testified that only eligible students are placed in VAAP and/or other special-needs programs.

    According to Sroufe’s attorney, Jim Guynn Jr., of Guynn & Waddell P.C. law firm in Salem, and court testimony, a portion of the screening program to determine eligibility in VAAP was misinterpreted, and as a result, not all children who needed help were receiving it.

    Specifically, a 1 percent cap was misunderstood, with some school personnel indicating it related to the number of students that could be screened, while others testified the cap had to do with how the pass rates of standardized tests are reported.

    Regardless, some students who may have qualified for the program were not screened or placed in it due to the misinterpretation, according to testimony. As a result, those students struggled more in class and had a greater potential to score poorly on regular SOL tests.

    If correctly screened and placed in the VAAP program, students learn different content and receive higher pass rates when taking the VAAP related test – the Aligned Standards of Learning (ASOLs) – according to testimony.

    However, because only 1 percent of those rates are counted, ASOL pass rates have little impact on the division’s overall pass rate, according to testimony.

    Some current, retired and former school personnel sat in the gallery throughout the three-day trial.

    Several school officials and/or principals said they took a day of vacation to support Sroufe and attend Wednesday, the final day of testimony.