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Indian Trail Middle School music teacher suspended over mermaid costume incident

SAM WATSON • Apr 25, 2007 at 10:42 AM

JOHNSON CITY - An Indian Trail Middle School music teacher recently was suspended from duty after a female student reported that he asked her to pose in a mermaid costume for a photograph when they were alone together in his classroom.

Johnson City school administrators suspended Les Leonard, who teaches general music and chorus at Indian Trail, for three days without pay as a result of the April 10 complaint and other incidents involving female students.

"In my professional judgment, you exhibited unprofessional conduct in your actions," Indian Trail Principal Tammy Pearce wrote in an April 17 letter placed in Leonard's personnel file. "It was inappropriate for you to ask female students to stay after class or after school so you could take pictures when you would be alone with them.

"It was even more improper for you to ask female students to change their clothes so you could take pictures of them, again when you were alone with them in the classroom."

Efforts to reach Leonard, who joined the school system in 1990, for comment Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Johnson City Director of Schools Richard Bales said he concurred with Pearce's recommendations and did not believe the situation warranted Leonard's termination. Bales declined to comment further.

According to Pearce's letter, a student's grandfather came to the school on April 10 to discuss an incident that occurred in general music class. The student reported that she brought to class an article about her grandfather who made guitars, and Leonard asked her to stay after class to see his guitar.

After photographing her with his guitar, the teacher suggested that she pose in a Disney costume and offered her the "Little Mermaid" costume in his closet, Pearce's letter said.

The student went into the closet, locked the door and examined the costume, but returned, telling Leonard that she was not comfortable wearing the costume, especially in front of him alone, the letter said. Leonard then allowed her to move on to her next class.

Pearce and Assistant Principal Clyde Duty later spoke with Leonard, asking him to submit a written account of the events to the best of his knowledge. The principal also informed the music teacher that an investigation would occur.

In a written account reprinted in Pearce's letter, Leonard wrote that he photographed the girl with the guitar as students were leaving class.

"Pictures of our recent Disney Dinner did not turn out, so I needed some pictures of students in the Disney costumes to help record the events along with other activities for the year," Leonard wrote. "The only picture I have is the one on the Web page. I asked (the student) if she would like to be in a Disney picture. I let her look at the Disney costumes, and she did not want to."

In her reply, Pearce noted that the girl was not in the school's chorus, so she had not been in the Disney show, which had been performed by chorus students; therefore, asking the girl to pose for a Disney picture was unjustifiable.

Pearce also wrote that during her investigation she learned that Leonard had on at least two other occasions asked female students to stay after school to work on their vocals.

"On both occasions, you were alone with these students and asked them to change their clothes and put on costumes so that you could take their pictures," Pearce wrote in the letter.

Along with suspending Leonard, Pearce informed him that he no longer would be allowed to take Indian Trail students on field trips without a school administrator until further notice.

Pearce soon canceled two chorus field trips - one to Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va., scheduled for Wednesday and a second to Carowinds near Charlotte, N.C., scheduled for May 4. In an April 19 letter to parents, Pearce apologized for the cancellations.

"Because of the large number of students involved, I do not feel comfortable allowing out-of-state travel without being able to provide maximum supervision," Pearce wrote. "Pulling teachers and administrators from their duties in order to provide necessary supervision for trips involving large numbers of students is an even more difficult task in the spring, due to the lack of available substitute teachers.

"Again, I apologize but assure you that I have the safety and best interest of our students in mind in making this decision."

The principal also informed parents that they would receive refunds within three weeks if they had already paid for the trips.

Leonard originally was scheduled to serve a day of his suspension on April 18 and complete it on Wednesday and today, Bales said, but a schedule change allowed Leonard to complete it earlier, so Leonard taught at Indian Trail on Wednesday.

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