News: CJ Exclusives

Hoke County Teacher Brought to Tears During ‘Nugget’ Investigation

Teacher's account consistent with mother's recollection, state review

RALEIGH — After public outcry over the suspension and resignation of the preschool teacher involved in the nationally reported “chicken nugget” incident, and pressure from a state lawmaker to reinstate her, the Hoke County Board of Education released her personnel file and other documents March 19 (2.0 MB PDF download).

The file reveals three school administrators aggressively questioned teacher Margaret Maynor Feb. 16, repeatedly calling her a liar and bringing her to tears after she provided cafeteria food to a 4-year-old who brought a lunch from home that reportedly did not meet U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition guidelines.

Notes taken at the Feb. 16 meeting also show school district officials confusing dates and sequences of events. They accused Maynor of lying, though the recollection of events she gave that day appears to be consistent with the account given to Carolina Journal by both the 4-year-old’s mother and state regulators who have reviewed the incident.

The school board voted to make the file public after Superintendent Freddie Williamson said the release of the information was “essential to maintaining the integrity of the board.”

“Media accounts … have given the impression that Ms. Maynor was suspended with pay and eventually resigned simply because she substituted school lunches for home-packed lunches,” Williamson wrote in a letter to the board.

“Ms. Maynor was in fact suspended with pay because of her failure to cooperate fully with the investigation of the underlying events and her failure to provide timely, accurate information,” he said.

The decision to release the teacher’s file came after state Rep. G.L. Pridgen — who initially received the complaint from the parent whose preschooler’s turkey sandwich was replaced with chicken nuggets — sent a letter (290 KB PDF download) to the chairman of the school board expressing his outrage over the teacher’s suspension.

“Ms. Maynor, as I have been informed by parents, is highly regarded as a superior teacher,” said the Republican lawmaker who represents Hoke County. “For her to receive the brunt of this bungled situation is wrong.”

Pridgen went on to call Maynor’s resignation the result of “intimidation at the highest level.”

In his letter to the board, Williamson insisted that administrators had not intimidated Maynor, and that her resignation was voluntary. The board voted to release Maynor’s apology and resignation letter, and other “relevant personnel file information.”

The other information includes meeting minutes, transcribed by an unidentified person, of a Feb. 16 meeting at which three administrators questioned Maynor “to find out why a student with a lunch box was sent through the cafeteria line.”

Maynor’s questioners included Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Cheryl Benson, Principal Jackie Samuels, and Director of the North Carolina Pre-Kindergarten Program Elizabeth Mitchell.

Benson, the human resources representative, started by telling Maynor it was her third chance to tell the truth about what happened Jan. 31, when a preschooler from her class “was sent through the cafeteria to get a lunch when she had a lunch box from home.”

Benson indicated Maynor had been given two previous opportunities to “tell the truth” — “the first time with Mr. Samuels and the seond time with Ms. Mitchell.” No record of the previous two conversations was released.

Benson repeatedly asked Maynor whether she sent the girl through the lunch line “on her own” on Jan. 31 (although parents have claimed the incident happened Jan. 30, and there is no public record of the teacher saying it happened on Jan. 31). Maynor repeatedly denied sending any student through the line.

The minutes say: “Mrs. Maynor explains again that Mrs. Thomas [her assistant] seats the students with lunch boxes and she assists the ones going through the line.” Then they quote Maynor as adding “I do not remember sending [that particular] child through the line.”

According to the minutes, Benson responded: “Oh yes you do remember, you are just not telling the truth!”

“You told her to go! Do you realize this 4-year-old went all day long with only three chicken nuggets to eat since breakfast? And you still don’t remember? If you don’t remember what does that tell me about your knowledge in the classroom?” Benson asked.

At one point, according to the minutes, the teacher said, “When we sent the child through the line she didn’t have what she was supposed to have.”

Benson replied, “So you do remember!”

“I don’t know what I was thinking when you asked. I was thinking about Jan. 26, the day Mrs. Ellerbe was here (tears and more tears),” the transcript reads.

“Do you know how scared that child was and then to have to go all day with only three chicken nuggets?” Benson asked.

Even if the transcriber quoted Maynor correctly, the above admission of sending the child through the line Jan. 26 is consistent with statements from the Department of Health and Human Services. DHHS officials say the department’s consultant, Cecilia Ellerbe, “observed” the teacher send children through the lunch line whose homemade lunches didn’t meet USDA guidelines. No one from DHHS has said the teacher was wrong in doing so.

Regardless of what happened Jan. 26, the parents of the girl with the turkey sandwich maintain that a lunch tray containing chicken nuggets was placed in front of their daughter Jan. 30, and that she was not “sent through the lunch line.”

In his letter to the school board, Pridgen said, “I want to emphasize that the complaint by the parent was never aimed at the teacher. … Mrs. Maynor was following instructions from her superiors [who were] instructed by DCDEE [Division of Child Development and Early Education, a division of DHHS].”

Pridgen ended his letter by insisting that Maynor “be reinstated to her former position.”

Pridgen is working on legislation with state Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, that “will make sure parents have the final say about what their children eat,” said Pridgen’s legislative assistant Beverly Slagle.

The bill is set to be fast-tracked in the short session, which begins in May, Slagle said.

Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.