Jurors hear opening statements in defamation suit against Sroufe
By Debbie Hall
The trial in a defamation lawsuit by Muriel Tamara (Tammy) Waldron, a former principal, against Patrick County Schools Superintendent William Sroufe, got underway Monday in Patrick County Circuit Court.
A jury of eight people – including five women and three men – were empanelled to hear the case in which Waldron alleged she was removed from her position as principal of Stuart Elementary School on April 24, 2015, as part of a plan “born of ill will and malice.”
The circumstances surrounding her reassignment traumatized Waldron, tarnished her reputation and limited her job opportunities, according to Waldron, who spent most of the afternoon in the witness stand, responding to questions posed by her attorney and father, Roger B. Willetts of the Waynesboro firm of Edmunds & Willetts, P.C., and later by Sroufe’s attorney, Jim Guynn Jr., of Guynn & Waddell, P.C., law firm in Salem.
Waldron testified she was reassigned without being given the opportunity to discuss the situation with her employer, the Patrick County School Board.
The defense maintained Waldron’s reassignment in the school division was partially prompted by testing irregularities, failing to perform all of the duties as an administrator and “a clear case of insubordination,” Guynn said during his opening arguments.
According Waldron’s testimony, she received a letter on April 13, 2015, from Ann Fulcher, director of Special Education, regarding testing procedures used to determine whether Intellectually Disabled (ID) students were eligible and placed in Virginia Alternative Assessment program (VAAP). Students in VAAP are not required to take Standards of Learning tests (SOLs).
Waldron testified that she and special education teachers Brandy Street and Anita Epperly met, reviewed the individual cases, and determined the state regulations had not changed and their procedures were in line with those used in the past.
Waldron testified she responded in writing to Fulcher’s letter, and was later summoned to Sroufe’s office for a meeting, during which she was told “I’m going to do something with you and you are not going to like it.”
Waldron also testified about the screening process for PALS, a state-provided screening tool for Virginia’s Early Intervention Reading Initiative. She said special-education teachers followed a schedule prescribed by the state, which requires kindergarten students to be screened in the spring.
Out-of-state students coming into the school division and/or students who attend summer school are to be screened in the fall, she said. Waldron testified she was not told to test differently, but she was told two students were placed in a special-education program the day she was reassigned.
The Patrick County School Board approved a Principal Performance Evaluation Policy in June 2013, according to Willetts. The policy provides a method to address any performance issues with principals by implementing a plan to address/correct issues, however, that policy had not been followed in Waldron’s case, he said, and added her most recent performance evaluations were favorable.
Guynn said evidence would show the school board was informed about the situation during a closed session meeting in early April 2015, and supported with Sroufe’s decision to reassign Waldron.
When she was removed as principal of Stuart Elementary School and reassigned to the central office, Waldron said Sroufe told her he needed her phone, keys, keycard and that Andrea Cassell would accompany her to the school to collect personal items. Her email account also was suspended, Waldron said.
“I have been humiliated beyond repair. I had no due process” and was unable to address statements made to the school board about her, Waldron said, and added even close friends ask “will you tell us what you did” when the case is resolved.
Before the attorneys made their opening remarks, Judge Martin Clark advised jurors about some of the issues of the defamation case.
Defamation, Clark explained, is a broad category that includes slander (oral comments) and libel (written comments). Among the biggest issues for jurors will be determining whether Sroufe made certain statements, whether those statements are true and whether the statements were seen or heard by people other than those who needed to know certain information.
As superintendent, Clark said, Sroufe had a qualified privilege to share information with “people who have an interest in the subject matter.”
He also cautioned jurors that opening remarks were not evidence, but merely a preview of what each side hoped to show during the trial.
In his opening remarks, Willetts said that Waldron had been a teacher and/or administrator for 26 years, was dedicated to the students and to working with children who may not necessarily be “at the top of the class.”
Waldron and Sroufe had worked together and “been good friends,” Willetts said. He added that Sroufe was named superintendent in July 2014.
The trial is slated to go through Thursday, with witnesses to include Fulcher, Cassell, Epperly, Dean Gilbert, Karen Wood, Crystal Harris and Derina Scott.