A lengthy hearing took place at the Guntersville City Schools Board of Education on Thursday, Nov. 17, and it's not over yet.

The "Termination Hearing of a Tenured Employee" hearing began at 9 a.m. and lasted until 8 p.m. before adjourning until after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Guntersville Elementary School kindergarten teacher Natalie Bunch was given notice of termination from her tenured position by city superintendent Jason Barnett after an internal investigation led to a determination that she allowed one of her students to lick and/or suck her toes on more than one occasion over the course of two to three weeks, then shared photos of the unusual behavior with colleagues on Sept. 13 before properly reporting them to administration. Following the incident in question, she was put on administrative leave on Sept. 19, followed by the Sept. 22 notice of termination.

Bunch exercised her right to a hearing before school board members Whitney Mastin (president), Bethany Etheridge, Laura Kappler Roberts and Scott Langford; Jim Beard (vice president) recused himself from the proceedings.

Attorney Taylor Brooks represented Dr. Barnett and the Guntersville City Schools. Montgomery attorney William Webster represented Mrs. Bunch.

Brooks presented testimony from Chief Academic Officer Jennifer Williams and Chief Administrative Officer Dawn Osborne, both of whom conducted and filed the investigation report, as well as Dr. Barnett himself. Webster then called a DHR caseworker, GES principal John Doyle, teacher/aide Nicole Willoughby and GES counselor Kristen Kent to the stand, along with several other kindergarten teachers and parents of students in Mrs. Bunch’s class as character witnesses.

Due to the late hour, the Board and attorneys decided to continue the hearing at a later date, in which Bunch will take the stand before deliberations begin.

Although Bunch has yet to testify on her own behalf, her attorney said in his opening statement and through the evidence presented that the kindergarten teacher did not allow the behavior, in fact she actively redirected it, and only took the photos to protect herself, as well as to enlist help and advice on the matter from teaching cohorts. Further, Webster found fault with the investigative report, which was compiled from handwritten notes taken by Williams and Obsorne and was not audio recorded.

Dr. Barnett reinforced his termination recommendation to the Board during the hearing, testifying he found what he believed to be her allowance of the behavior on more than one occasion, along with the lack of proper mandatory reporting, to be “concerning.”

This is a developing story. The Advertiser-Gleam will run a full story on the entirety of the hearing after its completion.

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