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UPDATED: Alpena school board votes to consider non-renewal of Berriman’s contract

News Photo by Shannon Vivero Audience members stand after being asked to do so by a parent to show support for Ella White Principal Tom Berriman at a school board meeting Monday at Alpena High School.

ALPENA — The Alpena Public Schools Board of Education, by a vote of 6 to 1, made a motion early Tuesday morning to consider the non-renewal of suspended Ella White Elementary School Principal Tom Berriman’s contract.

The board made its decision after hours of deliberation at a termination hearing that began Monday evening. The board spent more than three hours in closed session before the vote and after hearing from both APS Superiendent Dave Rabbideau and Berriman.

The board will consider the non-renewal of Berriman’s contact during a meeting next month. Berriman will remain on paid administrative leave.

Berriman has been on paid administrative leave since November for his alleged mishandling of two incidents involving a special-needs student.

He has served as principal of Ella White since the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.

During Monday’s meeting, the board listed several violations by Berriman of the district’s code of conduct. The board ultimately made its decision due to concerns raised by both Rabbideau and the board.

Berriman denies any wrongdoing, stemming from two separate occasions at the school involving the same student.

The district previously said it cannot make public two videos of the alleged incidents — both of which were captured on school surveillance cameras — because it does not have consent from the parents of the student involved.

Both Berriman’s lawyer Jeffery Theuer and the board discussed the videos at length on Monday in closed session, which show the alleged incidents occurring in a hallway and a vestibule at the school.

Theuer contended that Berriman was acting to stop the student from being disruptive in both situations.

When he addressed the board, Berriman took responsibility for not making better choices, specifically mentioning the vestibule incident, in which the student allegedly took a piece of school security equipment and threw it against a window.

“I’m a human being, I acted. I tried to keep everybody safe. I’m not saying I did nothing wrong,” Berriman said. “All I want is an opportunity to show everybody I can grow from this.”

Rabbideau indicated when questioned that although Berriman did explain himself when the videos were reviewed, he appeared to deflect from his actions.

Other district officials said Berriman could have responded differently, based on district training protocols.

Berriman was in good spirits Monday evening as supporters approached him with words of encouragement prior to the meeting. As supporters of Berriman spoke, applause was heard from the audience.

“Mr. Berriman saved my life, he made a call when I was having a medical emergency.” Angela Mahan, a special education teacher at Ella White said, “I was in the hospital before I knew it.”

Two students also addressed positive things Berriman did as principal at Ella White.

“He made school fun. We want our principal back.” Mikalya Ritthaler and Aria Wagner said.

In response to his possible dismissal, Berriman previously filed five complaints against APS administration. An independent investigator hired to look into the school district’s handling of the matter found however there wasn’t enough evidence to support Berriman’s claims.

As Monday’s meeting started, a letter was read in support of Meaghan Black who has stepped in as principal at Ella White in Berriman’s absence.

“I am here to address the public more so than board,” Susan Landon, a health teacher of Ella White, said. “People have said, Ella White is in turmoil and is suffering without their principal. That is a lie! You do not know all the facts!”

Others in attendance said Berriman’s handling of the alleged incidents may have gone against school policy.

“There is a hands-off policy in the classroom at the elementary level.” Russ Rhynard said. “If a principal can not deal with a child physically that is having a behavior issue, they should not follow that policy.”

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