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School Daze

Events surrounding teacher's injury are outrageous

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If just one Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administrator had taken a few minutes to show they genuinely cared about what happened to Smithfield Elementary School teacher Sonal Patel on March 20, you'd probably be reading something else in this space.

What happened instead goes to the core of the problem in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Smithfield Elementary needs to keep teachers like Sonal Patel. Almost 70 percent of its students are minorities, and 61 percent qualify for the free and reduced lunch program.

Patel was fresh out of college, and people told her what most teachers hear. Certain schools are easier to teach in than others. But she liked Smithfield, and she didn't listen to that.

"You think you can change what they said," stated Patel. "You think you can make a difference. A kid is a kid. It doesn't matter to me."

A lot of teachers don't have Patel's attitude. Many would rather flock to the suburbs and teach well-behaved children whose parents volunteer at their schools and make sure they do their homework. As the superintendent search heated up in March, candidates to lead the school system talked endlessly to community groups about their strategies for keeping good teachers in all the system's schools. Meanwhile, Patel fought her battle against the CMS bureaucracy alone.

On March 20, Patel mad the mistake of calling a parent of one of her kindergarten students who had been misbehaving in class. The parent arrived at the school and after talking to her child, decided to take him home. When the parent refused to go to the office to sign the child out first, Patel told the mom that, as per school policy, the child couldn't leave.

According to an internal memo written by a teacher's assistant who was present at the time, the mother assaulted Patel in front of her class. She smacked Patel and grabbed her by the face, "pushing her head against the wall with visible force."

"Ms. Patel appeared dazed and at that point, she fell to the floor," the teacher's assistant wrote.

Patel says she was in a lot of pain and wanted a doctor. A school administrator eventually drove her to one, but only after Patel says administrators drilled her on the importance of not contacting the media about the incident or telling any of her colleagues about it. Patel says administrators propped her up on a rolling chair and pushed her to the parking lot along a circuitous route so no one would see her.

Patel couldn't understand why no one called the police to arrest the woman who had just assaulted her or have her removed from campus. The first the police heard of the matter was from the mother, who called the day of the incident to provide her version of the story -- specifically, that she was pulling on a door and that Patel was holding onto it, causing Patel to be accidentally knocked to the ground.

Patel says she called the school the next day to ask administrators to file a police report with her, but was told that everyone was busy in a meeting. No one ever called her back, she said, so she filed the report on her own. A school security officer did eventually call her, but not until two days after the attack, Patel says.

"In this particular instance, we followed our standard guidelines," said CMS spokesperson LaTarzja Henry. "Anytime a teacher is a victim of crime on campus, he/she is encouraged to contact law enforcement officials and/or complete a police report."

Henry says the school's principal told Patel to complete a police report and that he contacted CMS Law Enforcement the same day the incident occurred.

Patel suffered a torn ACL, a knee joint effusion, and a chipped knee, and has had to undergo surgery and months of physical therapy. But her battle didn't end there. School administrators initially coded the attack as an accident, which meant Patel only got two-thirds of her salary while out of work, rather than her full salary, which state law says she is entitled to if she is injured in an episode of violence in the classroom.

Meanwhile, the warrant for the mother's arrest on assault charges languished for three months. Judy Kidd, president of the Classroom Teachers Association, was furious when she found out about what happened to Patel and helped her straighten out the mess, including the reinstatement of her full salary. A spokesperson for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) says the department tried to serve the warrant on the mother twice in April, but couldn't find her. It was finally served in June when frustrated former Charlotte City Council member Don Reid got on the phone with Sheriff Jim Pendergraph and asked that something be done. Though it wasn't the sheriff's responsibility to serve CMPD's warrant, the woman was arrested within hours of the call.

Meanwhile, Patel is recovering from surgery at her parents' home in Tennessee. Will she come back and teach again at CMS? So far, the young teacher who just wanted to make a difference remains undecided.

E-mail Tara at tara.servatius@creativeloafing.com.

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