Peanut butter cover-up costs teachers their jobs
It was a cover-up that led to the hasty departure of two special education teachers from Millard Public Schools' Walt Disney Elementary School last year.
The teachers spun “a web of deceit,” as one state official put it, to cover up after one of them allowed a student with a peanut allergy to taste a peanut butter sandwich during a class activity.
The fifth-grade boy broke out in an itchy rash and his eyes swelled, according to documents made public as part of a formal state complaint challenging their credentials to continue teaching in Nebraska.
The documents indicate that the teachers misled the boy's parents and school administrators about how the boy came into contact with peanut butter.
The teachers owned up to the deception several days later after a student-teacher at Disney notified her college adviser about the incident and the college contacted the Millard Public Schools, the documents indicate. Both teachers resigned.
Three paraprofessionals also left employment at the school after the incident.
A lawyer representing the teachers could not be reached for comment Monday.
The circumstances surrounding the April 18, 2012, incident were largely kept secret until state disciplinary proceedings against the teachers reached the decision point.
Based on a state investigation, the Nebraska Professional Practices Commission has recommended revoking for one year the teaching certificates of Keri Watkins and Ann Gigstad, who are no longer with the district.
The Nebraska Board of Education will consider approving that recommendation Tuesday.
Commission members ruled that Nebraska Education Commissioner Roger Breed had proved by a preponderance of evidence that Watkins and Gigstad “failed to be truthful” when questioned by Millard administrators.
Nebraska Administrative Code states that an educator shall not make any fraudulent statement or fail to disclose a material fact for which the educator is responsible.
Brian Halstead, assistant education commissioner and general counsel for the Nebraska Department of Education, told commissioners at a March hearing that when educators work with children, “parents are our partners.
“They deserve to know the truth also, even if they are difficult to deal with,” he said.
Under Halstead's questioning, Gigstad testified that Watkins told her she saw the boy put the sandwich in his mouth and spit it out.
She said the two teachers decided not to tell the mother there was peanut butter in the classroom. Instead, documents show, the two teachers decided to say the boy may have contacted the substance in the lunchroom.
“That's the lie that continued to be told, right?” Halstead asked during questioning.
“Yes,” Gigstad said.
Gigstad testified that Watkins had come to her at lunch “flustered” and said she had forgotten that the boy had a peanut allergy.
“I can't. I can't tell his mom. I can't tell,” Gigstad recounted Watkins telling her.
She said the two had made a quick decision that they really didn't think through and now regret.
Rick Wade, an attorney from Lincoln representing both teachers, told commissioners that the student's health needs were “never in jeopardy.”
“They were never ignored,” he said. “There was never any risk of harm to that particular student.”
The teachers took him to the nurse, and the boy's mom picked him up, he said.
“The problem,” Wade said, “was the full disclosure or lack of full disclosure by Ms. Gigstad and Ms. Watkins.”
Wade did not return calls from The World-Herald on Monday. Before the commissioners, he described Gigstad as a kind and compassionate teacher, citing a recommendation letter the district provided her as part of her severance agreement. In the letter, Millard Assistant Superintendent Jim Sutfin described her as hardworking and an “active leader” with good evaluations — he did not mention the incident.
A student teacher in Watkins' class told investigators that Watkins hid the trash that contained the material from the peanut butter lesson. The sandwiches were part of an alphabet lesson on the letter S.
The state report said that the peanut butter and other supplies from the activity had been discarded in a diaper pail.
The student teacher said Watkins and Gigstad told her and several paraeducators who worked in the rooms not to say anything about what happened.
Gigstad testified that she never told them to lie, only to let Watkins answer questions about it because she was the teacher.
Watkins did not testify at the hearing.
Wade and Halstead both told the commission they believed that Watkins had not been employed in K-12 education since the incident,.
Gigstad is employed as a special education teacher in the Atlantic Public Schools in Atlantic, Iowa.
She told investigators that she has disclosed the matter and pending state discipline in Nebraska to her new employer.
Gigstad was certified to teach in Iowa before coming to Nebraska, the documents say.