Marietta teacher challenges dismissal at hearing

Discussed religious visions with students

Marietta City Schools legal counsel Craig Pelini asks questions of a witness while a stenographer types and hearing officer David Hipp, an attorney from New Philadelphia, takes notes during a hearing Tuesday in the conference room of the Comfort Inns and Suites in Marietta for former teacher Melanie Lockhart, who has challenged her dismissal by the district. (Photo by Michael Kelly)

MARIETTA – A former Marietta Middle School teacher who has said she believes God delivered her from chronic pain under the condition that she share her story of deliverance with fellow teachers, students and others was the subject of a day-long hearing at a Marietta hotel conference room Tuesday.

Melanie Lockhart, who also said she has smoked marijuana and acknowledged that she posted a message on Facebook in January predicting her story would “make the national news,” is challenging her dismissal from the school district and exercised her right to receive a public hearing.

The hearing officer was New Philadelphia attorney David Hipp. The hearing, held in the conference room of the Comfort Inn and Suites in Marietta, was attended mainly by school officials, attorneys, witnesses and members of Lockhart’s family. It began at 10 a.m. and continued past 4:30 p.m.

Marietta Middle School Principal Brittany Schob said in her testimony for the district that Jan. 19 was the first day of school it was closed for three days because of snow. She said Lockhart approached her during seventh period and said “God had granted her those snow days” and He had raised her, healed her pain, and now God was inside her, telling her what to say.

“She told me not to worry, that it was great, and wonderful, great things were going to happen,” Schob said. “I was caught off-guard and gave it some thought over the weekend.”

Former Marietta City Schools teacher Melanie Lockhart watches as witnesses are questioned at a hearing Tuesday in the conference room of the Comfort Inns and Suites in Marietta. Lockhart has challenged her dismissal by the district, where school officials became concerned about her behavior. (Photo by Michael Kelly)

Schob said she decided to talk to Lockhart the following Monday because over the weekend she had become aware that Lockhart had spoken to some students and made email contact with some students about her experience.

“I went to see her during seventh period, and she was very excited. She said God told her I would come to see her, and that I would be confused,” Schob said. “I told her to be careful about what she said, and I told her I was concerned for her.”

Schob said assistant principal Tim Fleming expressed concerns to her about Lockhart’s behavior after seeing an interaction between Lockhart and a member of the administrative staff, witnessed by a student.

Fleming later testified that from his office he had seen Lockhart come up to his secretary and begin speaking to her, then Lockhart began touching her. He said the secretary told him later Lockhart had been talking to her about a divorce and came and put her arm around her. A student was sitting in the room, he said.

“I came out to see what was going on, to make sure everybody was safe,” Fleming said. “I could tell (the secretary) was very uncomfortable.”

Former Marietta City Schools teacher Melanie Lockhart talks to her attorney, Jaclyn Tipton, at a hearing Tuesday in the conference room of the Comfort Inns and Suites in Marietta. Lockhart has challenged her dismissal by the district, where school officials became concerned about her behavior. (Photo by Michael Kelly)

Schob said that Monday night, after a regular school board meeting, she asked superintendent Will Hampton to call her the next day to discuss Lockhart’s behavior. Hampton came to the school at 7:30 a.m. the next day, she said, and they decided to “monitor” the situation.

Later that morning, Lockhart came to Schob’s office, Schob said.

“She said she knew I was concerned, and she said that was great, that we would make the national news,” Schob said. “She repeated that a couple of times. That caused me great concern. I did not know what she meant by that.”

Schob contacted Hampton, who instructed her to convene a meeting with Lockhart. The meeting included Schob, Hampton, Fleming, Marietta Education Association president J.D. Benson and Lockhart.

The meeting lasted two and a half hours, Schob said.

Schob, Hampton, Fleming and Benson all gave the same account in testimony Tuesday. Lockhart told Hampton about her “episode” and said her “protector and provider” had given her a gift.

Lockhart in later testimony described the episode as occurring on Jan. 13 while shoveling snow for a neighbor in Vienna. She said she was lifted into the air and dropped in the snow several feet away, then had the sensation of going into a tunnel. When she emerged an hour and a half later, she said, she was free of the pain that had been plaguing her for months and felt a guiding presence inside her.

Hampton said she told him and the others at the meeting Jan. 23 that she was having visions and that “he” was in control of her, telling her what to say and what to do. When Hampton asked her who “he” was, and then asked her if she meant God, she replied, “Yes, my God.”

Hampton said he asked her whether she was taking medication, and she replied that she wasn’t that day but told him about an experience she had with “Matthew’s Special Sauce” the previous summer and added that she had once gotten so high on marijuana at the Vienna ball fields that she had to call her husband and daughters to come and get her.

Lockhart later testified that she had smoked marijuana on her personal time following back surgery which left her in crippling pain. “I actually asked two doctors for their opinions, they said (marijuana) worked,” Lockhart said. She also noted that she uses CBD oil, a non-intoxicating extract of marijuana that has analgesic properties.

At the Jan. 23 meeting, Hampton said, he became so concerned that he called Lockhart’s husband to drive her home. Robert Lockhart, a letter carrier in Vienna, later testified that he came and found nothing wrong with his wife, and they drove home in their vehicles.

The combination of Lockhart’s behavior, her continued contact with students about religious matters, her assertion that she was no longer fully in control of her actions and her statements about “making the national news” – Fleming in his testimony remarked, “There are only a few reasons schools make the national news” – convinced Hampton to place Lockhart on paid administrative leave.

In cross examination, Lockhart’s attorney, Jaclyn Tipton, asked Schob, Fleming, Hampton and Benson, all of whom have worked with Lockhart for years, if they had any concerns about Lockhart’s performance as a teacher before January. All said they had not.

Hampton testified that he contracted with clinical psychologist Fred Lee to conduct an examination of Lockhart and received a report from him. Tipton pointed out that Lockhart had not signed a release under HIPAA, the law governing the confidentiality of medical information, and Hipp ordered the psychological report sealed.

The contents of that report were not discussed at the hearing.

Tipton, through examining witnesses, challenged several of the administrative procedures involved in her client’s firing, including short notices on the meeting Jan. 23 and notice of a single calendar day for the special board meeting on April 5 when she was terminated.

She asked Lockhart whether she was in control of her thoughts and actions, and whether she thought she could follow directions to refrain from discussing religion with her students. Lockhart affirmed that she could do both.

Craig Pelini, the attorney for Marietta City Schools, asked Lockhart to confirm that she had been notified of the meetings, and Lockhart replied that she had but believed the notifications were not in accordance with Ohio law.

Hipp said the hearing will be transcribed and the transcriptions sent to the district and Lockhart’s attorney, who will then have 30 days to lodge any complaints of error. After that, he said, 10 days is allowed for further actions.

Hipp said he can make recommendations in the case but the decision about whether to re-hire Lockhart will ultimately rest with the Marietta City Schools board of education.