A former teacher at Guntersville Elementary School is fighting to get her job back after being terminated for her handling of a situation where a student licked her toes on at least three separate occasions.

Natalie Bunch taught kindergarten at GES until she was suspended and subsequently fired last December at the recommendation of Guntersville City Schools Superintendent Jason Barnett.

Bunch appealed her termination Friday at the Marshall County Courthouse in front of Judge Phillip Wood, saying the Guntersville City School Board acted inappropriately as she repeatedly tried to address the issue.

Her attorney, Will Webster, argued that the Board violated its own policies by not giving Bunch due process before her termination and that its decision was both "arbitrary and capricious" and biased.

Attorney for the school board, Taylor Brooks, disputed those claims and argued that, based on the evidence presented at the original "Termination of a Tenured Employee" hearing, the Board made a reasonable and justified decision to affirm Barnett's recommendation. According to The Advertiser Gleam, the Board voted 4-0 in favor of termination, with one board member abstaining, The Board also released a statement saying it believed the incidents were not in any way sexual or gratifying for Bunch, but she still violated Board policy.

Neither side disputed the basic facts of the incident, that, after having been prescribed medication for previously attacking and tackling Bunch to the ground, the unnamed K-5 student became more "touchy-feely" toward Bunch and, over the course of the next few weeks, licked her toes on at least three different occasions.

However, the two sides did dispute other details, such as how many times the licking incidents occurred and the appropriateness of Bunch's handling of the situation, particularly how she photographed the student licking her toes the third time to, as she put it, document the behavior.

Webster argued though Bunch was given no official procedure to report such an incident, she repeatedly sought help from multiple teachers and staff, including GES counselor Kristen Kent, who did not report the issue to anyone higher up, and Assistant Principal Shannon Hampton, who Bunch said laughed when she saw the photos and told her to start wearing her "cute fall boots."

Webster said Bunch didn't go to GES Principal John Doyle at first due to the "embarrassing" nature of the case and Doyle's alleged friendship with her ex-husband, with whom she was in a tense custody battle at the time. Webster said this showed bias in the Board's decision, as did the fact that none of the other staff members who knew about the incidents were also disciplined for not reporting it. Webster added that Bunch's due process was violated after being denied access to her personnel file and emails that could have helped her defense.

"They [the school board] determined they had a pedophile in their midst and acted accordingly," Webster said.

Brooks responded to Bunch's claims by saying they were just that, her version of events that were largely contradicted by the witnesses — including Kent and Hampton — and evidence presented to the Board at the initial hearing.

Brooks said the issue before Judge Wood at the appeal was not necessarily whether he agreed with the Board's decision but whether or not a reasonable person could arrive at such a conclusion given the evidence presented. Brooks argued that the Students First Act was enacted in 2011 to return authority back to the local level by giving broad deference to the school board in such matters. In order to overturn a decision as being "arbitrary and capricious," Brooks said it would have to defy reasonable judgment and be "shocking" to the judge's conscience.

Given that multiple witnesses' testimony contradicted Bunch's statements — some said the licking incident had occurred as many as six times or "all the time" — Brooks said the Board, which acts as a jury in this case, could reasonably determine that Bunch was not credible.

Though not mandatory, Brooks said Hampton did provide a way for Bunch and other teachers to report student behavior incidents through a Google Document form. In refuting Bunch's other claims, Brooks said that no one else was disciplined since she alone was involved in the incidents and didn't report to the administration for over three weeks. He also said Doyle denied having any bias and wasn't involved in the final decision and that the determination of bias is subject to the same arbitrary and capricious standard as the other claims; and the board did present documentation to Bunch regarding the policy violations, including neglect of duty.

"If a teacher has such bad judgment that she needs to be specifically trained on these values, then the board of education rightly cannot trust that teacher to supervise its students," Brooks said.

Judge Wood listened to both sides plead their case. He said he would review their submitted briefs and evidence from the previous hearing and asked the attorneys to submit order proposals by Thursday.

To connect with the author of this story or to comment, email daniel.taylor@1819news.com.

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