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Shelly Pettit's Story

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I am a former employee of Ozark School District. I dedicated the past 10 years of my 21-year career to serving at-risk students in middle school.

In 2011, I began working with students in ISS (in-school suspension), teaching the Strategies class for students needing extra help in reading and math, and was the Director of the STOMP program (Students Taking On More Practice.) I loved my job at the Ozark Middle School, and I enjoyed building rapport with my students and parents. During my teaching career, my heart was to reach students who were struggling academically, socially, and emotionally.

I respected my students, and they respected me. I focused on getting my students to believe in themselves in a positive manner so real progress could be made. My favorite quote, by Josh Shipp, is “Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.” My biggest reward was seeing my students improve and grow. Before working in Ozark, I worked as a Title 1 Math and Reading Specialist in Springfield Public Schools for 11 years.

"I focused on getting my students to believe in themselves in a positive manner so real progress could be made."

Ozark School Board Neglect

Mold Issue in Ozark Schools

I loved working in Ozark for most of my career. I had the best colleagues. We were like a family. I was proud to be an Ozark Tiger! My situation with the district quickly changed once I became outspoken about safety concerns regarding environmental issues in the middle school building where I taught. I was targeted, threatened, harassed, and eventually forced out of the job I loved.

In 2017 I was moved to a new classroom (130) in the Ozark Middle School (OMS). My room and the adjoining rooms suffered many problems with water intrusion. There was a constant leak outside the gym door. There are water problems throughout the entire middle school building. When it rains, you find trash cans in various places catching water leaks from the roof and wet ceiling tiles. There were also various places where pipes burst and water gushed down the walls and onto the floor.

"I was targeted, threatened, harassed, and eventually forced out of the job I loved."

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In 2017 I was moved to a new classroom (130) in the Ozark Middle School (OMS). My room and the adjoining rooms suffered many problems with water intrusion. There was a constant leak outside the gym door. There are water problems throughout the entire middle school building. When it rains, you find trash cans in various places catching water leaks from the roof and wet ceiling tiles. There were also various places where pipes burst and water gushed down the walls and onto the floor. Custodians told me there was nothing that could be done because it was an architectural problem with the roof. Staff and students were constantly sick with respiratory issues, headaches, fatigue, and other ailments.

This caused me to grow concerned about the air quality. School Board policy GBCB-5 states that all staff members should report dangerous conditions to their building supervisor, so in October I submitted a work order for room 130 and the PE office asking for the air quality to be checked.

I received an email from administrators that included Chris Bauman, who is now Superintendent but was at the time the Director of Operations.

“The area above Shelly’s ceiling and the coaches’ office has been examined by three different maintenance workers. There is no moisture or mold. The carpet on your stairs is now dry. I don’t know what else we can do. Shelly, you should probably stop using your essential oil diffuser for a few days and see if it makes a difference. They cause allergic reactions for some people.”

I felt belittled and intimidated because I was concerned about our teachers’ and students’ health. An administrator told a colleague that I was making this up, that a teacher who was previously in room 130 was never sick, completely invalidating my experiences. District administrators had previously warned teachers in the past for mentioning mold. Because of these incidents, teachers became afraid to report mold due to fear of losing their job.

"I felt belittled and intimidated because I was concerned about our teachers’ and students’ health."

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Picture of an air vent in the ceiling of Shelly’s room – and this is how it looked after the maintenance workers had cleaned it with Clorox and water. 

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The following year, Dr. Chesick, the newly promoted Assistant Superintendent of Operations, agreed to have my room inspected by LCS Kleen-Aire. Then when the inspector arrived, Dr. Chesick refused to let me talk to the inspector and sent them to check other rooms, not mine. Dr. Chesick explained to me that since it was so costly, they were going to spread the job out over five years and would only be checking certain rooms this year. Mine was not to be one of them. Dr. Chesick told my husband and me that the air filters hadn't been changed in probably 20 years. When I insisted on an independent air quality test, he became very angry and condescending and told me they would use a company the school district has a longstanding relationship with to perform the test. We were told to mark places of concern with post-it notes for the inspector. The day before the air quality tests were to be done, the school custodians were directed to clean all the mold-covered air vents with bleach after school. I later learned that bleach exacerbates the problem.

The Assistant Principal came to me and tried to make me feel guilty, saying that this was going to cost the District millions of dollars, and could possibly bankrupt the District. The administrator’s concern was clearly on only the money needed to repair the problem rather than on the health and safety of students and staff. I felt manipulated and falsely blamed, as I did not cause this problem, but I was being faulted for pointing out its existence, in defense of the health of district students and teachers.

My colleagues and I took various pictures and videos of areas in the school that were mold hot spots. After randomly selected rooms were checked by the school's chosen air quality inspector, they came back and said the rooms all checked out perfectly fine. Over the course of the next several years, administrators’ explanations for the source of the infectious air ranged from my essential oil diffuser (2017) to my plants (2018), and ultimately (2019-2020) to cardboard boxes, furniture, dust, and all-natural cleaning supplies under my sink (which the District falsely characterized as VOC’s, or Volatile Organic Compounds.

Air quality test results have been manipulated and are now just propaganda the District uses to conceal widely known air quality problems. At the June 2022 District Board of Education meeting, Dr. Curtis Chesick re-presented these air quality reports as evidence that the air in the buildings is fine, despite the fact that these results have since been fully discredited by OSHA and by an independent air quality inspector. He included in his slide presentation pictures from my room (130) in 2018 and 2019 showing my plants and dust on furniture, in an effort to deny any mold-related air quality issues.

"Air quality test results have been manipulated and are now just propaganda the District uses to conceal widely known air quality problems."

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For the remaining school year and the next (three years running, now), I continued to submit work orders to try to get my room inspected. I was eventually reprimanded for putting too much detail in my work orders. I was then threatened by OMS Principal Dr. Russell for putting in so many work orders. He directed me to stop putting in work orders and to report any issues to him personally. He stated that they had done everything they could to clean up the mold in our building, and he moved me to a different location. He told me that we need to move on after the upcoming break, that it was causing the workers to not be able to do their job, and that my actions reflected badly on him and the building.

In mid-October, I met with OMS Principal Russell about the air quality issues in my room that were causing me to be very sick. Dr. Russell admitted I was not the only teacher getting sick, and he held a faculty meeting the next week to discuss the black mold found throughout the building. When another teacher at the meeting started talking about all the teachers in our building that were getting sick, Superintendent Bauman quickly shut her down. Dr. Chesick agreed in the first week of November to have an air quality test done on every room at the OMS except my room, 130. Teachers on the Mitigation Committee questioned this, due to my symptoms and illness. Dr. Chesick then relented. At the faculty meeting on the following day, Dr. Chesick began the meeting by threatening teachers that he would write a negative disciplinary report on them if they talked to or asked questions of the maintenance crew because it allegedly “hindered them from doing their jobs.” He was clearly targeting one other teacher and me for conversing with the workers.

The last week before Christmas break, I took a few pictures of the sink and drain as the maintenance workers were removing the sink from my room in response to my work order about mold under the sink. That afternoon, while faculty received training on a technology change in our computer system, Dr. Russell pulled me into his office to tell me that I might be written up after the break for taking pictures because it violated board policy and that if I did it again, it would be immediate termination. Upon returning to school after break, Dr. Russell summoned me via email to a meeting in his office for what he called a “conversation.” Although this meeting was termed merely a “conversation,” I sensed its serious nature, felt very uncomfortable with it, and twice emailed him to ask what the meeting was about but received no reply from him. (I later read in a training video about workplace harassment that “non-response” was a harmful example of harassment, a frequent complaint from many parties against our District administrators.) Since I was concerned about possibly needing legal help, I walked into his office to address my question directly. He declined to explicitly answer it, so I asked if a fellow teacher could attend the meeting with me.

He denied that, citing that it was now a more serious action, a disciplinary “personnel issue:” a write-up for taking pictures of mold being removed from my classroom. I asked him for an explanation about the problem, and he indicated three type-written pages on his desk, saying that “it’s all in the paperwork.” I asked if I could have a copy to read through, and he declined. I asked what policies I’d violated, and he again said it was all included in the paperwork. (This refusal to present charges for an employee to mount a defense, I learned, is another common tactic used by our District (and others) to force out teachers via fabricated “discipline issues.”)

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"This refusal to present charges for an employee to mount a defense, I learned, is another common tactic used by our District (and others) to force out teachers via fabricated “discipline issues.”"

Since I felt so uncomfortable about the situation, feeling like I was being set up to sign something, I insisted we reschedule the meeting so I could have representation to attend the meeting with me. Dr. Russell told me the only representation Dr. Franklin, the executive director of secondary learning, said I was allowed to have at the meeting with me was an MSTA representative. I do not belong to the MSTA, and their reps have stated that they are only available to help after termination has occurred. I belong to the Association of American Educators (AAE). I asked the principal if this was to be a form that I had to sign. He told me that it was a form that teachers must sign. I am skeptical that the district can really pick and choose which teachers associations district employees are allowed to be represented by in disciplinary meetings.

When we met the next week, Dr. Russell served me with a Professional Improvement Plan (PIP), where an employee’s alleged infractions are listed (and steps for remediation are supposed to be developed.) I feel this is retaliation for speaking out about mold issues in the Middle School building for the past three years. School administrators are targeting me to find anything to get rid of me and not renew my contract. They are targeting me because they do not want me talking about the mold problem. District administrators will get rid of me to make an example for the other teachers and staff in our building, to intimidate them so they do not speak up, instilling fear that they, too, will lose their job. The administrators were watching my every move
and documenting any conversation or information they could gather.

The PIP alleges:

  1. Violation of school board policy for taking pictures.

  2. Evaluating maintenance workers.

  3. Failed to communicate professionally with maintenance workers.

  4. Formal staff grievances filed for harassment (but I was not given notice nor documentation of these filings.)

During the meeting, Principal Russell added several verbal restrictions not in the PIP, including one peculiar one: no talking to maintenance workers or custodians or it would result in immediate termination. I refused to sign this PIP because I objected to their allegations, especially the last one since I was never given any notification of this alleged harassment nor was I given any paperwork relating to these charges. As I later learned also happened with other targeted teachers, there was never an investigation done into my alleged wrongdoing, nor did any administrator reach out to me to get my version of the story.

The morning after receiving my PIP for disciplinary action, District maintenance workers were taunting me while I was on foyer duty, seemingly to try and get me to talk to them so I could be terminated immediately. The MS custodian also tried talking to me. I had to write on a piece of paper “I am not allowed to speak to you.” The timing of this made it blatantly obvious to me that this was initiated from top administrators in hopes that they could fire me that day. My attorney advised me that I should do my job to the best of my ability and then, if my contract was not renewed, my attorney would proceed with legal action because I am protected under “Whistleblower” laws for safety concerns for environment issues in my building.

Following this PIP, I was harassed on a daily basis by administrators coming into my room and observing me several times a day (as I later learned was also a common form of harassment in academia). It was very obvious they had placed a target on my head and were trying to force me out. I was mentally and physically exhausted from the stress of being targeted for exposing the mold problem in our building. I was isolated from my colleagues, for fear that if they were seen talking to me that they would suffer retaliation as well. I ate lunch alone and stayed in my area during planning time. The stress of working in a hostile environment under these conditions caused me to have additional health problems including anxiety, headaches, and insomnia.

On March 13, 2020 I had my summative teaching evaluation with Principal Russell. The results were the lowest that I had ever received since working in this district. Principal Russell snidely asked me if I even wanted to come back next year, since I was having health issues. I responded that I was praying about it. The sudden drop in evaluation scores are best interpreted as a warning to me to cease my activism on this issue.

A few months later, I was told I would still be rehired but was being relocated to the Ozark Junior High (OJHS.) OMS Principal Russell told me that district administrators acknowledged that I was having health problems and they had decided I needed a fresh start.
From August 17, 2020 to May 21, 2021, I completed my first year teaching at the Junior High. I had a great year with no problems. My teaching evaluation scores returned to their usual high marks, which seems to reaffirm that the only reason for the drop in my scores was that the District wanted to send me a message about speaking out.

"The stress of working in a hostile environment under these conditions caused me to have additional health problems including anxiety, headaches, and insomnia."

That spring, during the ever-changing and extremely cautious COVID restrictions, I was allowed to wear a face shield instead of a respiratory mask. Because of my mold-induced respiratory condition, I had a medical excusal from wearing a face mask. As teachers returned to school the next school year, I submitted my request for an exemption again to the Junior High Principal, Dr. Link. I attended the Professional Development days prior to the first day of school (August 11 & 12, 2021) wearing my shield from the year before without comment from anyone. Dr. Link said he was going to have to pass the medical exemption along to the district office for approval since I was not vaccinated. This was the beginning of the obviously bogus charges the District office would use to bully me out of my job.
On Friday, the day after the Professional Development days, I received a phone call at 7:00 a.m. from Junior High Assistant Principal Porter, who told me that, per the district office, I would not be allowed to be in the building without a mask, despite the fact that my face shield had been approved as a mask alternative the previous year when COVID restrictions were at their peak. Now they were telling me that a shield was not safe. (Superintendent Bauman can be heard at the 1:28 mark of this city council meeting explaining to the city aldermen during the summer of 2020 that either face shields or masks were acceptable; the school even provided shields for employees who wanted them.) I was instructed to report to the District office to meet with District CFO Tammy Short and Mr. Gerald Chambers, Executive Director of Secondary Learning. There, I was given a letter informing me that I was being put on administrative leave, an Authorization & Release of Medical Information form to sign so that the District could consult with my doctor about my mask exemption, and a notary form.

While it all seemed very official and permanent, Gerald Chambers informed me that this was just a common process while they talk to my doctors and determine an option for me. I asked what was the criteria for granting a medical exemption and who decides if it is granted. They told me that they would talk to my doctor and then their doctors (Cox Health) will hash it out with my doctor to reach an accommodation in this process. I questioned Mr. Chambers about the school district having “doctors.” It is absurd that the District would play favorites, as if its own preferred doctors could make decisions regarding my health without even examining me, let alone without the extensive background on my condition my own doctor had.

Mrs. Short and Mr. Chambers tried to pressure me into signing the paperwork in front of them, but I stated that I needed to look over these papers in a less stressful environment and speak to my husband. I was told by Mr. Chambers if I refused to sign the paperwork then I would be placed on “Unpaid Leave.” They told me that I officially had until the end of the next business day (the following Monday, August 16, 2021) to return the signed paperwork or risk being on unpaid leave. It was quite clear that they were making up the rules as they went, which reveals that this fixation on a mask exemption versus a shield was just a ruse to force me out of the District. The school guidelines stated that: “Medical Exemptions (Staff with proper medical documentation) will NOT be required to wear a mask.” I could not find anything in the school board guidelines about the criteria for employees with medical exemptions. I had no choice but to sign the paperwork, releasing my medical records to Superintendent Bauman. It seems to me that is an outrageous violation of my medical privacy.

District administrators contacted my doctor, an MD who is not affiliated with the District’s contracted insurance provider, Cox Health, to discuss my medical exemption. They argued with him, refusing to accept my medical exemption or honor his advice for my health condition. Gerald Chambers gave me a clear mask as an option to try out to see if it would work, and I tried it, but it caused me to have breathing issues and anxiety. My doctor told them that I could not tolerate a mask due to my health condition. District administrators adamantly refused to allow me to wear a shield like the one I wore the year before, and they did not seriously try to work with my doctor nor accommodate my needs.

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"District administrators adamantly refused to allow me to wear a shield like the one I wore the year before, and they did not seriously try to work with my doctor nor accommodate my needs."

Later the next week, I received an email from Director Chambers stating that they were moving forward and I could return to work if I got vaccinated, masked up, or got tested 3 times a week. All three of these were against my doctor's recommendations for my health condition. Director Chambers stated in an email that my doctor’s instructions were irrelevant in this matter. Unbelievable!
I replied to this email and told Chambers that I didn’t feel comfortable doing this without consulting with my doctor. He told me that my doctor did not have a say in this matter and if I needed to visit with my doctor, then I would have to take a sick day. I told my doctor about the school district wanting to test me three times a week, and he informed me that it would not be good for my health to be tested. He stated that requiring an employee to be tested three times every week with no symptoms was invasive and abusive.

The district administrators view bullying as an appropriate method to force employees to follow their guidance, even when that guidance exceeds their policies and authority. The COVID guidelines for 2021-2022 clearly stated that any teacher /staff with a medical exemption would not have to wear a mask (see guidelines). However, administrators never gave staff the criteria or guidelines being used to determine if an employee was granted an exemption. It is very obvious that they made up the rules and kept moving the goal posts for my medical exemption. I could not find out if any other employee in the district was granted a medical exemption.

"The district administrators view bullying as an appropriate method to force employees to follow their guidance, even when that guidance exceeds their policies and authority."

I was told by several teachers that Cox doctors will not give medical exemptions. This is another issue that angered District administrators: they cannot control my doctor because he is not associated with CoxHealth. There appears to be an enormous conflict of interest and multiple dishonest shenanigans going on with CoxHealth and the Ozark School District. [Senior leaders in the school district have close relationships with senior CoxHealth administrators. The superintendent’s wife is a senior CoxHealth executive. One of the school board members and his wife are also senior CoxHealth administrators.] In 2019, many teachers were ill but any mention of the mold causing our health issues with a Cox doctor seemed to have been sidelined. It happened to me with several Cox doctors when I showed them my mycotoxin lab results. Black mold was found in the middle school building that year. This is when I left CoxHealth system to find a doctor outside the system that knew how to treat mold illness.

On August 27, 2021 I started using my sick days because the District stopped my paid leave on August 26th. I was not able to return to work because I could not meet their seemingly newly constructed requirements or guidelines as they were all specifically against my doctor’s orders. Administrators refused to work with my doctor to accommodate my medical needs to return to work. Mr. Chambers told me that it didn’t matter what my doctor said because they “had given me options” (which was, in reality, only one option: the clear mask, as they refused to let me wear a shield). I felt they were using this as cover to force me out. Even the excuse they were using seemed illegal, though, implying that because my doctor wasn’t one of their doctors, then his medical opinion was irrelevant. I was not the only person treated like a criminal; there were others. Only one other person stood her ground but she too was told to quit or be fired.

After being forced to use all of my Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) time off over the course of the next two months, I was given three options. On November 9, 2021, I was told I could choose to resign, show up to work under their unaccommodating conditions, or to be terminated. Administrators were pressuring me to put in my resignation by the end of the business day so that I would be in “good standing” with the school district and thus be employable at other districts. I was being discriminated against and not being treated fairly as a tenured teacher over a fabricated COVID requirement. Mr. Chambers pressured me to see other doctors, suggesting that mine was insufficient to make the decision about my health needs. He told me I was not being fired, but, as of that day, I was not in “Good Standing” because FMLA ended on November 8th. He said if I missed the next 14 days, then I would be terminated and not be in good standing nor employable elsewhere. My situation should never have been considered “not good standing” when my doctor wouldn’t release me to return to work. I was so demoralized as Mr. Chambers tried to debase me to submission. He required I get vaccinated, be tested 3 times a week, or wear a mask -- all of which were against my doctor’s recommendations. Those were my only options to keep my position at the Junior High. He and Principal Link then pressured me to resign and be in “Good Standing” so that I could get a job in the future.

I submitted my resignation on November 9, 2021, after being pressured and coerced by administrators to submit it immediately as the only possibility for remaining in good standing. It is impossible to make important decisions under these circumstances. I had been under extreme stress over not being able to work and my health was experiencing PTSD-like symptoms – headaches, anxiety, insomnia, etc. – presumably from the utter disregard and deliberate harassment I had experienced from those administrators who were supposed to support me.

Ten days later, Dr. Bauman announced that masks were no longer required for unvaccinated staff. There was no restitution for how I was treated like an outlaw and was pressured into resigning just the week before.

"While that might seem simply to have been coincidental timing, the District later revealed that they had ALREADY decided back in August that they would review the mask policy again at the end of October, which happened to coincide with my dismissal. They did not bother to inform me that they were in the midst of reconsidering the policy nor did they offer to extend my administrative leave until the policy reconsideration was complete. I had even requested and been denied remaining on unpaid leave until the policy requirements were relaxed. Their obvious haste in dismissing me caused me to realize later that they had wanted me gone before their policy revision, since it would have permitted me to stay."

This is an appalling abuse of authority. But I am not alone in this. The District uses the same tactics on any staff member that stands up to them. I was targeted from the first incident in 2017 for reporting environmental issues for the safety of students and staff in our building and was continually threatened and harassed causing a hostile work environment until they found a way to force me out of a job in 2021. These administrators used COVID19 to end my employment with the district after ten faithful years of service. It is blatantly obvious they used this health emergency to retaliate against me for disclosing the mold issues at the middle school.

Despite my mistreatment for standing up for the safety of students and staff at the middle school, my time in the Ozark School District was filled with many blessings through my relationships with students and staff over those ten years. I will cherish those memories for the rest of my life.

Ozark School Board Neglect

Watch Videos of Mold Issue

Resources to Understand

Mold Related Illness

Mold illness and sick building sickness are serious health issues. Even though the effects seem minimal for some, for others, they are very dangerous. For more on the effects of mold on the body and in a building, visit any of these sites:

https://www.collaborativemed.com/mold-and-mycotoxin-illness-what-to-know/

https://www.amymyersmd.com/article/toxic-mold/

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sick_building_syndrome

https://www.webmd.com/men/features/sick-building-syndrome

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