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Dissecting the discipline: North Naples teacher reassigned over frog flap

A teacher accused of taunting a North Naples Middle School student who expressed concern about dissecting frogs will not be coming back to the school this year.

Or the next.

Instead, science teacher Mary Ellen Alexander has been reassigned to another middle school in the district, where she will shadow/co-teach with another life science teacher. She will also be assigned to teach at another school other than North Naples Middle School for the 2011-12 school year.

That was part of the punishment Alexander received, according to documents released by the Collier County School District following a six-week investigation into the incident.

Sarah Wingo, 13, accused Alexander of dropping a bag of vacuum-packed frogs on her binder in anticipation of a frog dissection project, despite the fact that Sarah – a self-described animal rights activist – objected to the project and received parent permission to do a virtual dissection of a frog.

State law allows students who object to dissection experiments to be offered an alternative if they get parent permission.

Although the district’s investigation revealed that Alexander did not intentionally place the bag of frogs on Sarah’s desk to bully or intimidate her, district officials determined Alexander’s conduct “negatively impacted the students in your classroom as well as the reputation of yourself, North Naples Middle School, and the School District,” according to the report.

Wingo’s mother, Carrie Ann, did not have immediate comment Monday evening. She said she needed time to review the investigative materials with her family before commenting. Sharon Hanlon, the Wingos’ attorney, said she, too, had not reviewed the documents as of Monday. She said her initial reaction is that she is happy the district looked into the matter as thoroughly as it did.

That said, she is not sure the recommendations go far enough, she said.

“We will have to review the documents and decide if what was done was best for Sarah and her family, as well as other students,” she said.

The district’s investigation found that Alexander placed the frogs on the table Sarah was seated at, causing Sarah to become upset. Alexander “did not give clear directions/procedures to the students as too what they were supposed to do with the bag of frogs,” according to the investigative report.

Sarah completed the virtual dissection and was allowed to go to the Media Center when students did the actual dissection, according to the report.

After Alexander learned Sarah had been upset with the incident, she apologized in person to Sarah and in an email to her mother, according to the report.

In his April 13 letter to Alexander, Thompson wrote that the teacher used “poor professional judgement in the exercise of your duties and responsibilities as a classroom teacher.”

“As a teacher, you must keep the needs of the students in the forefront of your attention. You knew that the student mentioned above had opted out of both the worm and the frog dissection projects … and that (the student) reminded you just before class began on February 15, 2011,” Thompson wrote. “Nevertheless, without thinking of the consequences of your actions, you put the vacuum packed bag of frogs on (Sarah’s) table/binder.

“Your failure to take time to think through your actions put a student in a situation that upset (her) emotionally.”

Alexander, who has been an employee of the district since 2006, has not had previous disciplinary issues. She has “met expectations” in her performance reviews, according to information provided to the investigation.

In addition to being assigned to another school, Alexander will be required to receive training to become more sensitive to students in the classroom, more aware of the learning environment and the Code of Ethics; a letter of disciplinary action will be placed in her file; information will be sent to the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Professional Practices; and Alexander must review the district’s policy regarding use of animals in the classroom.

Failure to follow through will result in further disciplinary action “up to and including termination of employment,” according to the letter of warning signed by former Superintendent Dennis Thompson.

Justin Goodman, the associate director of laboratory investigations for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), said the organization was satisfied with the response.

“PETA is pleased the district took serious action to punish Ms. Alexander’s irresponsible and callous behavior,” he said. “We hope she gets the training she needs to be more sensitive to students and animals.”

PETA was contacted by Sarah after the incident occurred.

Goodman said he was encouraged that, as part of the report, district officials indicated they will explore whether middle school science objectives can be accomplished using methods other than live animal dissections.

Goodman said PETA would be following up with the district on that point and would re-extend an offer to donate alternative dissection materials to the district for use.

Attempts to reach Alexander were unsuccessful.

Connect with K-12 education policy reporter Katherine Albers at www.naplesnews.com/staff/katherine-albers/.

© 2011 Naples Daily News. All rights reserved.

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