Superintendent: Hazlewood principal on leave for excessive paddling

Apr. 10—MOULTON — The Hazlewood Elementary School principal, hired there after her contract at Decatur City Schools was not renewed, is on administrative leave due to allegations that include excessive paddling of a student and comments made about an autistic student, according to personnel records.

Datie Priest, hired as the school's principal in July 2020, received a written reprimand on March 23 from Lawrence County Superintendent Jon Bret Smith about the accusations against her.

In the reprimand letter dated March 17, Smith detailed the paddling of a Hazlewood Elementary third grader on March 4, which led to her being placed on detached duty on March 11.

The letter reads in part, "You are expected to follow board policies and procedures. Moreover, you are expected to discipline students in accordance with board policy and without endangering their health and welfare. Your recent actions are not in keeping with these expectations.

"On March 4, 2022, you paddled a third-grader on two occasions. Ten licks or more were administered during the first paddling and five licks were administered during the second paddling."

According to the reprimand letter, Priest acknowledged the paddling incident to supervisors and then to Smith on March 11 and March 14.

"On both March 11 and March 14, you stated the student was 'given a choice of two licks by his teacher or ten by me, and it's my personal belief that he would not take a paddling by a white teacher.' You also stated, 'I did not think he would choose ten licks,'" Smith wrote.

The child never received a written disciplinary slip documenting the paddling and "in fact, you could not recall who witnessed the second paddling when you were questioned on March 11," Smith said in the letter.

Smith on Thursday said "generally three licks" was the maximum allowed.

Calls to Priest's cellphone were not answered Friday.

Smith also cited an episode in which two Hazlewood employees recently witnessed an autistic student bumping into Priest.

"Your response was very concerning," Smith wrote in the reprimand letter. "At the time, you told the two employees you would 'throat punch' the student if he ran into you again."

He also listed concerns regarding Priest's work schedule.

"Your clock-in times show you arrive between 45 minutes and an hour late most days," Smith wrote. "It has also been reported that you leave every day before 4 p.m., which is before the buses have a chance to complete their route."

Smith also questioned Priest's handling of school money.

Priest allegedly directed the bookkeeper to withhold funds paid by students for snacks and sundries and to use the cash to purchase more such items to be sold to the students, according to Smith. He said the funds should instead have been deposited into a school account and a check issued to the vendor.

In a letter dated March 25, Smith sent the Alabama State Department of Education a list of his reasons for placing Priest on administrative leave.

Chris Lewis, an assistant principal at nearby R.A. Hubbard High School, has been named interim principal at Hazlewood Elementary in Priest's absence, Smith said.

Smith on Friday said Priest, who has an annual salary of $91,800, continues to be paid. "Dr. Priest's contract ends June 30. She is on admin leave and she is still employed and still being paid."

Her employment status was not addressed at the board's regular meeting Thursday night.

Smith said he could not comment further on the case because it is a personnel matter.

District 1 school board member Christine Garner and Lawrence County Chapter of NAACP Vice President Bobby Diggs said they feel the superintendent is biased in his treatment of Priest.

"She gets unfairly treated," Garner said. "She could be a very good asset for the Lawrence County school system if she is allowed to run the school the way it needs to be managed. She needs the board's support, and she's not getting it. Dr. Smith needs to become more aware of what is going on at Hazlewood Elementary. I believe she is doing the best job she can. She's very qualified.

"Some people think because she's a Black woman, she can't be a good principal. In Alabama, it's hard for a Black woman to excel."

Diggs said the NAACP recommended Priest for the job after Patrick Mullins left in 2020 after one year as Hazlewood principal.

"We're still supporting her," the former school board member said. "She is a good principal."

Diggs said he is puzzled that the accusations against Priest were in her personnel file but accusations against Ron Rikard were not in his file at the central office.

"That's not fair on Dr. Smith's part," Diggs said. "I feel it's discriminatory."

East Lawrence High School Principal Ron Rikard was placed on placed on administrative leave on Feb. 2. His personnel file included no information on why he had been placed on administrative leave. Rikard submitted a resignation letter on Feb. 8. The board approved his resignation on March 7, effective June 30.

Before working for Lawrence County Schools, Priest worked 20 years with Decatur City Schools and served as principal at West Decatur Elementary from 2005 to 2016, when then-Superintendent Dan Brigman transferred her to principal of special services. Her contract was non-renewed in March 2020, according to Decatur City Schools records.

She left as a teacher at DCS's Center for Alternative Programs in July 2020, when she was named principal at Hazlewood in Town Creek. or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.