In a private meeting with upset parents, East Baton Rouge Parish school leaders admitted to screwing up when for about two weeks they placed a teacher at an elementary school before learning that the man had a criminal past that should have barred him from the classroom, according to three parents in attendance.
“The head of HR (Daphne Donaldson) took full responsibility that he made it into the classroom without a full background check,” Bonnie Kersch said.
“She was very quick to accept full responsibility, which I was shocked at,” said Russ Bryant.
“There were just a number of procedures that just didn’t work, and the district admits that fully, and they are changing them,” Ann Marie Stanley said.
They were among at least 15 parents who showed up from Parkview Elementary School for the meeting which occurred Tuesday afternoon. All of the parents have children who were taught briefly by the teacher, Robert E. Tucker Jr. Also in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting were several top school system leaders, including Donaldson and Superintendent Sito Narcisse.
According to the three parents, school system leaders said they’ve discontinued the apparently longstanding practice of putting at least some teachers right to work rather than wait until State Police completes its state-mandated criminal background checks. They insisted that no other school employees lack such checks.
“Why that wasn’t the case to begin with, I don’t know,” Kersch wondered.
They told parents that the background check for Tucker, whom they did not identify by name, was not complete until Sept. 21 — 13 days after he started, according to the parents.
“They blamed it on the state having a slow turnaround time on background checks,” Kersch said.
State Police spokesman Nick Manale said the average turnaround for background checks is five to seven days, though it can take longer, up to three weeks, if people mail in their information rather than come in person. The oldest incomplete check as of Tuesday was started Sept. 9, Manale said.
School officials would not tell parents how long they’ve been hiring teachers with incomplete checks has been occurring, but that the practice preceded Narcisse’s arrival as superintendent in January.
Angela Reams-Brown, president of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers, was surprised.
“If it’s something they are doing, that is new,” Reams-Brown said. “That is definitely not the norm.”
Narcisse said he’s taking other steps in response.
After some prodding, the parents say, Narcisse agreed to keep an increased security presence at the 5660 Parkforest Drive campus for an extended period of time. And Narcisse also indicated, the parents say, that he has halted all district hiring until the school system can quickly overhaul its background check policy, and that he is considering hiring an outside company to conduct an additional background check on new hires.
“Narcisse was about as contrite as I’ve ever seen him,” said Stanley, who serves on a districtwide parent advisory council.
School officials, however, have drawn a hard line at revealing anything more about Tucker and his past, citing laws protecting the confidentiality of information on employees.
The Advocate has submitted written questions, as well as a public records request, seeking more information about Tucker. All the school system has revealed so far is that Tucker is no longer an employee — it wouldn’t say if he resigned or was fired — and that his last day was Wednesday, Sept. 29. Parkview sent a message to parents two days later that Tucker had resigned.
Attempts to reach Tucker Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Stanley said she put the question to Narcisse at Tuesday’s meeting, but the superintendent wouldn’t say.
“I directly asked him, point blank, is this the same person, is this the man?” Stanley recalled.
The person that Stanley is referring to is a convicted felon with the same name who was convicted in August 2020. He was found guilty of repeatedly lying about his mental health history both to obtain a concealed weapon permit and to purchase a gun — he’d spent time in 2011 in a mental institution, making him “mentally defective” and therefore ineligible to buy a firearm. Authorities arrested him after he tried twice in June 2020 to buy a new gun, lying both times on his application.
He spent 10 months in jail before he was released in April. He is appealing his conviction.
A year earlier, this same man brandished a handgun during a confrontation he had with another customer at the Walmart on Burbank Drive. That confrontation caused a panic, not to mention a heavy police presence, after some customers claimed erroneously that there was an active shooter in the store.
The three parents say they have no doubt that Tucker the felon and the teacher are one and the same.
One reason for their certainty is that several students have looked at Tucker’s mugshot to ID him.
Bryant said he asked his son to look at the picture, saying nothing about where it came from and even covering up the lower part of the face, which is similar to how Tucker the teacher looked in class when he was wearing a mask. Without prompting, his son said the picture showed his teacher.
Stanley first became aware of a possible connection when she did an internet search on her son’s new gifted fifth-grade math and science teacher. She turned up an August 2020 Advocate news story on the felony conviction.
“I thought there is absolutely no way that the school district would hire someone like that,” Stanley said. “It has to be a horrible coincidence.”
The teacher, however, quickly aroused suspicions.
“My son said he acted kind of peculiar and talked to himself,” said Bryant.
“According to my son, he would just repeat the question over and over and just have the kids repeat the question out loud,” Stanley said.
Another oddity was that rather than pronouncing his name as “RO-bert TUCK-er” he insisted that students and staff pronounce his name in the French manner as “ro-BEAR two-CARE”
“He would not answer to Mr. Tucker,” Stanley recalled.
“My kid thought that was hilarious,” Kersch said.
To reach Tucker, The Advocate dialed a phone number found in East Baton Rouge Parish court records from his 2019 case. In his voicemail message, he pronounced his name in the French manner, “ro-BEAR two-CARE.”
Not so funny was when Tucker the teacher accused a student of using the N-word.
Kerscher said her son witnessed this incident and swears the kid never said the word, that Tucker made it up.
“He just made an issue in front of the class to the point where the boy was in tears,” Kerscher said.
Curiosity intensified when Tucker quit coming to class and a substitute showed up in his place. Bryant said that Tucker had informed the students that he had a protracted round of jury duty that not only kept from class but made him a no-show to a Sept. 28 open house at the school.
Tucker the felon, as it turns out, was in court that day, leading his own defense in the 2019 case at Walmart.
In these final days at Parkview, Tucker sent parents a belated letter introducing himself. The letter included a short biography in which he describes himself as a U.S. Army veteran with a background in teaching. Court records show that Robert Earl Tucker who was convicted last year is also a U.S. Army veteran and has worked in the past as a teacher.
The three parents say they are happy the school district apologized Tuesday but they say the episode has shaken their faith.
“The level of betrayal is incredible,” Stanley said.
“You’re telling me this is an isolated incident? That’s hard for me to believe. Hopefully, this was the only convicted felon.” Kersch said.
“I’m not satisfied the district has fixed the problem,” Bryant said.