Sennett Middle School 100422 02-10042022103338 (copy)

Sennett Middle School, located at 502 Pflaum Road in Madison, is pictured last month.

The former Sennett Middle School principal whose firing drew passionate calls from staff and parents for reinstatement was disciplined over a comment made on a job applicant’s voicemail.

According to an audio recording and transcript, Jeffrey Copeland told an unidentified colleague that the job applicant “could barely communicate with me,” seemingly in reference to the applicant’s English skills, while apparently unintentionally leaving a voicemail for the job candidate. Copeland also said, “they’re just giving people damn jobs.”

A recording obtained through an open records request with the Madison Metropolitan School District.

The candidate had a degree from the Dominican Republic, according to the recording provided, and was interested in becoming a science teacher. While the school didn’t have an open science position, according to the other person in the conversation, they considered getting the candidate an emergency license to become a special education teacher.

A termination letter signed by Madison Metropolitan School District chief of secondary schools Angie Hicks notes Copeland, who was hired only this summer, “made comments about the person not being from this country as well as your disapproval of his credentials.”

“Your actions were unacceptable and should not be tolerated,” Hicks wrote. “Your behavior goes against the MMSD vision of creating an anti-racist school culture and curriculum. Therefore, your employment with MMSD is hereby terminated effective immediately.”

Hicks also called his comments “extremely harmful” and wrote that they “do not reflect the values that the district believes its leaders should possess.”

All of the records were provided by MMSD to the Cap Times Thursday following a Sept. 29 open records request.

Copeland filed a grievance over his termination on Oct. 12, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. The grievance process may eventually reach the School Board, which could decide to overturn or uphold the firing decision.

An attorney representing Copeland who was previously quoted in the Wisconsin State Journal did not return messages left with his office Thursday afternoon.

MMSD spokesperson Tim LeMonds confirmed in an email Thursday that a grievance was filed, but said the timeline for that process “is something that is currently undetermined.” He also declined to confirm the identity of the colleague Copeland was speaking with nor if that colleague was disciplined, “due to it being a personnel matter.”

Hicks’ Sept. 26 letter came 20 days after the Sept. 6 incident. Copeland was initially placed on leave Sept. 13, the ninth day of the 2022-23 school year.

According to her letter, Hicks met with Copeland on Sept. 14 to discuss the incident.

“You confirmed that it was your voice on the recording,” Hicks wrote. “You stated that no malice was intended, but you also stated that you would not make excuses for the content of the recording.”

In the recording provided to the Cap Times, Copeland begins his message by stating, “Good morning, this is Dr. Copeland calling from Sennett Middle School. Please give me a call for an employment opportunity,” before providing a phone number and eventually having the conversation with the colleague.

Support from staff

Two nights after his dismissal was announced publicly, 12 people — mostly Sennett staff — spoke at the School Board meeting to protest the change, with four more submitting written comments to the board. A couple dozen people in the audience, also mostly Sennett staff, applauded after each speaker.

Longtime teachers at the school spoke of a difficult year in 2021-22 and had high praise for the difference Copeland had made in a short time at the school, notably improving the school culture.

Science teacher Carmen Ames, who has worked at Sennett for 30 years, echoed that the year had been one of “hope” so far because of the attitude Copeland brought early on, despite the short amount of time he was there.

“To see a culture change in eight days is phenomenal,” Ames said. “We need to continue that culture, and yes it is us (teachers and staff), we are part of that culture, but we need someone that backs us up and believes in the culture and believes in Sennett the way we do.

“That was Dr. Copeland.”

While some had heard about his alleged comment at that point, some speakers suggested he deserved an opportunity to practice restorative justice and repair any harm he had done, something the school district encourages with students.

Two parents also wrote to the board for that Sept. 28 meeting praising Copeland’s brief tenure and suggesting the district should provide an explanation for the dismissal. Beth Esser expressed disappointment “with the lack of communication on Dr. Copeland’s removal from the school.

“The school community deserves to know more about why Dr. Copeland was dismissed and to have more input on the next steps for Sennett leadership,” Esser wrote.

With Copeland’s exit, two former MMSD school leaders, Susan Abplanalp and Randi Kubek, have taken over as co-interim principals for the remainder of the school year, according to an email sent to families in September.

Grievance process

In a Sept. 28 email to the district director of employee relations, Copeland requested the taped recording, the names of the people who decided to fire him, his personnel record, district hiring expectations for applicants without credentials and the appeals process.

“I ventured to MMSD to assist in the fulfillment of the district mission,” Copeland wrote. “Now, I have be(en) wrongfully terminated and displaced by MMSD! Please send me the following items, so that I may begin to clear my name.”

That same day, he emailed superintendent Carlton Jenkins asking to speak with him “regarding my position as principal of Sennett Middle School.”

“I did not want to lean, however I need to discuss this matter with the leader of MMSD,” Copeland wrote, sharing his phone number.

On Oct. 4, he emailed the School Board, asking for assistance with the appeals process.

“I am reaching out to the BOE after failed attempts with HR to provide me with the Appeals Package,” Copeland wrote.

The employee handbook outlines four steps for grievances: a written grievance filed with the supervisor, a review by the executive director of human resources, an appeal to an impartial hearing officer and a School Board review. If a grievance is “not satisfactorily resolved” at the first step, it moves to the second, and so on until the board review, which is the final possible appeal.

The district and person filing the grievance can agree to skip steps within the procedure, “provided that no such waiver or modification eliminates the role of the Board as the final level of appeal that is available in any grievance.”

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