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Cagle v. Van Buren School District

Court of Appeals of Arkansas, Division II

April 18, 2018



          Lisa-Marie Norris, for appellant.

          Bequette & Billingsley, P.A., by: George J. Bequette, Jr., and W. Cody Kees, for appellee.


         Appellant Denan Cagle appeals the Crawford County Circuit Court's order affirming the Van Buren School District's (the district's) decision to terminate her employment. We affirm.

         On April 14, 2015, the Van Buren School Board (the board) voted unanimously to terminate teacher Denan Cagle's employment after the principal and assistant principal of Northridge Middle School presented the board with several student statements describing two incidents in which Cagle slapped students. In the first incident, Cagle was accused of slapping a disruptive student in November 2014. Students described that Cagle had warned the student that if he looked at her again, she would "pop" him or "smack" him. She then held up a book to block his view of the rest of the class. According to some of the student reports, she then slapped him. Cagle claims that the student turned his face, hitting her hand. Cagle later signed an acknowledgment of receipt of a letter in which she was reprimanded for the conduct, advised that it was unprofessional and might violate district policies, and warned that further such behavior would be grounds for discipline, including the possibility of termination.

         Cagle was also accused of having hit another student on January 28, 2015. In this incident, students described Cagle as having grabbed and slapped the student, who was tapping or hitting another student with a mechanical pencil. According to the reports, the slap was hard enough to leave a red mark in the shape of a hand on the student's shoulder. Additionally, according to student reports, Cagle instructed the student not to tell anyone because she could lose her job.

         The Van Buren School District superintendent's February 2, 2015 letter to Cagle informing her that he was recommending termination states that she signed a January 30, 2015 statement in which she admitted that she put her hands on a student in her classroom "with enough force that you felt compelled to ask him if he needed to see the school nurse." In the letter, the superintendent specifically advised Cagle of the allegations against her.

         At the February 14, 2015 hearing, Cagle was represented by counsel who cross-examined both witnesses against her (the principal and assistant principal). Cagle did not testify, but her written statements were introduced to the board. The board voted as to the veracity of each of the allegations against Cagle, unanimously returning a "true" finding on each charge, and then voted to terminate her employment. Cagle was present when the board's decision was read aloud. A court reporter who had transcribed the hearing certified a transcript of the proceedings on April 20, 2015, and also certified that a copy had been hand-delivered to Cagle's attorney.

         Cagle appealed to the Crawford County Circuit Court for review, and the court held a hearing on June 13, 2017. Cagle testified, along with two students who witnessed the incidents. The circuit court issued an order affirming the board's decision, and this appeal followed.

         In Kasinger v. East End School Dist. ex rel. Board of Directors, 2011 Ark.App. 595, 385 S.W.3d 885, we explained:

Our standard of review in matters involving the [Teacher Fair Dismissal Act (TFDA)] is limited to whether the circuit court's decision was clearly erroneous. Russell v. Watson Chapel Sch. Dist., 2009 Ark. 79, 313 S.W.3d 1; Moffitt v. Batesville Sch. Dist., 278 Ark. 77, 643 S.W.2d 557 (1982); Olsen v. East End Sch. Dist., 84 Ark.App. 439, 143 S.W.3d 576 (2004). A finding is clearly erroneous when, although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with a firm conviction that an error has been committed. Russell, supra. Facts in dispute and determinations of credibility are within the province of the fact-finder. Id. The question of whether a school district has complied with the TFDA, however, is a question of law. Olsen, supra. A trial court's conclusions on a question of law will be given no weight on appeal. Id.

Kasinger, 2011 Ark.App. 595, at 5, 385 S.W.3d at 888.

         Cagle's first argument on appeal is that the district did not comply with the TFDA, codified at Arkansas Code Annotated sections 6-17-1501 et seq. (Repl. 2013), by failing to provide her with a written copy of the board's decision within ten days of the hearing, which is required by the statute. The school district contends that a copy of the transcript was delivered to Cagle's attorney, as certified by the court reporter, and that the transcript included the board's votes as to whether each allegation against Cagle was "true, " as well as the board's vote to terminate her. Cagle testified at the circuit court hearing that she was never given any copy of the board's written decision. On appeal, Cagle argues that there was no evidence before the circuit court that the transcript had been delivered because the only reference to it was in counsel's closing statements, which are not evidence. Cagle is mistaken: the supplemental addendum includes the court ...

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