A year-and-a-half teaching at Liberty Hill Academy nearly broke Sandra Lemen.
Middle-schoolers at Charleston County's alternative behavioral school threatened to kill Lemen, hit her with a trash can, and made graphic sexual comments and propositions, according to the longtime teacher who lost her job this year.
They stood on the desks and openly mocked her. They left class and roamed the halls with impunity. Her room was equipped with an intercom button to request backup from the front office, but she said students sometimes physically blocked her from pressing it.
And even when she filed formal reports with the principal's office, Lemen said she didn't get the help she needed.
"The students ran the school," she said.
Like many school districts, the Charleston County School District has alternative programs in place for students who consistently misbehave. Since a reorganization in 2016, Liberty Hill has served that role for students from across the county up to eighth grade, with most students coming from middle schools. A separate school, Daniel Jenkins Academy, serves high schoolers.
The difficult environment inside Liberty Hill came to light in the course of a three-day termination hearing this summer. Lemen was fired in April after nearly 21 years working for the school district, and she returned to the district office to make the case that no teacher could have endured what happened in her classroom.
Lemen was no rookie. Before Liberty Hill, she worked 19 years just up the road at Garrett Academy, a high-poverty high school in North Charleston, where she served as head of the social studies department.
District officials highlighted a series of warnings and poor evaluations that showed she was an ineffective teacher, but Lemen's attorney, ex-State Board of Education member and current Charleston County GOP Chairman Larry Kobrovsky, argued that no teacher could have endured what Lemen experienced.
"She was subject to the most horrific sexual degradations you can imagine," Kobrovsky said on the first day of the hearing, July 26.
"If that's what it means to teach in Charleston County ... they ought to tell teachers that's a condition of employment," he added later.
The third day of the hearing had to be cut short when Lemen suffered a panic attack while recounting a series of threats and assaults. She said she had been suffering similar attacks during the school year and had to leave school early more than once.
The school district has not rendered a decision in Lemen's case yet. If Lemen wins her case, she will be allowed to return to work in the district — but she won't be returning to Liberty Hill, according to Kobrovsky.
Chaos in the halls
According to Principal Chris Haynes, the picture of his school that can be gleaned from police reports and teacher referrals is incomplete. It doesn't capture the victories he's seen.
"What it misses is when you see a mother cry because her son has never been successful at school and he restores back to his home school, and we throw a big celebration with breakfast, and his family speaks and teachers cry and talk about this kid ...
"It misses the fact that our MAP scores are improving each year, that students who are traditionally being lost somewhere in our system are being helped. It misses my wonderful staff who walk in every day and who high-five kids and tell them they care about them and still hold them accountable for what their behavior is supposed to be," Haynes said.
Still, the reports paint a grim picture of the school's worst moments. North Charleston police records show that officers responded to the school 127 times in the past two years, or about once every three school days. The most common offense was assault and battery, accounting for 52 charges. Six times, students were charged with threatening public officials or police officers.
And those are just the incidents that made it to police. According to Lemen, some serious referrals never even landed students in the "Intervention Room," a cooling-off space where students were made to write apology notes copied from a form letter.
Lemen filed disciplinary referrals via PowerSchool, the district's computer portal for disciplinary action and grading. She submitted 59 referrals within the first three months of the last school year.
On Nov. 8, Haynes sent an email to the teachers to announce he was closing 159 disciplinary referrals without action, including Lemen's 59. The backlog had gotten too long and the front office was short-staffed, he explained in the email. He would later explain at the termination hearing that some of the referrals had already been dealt with at the classroom level, and in some cases multiple reports about a student had been consolidated into one.
"I do not want you all to think that I am not supporting you in your discipline," Haynes wrote in the email.
But Lemen felt he had done exactly that.
A tough job
District officials maintain that the job of teaching at Liberty Hill Academy is hard, but doable. Haynes, who has led the school since it took on its current form in the fall of 2016, said the school has restored 50 students to their home schools each of the past two years.
Liberty Hill actually houses two programs under one roof: A day treatment program for students with severe disabilities and a "board-placed" program for students who are sent to the school due to discipline problems. Lemen worked with the "board-placed" students.
"Our students have severe disabilities, mental illness, they're dealing with trauma in their lives, and what we're getting as educators in our school is a result of that trauma," Haynes said. "We're dealing with behaviors that are sometimes extreme, and we have a lot of interventions for those behaviors."
In addition to the school district's Progressive Discipline Plan, which prescribes specific responses to specific offenses, Liberty Hill uses a system of Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports to reward good behavior. It also served as a pilot school last academic year for Restorative Practices, in which students are expected to work out resolutions and address the roots of conflict. On professional development days, teachers get training in trauma-informed care.
But those programs and interventions were paper tigers, according to Lemen and another teacher who recently quit working at Liberty Hill.
Lynsey Harper started working at Liberty Hill in 2016 and left after the 2017-18 school year to teach in the Berkeley County School District. She had previously worked for four years at the Berkeley Alternative School, a similar disciplinary school in the neighboring county, and she said the students there had the same sorts of problems and behavior issues, but with a major difference: When she filed a referral, the administration acted swiftly and consistently.
Not so at Liberty Hill, she said. In her time there, she said students hurled desks and laptop computers across the room. She said one student asked for the school resource officer's gun so he could shoot her; another sprayed mace in two adults' faces and was back at school before the teachers had recovered from their injuries.
"Me and a couple of other teachers were seriously convinced we had PTSD," Harper said.
As the discipline referrals piled up, Harper lost faith in the school's leadership.
"The students made it difficult to teach the content, but the principals made it difficult because they didn’t back up what the teachers did," Harper said.
Haynes, for his part, has seen trouble firsthand at Liberty Hill: According to one police report from May 11, a student brandished a pair of stolen scissors and threatened to stab him.
During Lemen's hearing, Haynes said Lemen was moved to another school, and eventually fired, after multiple poor performance reviews and repeated warnings for failure to submit lesson plans.
"Ms. Lemen wrote more referrals than anyone else at the school. A lot of them were teacher-managed," he said, referring to minor offenses that are addressed within the classroom.
Asked during the hearing why he thought Lemen had written so many referrals, he said, "Part of it's the lack of planning, and I believe part of it is just not building the relationships with students."