Attorney Sharese Shields Ages, from left, is shown with kindergarten teacher Deidre Knight and her mother Dr. Shirley Heard, who retired as a school counselor from Clayton County Public Schools in 2011. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)
JONESBORO — Deidre Knight’s classroom is known as ‘The Purple Palace.”
Reflecting wall-to-wall her favorite color, one parent explained, symbolizes “being grounded in faith.”
The veteran educator had that to rely on this spring as she and her attorney, Sharese Shields Ages, fought to keep her job as a kindergarten teacher with Clayton County Public Schools.
Knight was part of four days of testimony in a hearing concerning her continued employment at James A. Jackson Elementary in Jonesboro.
Her supporters sat in on the hearing, wearing campaign-style buttons with the words “I Support Ms. Knight” printed in purple letters.
Hearing officer Stephanie Banks presided over the case, and Phyllis Levert, Michael Gray and Joseph “Ed” Scott served as members of the tribunal.
Winston Denmark, an attorney for the district, argued on behalf of Superintendent Luvenia Jackson’s recommendation to terminate Knight’s employment.
“This is one of the more disturbing cases that I’ve ever been involved in — acts of sexual contact involving children,” said Denmark. “These children are 5- and 6-year-old kindergarten children.”
He said the acts that led to an internal investigation occurred March 5, and included both exposure and physical contact of a sexual nature during school inside Knight’s classroom. He said as many as five students were involved.
Internal investigators found that Knight neglected to properly supervise the students.
Witnesses also testified that the acts happened on more than one occasion in which the children hid behind a large multi-purpose easel in a back corner of the classroom.
Knight said she reported the behavior immediately to her superiors.
The tribunal voted in her favor Monday. Gray and Scott voted to reject the superintendent’s recommendation, while Levert voted to accept Knight’s termination.
Several friends, parents, co-workers and family members turned out for the decision. Many of them also attended the four-day employee hearing that spanned the latter half of May until Monday’s decision.
Among Knight’s supporters were some of the parents of children allegedly involved in the activity.
But her mother, Dr. Shirley Heard, was especially supportive.
“I’m more devastated than anyone would ever know,” said Heard. “To see that happen to your child when you know what type of teacher she is is very astounding to me. But I still see a brighter future for her.”
Heard, too, worked several years in the district. She retired in 2011, after 15 years as a school counselor in Clayton County.
“I believe I had some influence (in Knight’s becoming an educator),” she said. “I think she’s a very good teacher. I think she cares about the children.”
Her daughter has about 15 years in education — 11 of those years with the district.
“I didn’t take anything lightly,” said Knight. “I’m a mother of three, a grandmother of two. I worked for Clayton County for 11 years. “
Knight said she is grateful for the support and glad for the tribunal’s decision, but cautious about a potential return to the classroom.
“I’m terrified a little bit of going back into the classroom,” she said. “I almost feel like I’m going to have to be a private investigator.”
Knight reflected on the experience and said she believes the district did the right thing.
“You’ve got to have faith,” she said. “Nothing happens by accident.”
Students learn to persevere in Knight’s classroom, added one of her supporters, a parent of a former student who graduated in May.
Knight was invited to a few graduations as she went through the ordeal. She counted four former students who graduated from Riverdale High this year.
Another of her former students graduated from Mundy’s Mill High with a full football scholarship to Tusculum College in Greenville, Tenn.
His father, Claude Tate of Riverdale, was there in support of Knight Day One of the employee hearing, and he attended all four days of testimony including the final day of deliberations.
“She taught my child in the second grade 10 years ago at Calloway Elementary,” said Tate. “My child still wears the T-shirt she made for her class 10 years ago. It’s a little small on him now though.
“She’s very open,” he continued. “She’s firm. She inspires her students. Her teaching is different — she made up songs. And she does interesting things with colors. Everybody knows about ‘The Purple Palace’.”
School officials said the process is not over for Knight. The likely next step is for the school board to review the recommendations of the superintendent and the tribunal.