The state on Wednesday suspended the license of a former Greenville teacher captured on video dragging a special needs student by the hair.
Linda Winters-Johnson’s license will be immediately suspended for 12 years, a length of time education officials on the state licensing comission called “historical.” There is no state law that allows for permanent revocation of a teacher or administrator’s license.
Winters-Johnson, who could also be seen in a separate video hitting the student with a Yeti cup, admitted to dragging the child across the gym floor. The videos gained noteriety after they were posted on Facebook in September by a parent of another student.
“I felt that I overreacted in grabbing her by the hair. When I realized I was seen on the video, then I knew the severity of how it looked,” Winters-Johnson told the commission members. She said she was trying to subdue the student and protect her from hurting herself in the bleachers and when leaning on a door in the gym.
Winters-Johnson told the commission she was “sickened” by her actions but did not tell Greenville High School Principal Xavier Hodo what had happened because she “thought it would go away.” However, at other times in her testimony, she said she was not convinced her actions were unprofessional or abusive due to “extenuating circumstances.”
Winters-Johnson was recently indicted by a Washington County grand jury. She was charged with abuse of a vulnerable person. If convicted, she faces one year in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.
Much of the witness testimony was done in executive session to protect the privacy of the student involved. Mississippi Department of Education attorney Raina Lee referred in her closing statement to the commission about testimony that other videos of Winters-Johnson and the student had been deleted by the district. She also confirmed that the incident was not reported to the Education Department within the required time frame of 10 days.
Paula Vanderford, the head of the state Education Department’s accreditation office described the investigation into the incident as “ongoing,” meaning more charges are possible.
Former Superintendent Leeson Taylor, who also testified at the hearing, did not recommend termination of Winters-Johnson until after the videos went viral on social media. He told the commission he initially recommended suspension for 21 days because of the teacher shortage, that Winters-Johnson had not had any prior disciplinary incidents and that acting superintendent Janice Monroe had told him she was a “good teacher.”
Taylor, who was fired by the Greenville school board last week, also said that when he initially received two videos from a local minister on Sept. 22, he wasn’t convinced there was a “preponderance of evidence” to uphold termination. He acknowledged that he came to that conclusion despite the fact that Principal Hodo immediately recommended termination based on his meeting with Winters-Johnson after the incident.
“She stated this is how (name redacted) normally responds and you have to playfully have her calm down. She playfully pulled (name redacted) hair and sat the student in her lap to help her calm down,” notes from the meeting between Hodo and Winters-Johnson stated. “Ms. Johnson stated that this technique has worked in the past.”
Winters-Johnson’s attorney Kenneth Grigsby told the commission in his closing statement that his client would accept any decision the board makes. He said later while there was no current plan to appeal the decision, he and his client are reviewing all options.
Appeals of decisions by the commission go first to the State Board of Education and then, if unsuccessful, to Hinds County Chancery Court.