A Hillcrest Elementary School teacher sent e-mails detailing drinking, prescription drug use and sexual behavior, and called students, parents and staff members names. She also took advantage of sick days and scared fellow teachers.
Those are among the findings of a Chippewa Falls School District investigation of fifth-grade teacher Elizabeth McElhenny.
The report, which detailed how her behavior made for a hostile work environment, was released Friday, one day after the school board accepted her resignation.
McElhenny, a 14-year veteran of the district, had fought the release of the records, but requested her lawsuit be withdrawn Friday, a day after it was filed.
The Herald filed an open records request in April, and the request was filled Friday. The district waited until the investigation concluded to release the report.
The investigation reveals numerous violations for which it was recommended she be fired. At the conclusion of the report, Scott Mikesh, staff counsel for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, Inc., writes, “Therefore it is my opinion that the district should terminate the employment relationship with Ms. McElhenny ...”
McElhenny was investigated after another Hillcrest teacher filed a formal hostile workplace complaint on Jan. 27.
“I have personally observed Beth McElhenny herself, and through coercive involvement of others target students, staff, and administration in an ongoing aggressive and belligerent effort to control and undermine the operations of Hillcrest Elementary School that spans back several years,” the complaint states.
The district promptly began an investigation that spanned from January 2009 through January 2010.
On Feb. 4, McElhenny was placed on paid administrative leave, which forbid her from returning on district property. Parents said at an April 15 school board meeting that McElhenny was escorted out of the school building on Feb. 3.
In a letter given to McElhenny on Feb. 4, the reason for the administrative leave was explained as “in recognition that sensitivities can be heightened during times like these, and we want to remove you from situations where accusations of tampering could be made.” It also instructed her “not to interfere with the investigation being conducted by the district.”
After her leave began, 22 staff members of Hillcrest Elementary were interviewed, mostly on Feb. 4 and 5. McElhenny was interviewed on April 8, May 27, July 21 and July 22.
The investigation found that McElhenny spent much of her classroom and preparation time sending e-mails and text messages, with many e-mails inappropriately referencing drinking alcohol, taking and distributing prescription drugs and participating in sexual situations. There was also namecalling of students, parents, fellow staff members and Principal Robert Vanderloop.
She sent 3,811 e-mails over 169 class days from January 2009 to January 2010. That averages to about 23 e-mails per day. Mikesh concluded that if she spent one minute with each e-mail, that would add up to 38 hours of class time and 19 hours of preparation time, as accounted for by the hours the e-mails were sent.
“A comparison of Ms. McElhenny’s e-mail activity to that of other district teachers indicates that Ms. McElhenny’s e-mail usage is considerably higher than other district teachers. As such, Ms. McElhenny’s e-mail usage is excessive and inappropriate,” the report says.
Though many e-mails were inappropriate, McElhenny said during interviews that most were sarcastic and in a joking manner.
In several e-mails, she references after-school alcohol use and prescription drug use during and outside of school by herself and other teachers.
In the alcohol-related e-mails, McElhenny referred to alcohol as “water,” and several e-mails stated she “had too much ‘water’ last night.”
McElhenny also makes many references to the use of prescription drugs Alprazolam as “praz” and Vicodin as “vico.” In one e-mail to several co-workers, she writes, “i could tell my 4:30t this morning that it was going to be THAT KIND OF DAY 1/2 praz every 3 hours started at 7:10 this morning and will continue taking a nibble of my magic relaxing potion every 3 hours.” (sic)
The investigation also revealed McElhenny and some co-workers shared prescription medications with one another.
Besides the revelations of alcohol and prescription drug use, McElhenny also discussed sexual encounters, at one time at length, with her co-workers via e-mail.
The teacher used vulgar language to refer to some co-workers, including words and phrases such as “cult members,” “nutjob,” “crabbypants,” “cuckoo woman” and “Nazi aides.” There is also a table that cites nearly 50 different words and phrases using profanity.
The e-mails weren’t only demeaning to co-workers, but students and parents as well. She writes in one e-mail, “could that student possibly be [student initials removed]? I am very familiar with that THING and also with his mother THING 2 He is the first person that comes to mind… … Do not allow him to SUCK THE LIFE OUT OF YOU!”
In another, she says, “it’s just such a waste of time with the dummies.” There’s also a list of phrases she used to refer to her job, such as “hate it here today,” “really do wish I cared” and “this is a day of torture.”
McElhenny often requested that co-workers destroy e-mails and expressed concern for using school e-mail to discuss certain topics.
The behavior wasn’t just limited to e-mails, staff said in interviews.
“In response to the question: ‘Are you afraid of Beth McElhenny?’ a number of people hesitated for quite some time before answering,” the report said, before adding that at least half had answered yes to the question.
One teacher said, “My perspective of Beth McElhenny when I first met her is that she is the girl who will pull in anybody she can and she is mean. She is a mean person.”
The teacher who filed the complaint kept a journal beginning in September 2009 and running through Jan. 18, 2010 of observed inappropriate behaviors. Ten examples appeared in the journal.
Besides behavioral issues, McElhenny was also accused of using sick time when she was not ill or didn’t have a doctor’s appointment. She said she used many “mental health days.”
“Ms. McElhenny stated that her definition of a mental health day is simply a day in which she does not feel, mentally, like she can work. Ms. McElhenny stated that some of her ‘mental health days’ are accompanied by physical symptoms, but some are not,” the report states.
It was suggested that McElhenny be terminated because she did, in fact, create a hostile work environment.
“As such, attempting to analyze the instant situation from the district’s perspective, it is difficult to envision a situation where Ms. McElhenny could re-enter the classroom as a trusted and respected employee and co-worker,” the report says in its conclusion.
“More importantly, however, attempting to analyze the instant situation from the perspective of a district parent or student, it is difficult to envision a situation where Ms. McElhenny could re-enter the classroom as a trusted and respected teacher.”
The district had set a meeting for Aug. 12 to “consider the termination of a teacher,” according to the agenda, but that meeting was postponed.
Thursday’s special meeting was then scheduled to “consider a settlement offer in an employment matter,” according to the original agenda. After McElhenny submitted her resignation letter, the agenda changed to reflect the approval of the resignation.