The Effingham County Board of Education voted unanimously April 28 to fire a special education teacher who had been accused of inappropriate conduct with one of her students.
Following a hearing that lasted nearly six hours, the five school board members agreed to terminate Kayla Zittrouer’s employment. Zittrouer had been a special education teacher at Effingham County Middle School since January.
“It was an unfortunate situation for everyone involved,” said Superintendent Randy Shearouse. “I think the key for us as leaders in the school system, as educators, it’s our number one responsibility to protect the children, and we have to do that at all costs.”
Zittrouer was arrested and charged with three counts of computer pornography, first-degree cruelty to children, sexual assault by a teacher engaged in sexual contact, enticing a child for indecent purposes and child molestation.
She still faces the criminal charges.
Zitterour’s attorney, Keith Barber, said the words, actions and deeds of the students — the young man said to have received the messages and photos and a classmate with whom he shared them — led to her actions.
“We feel she was harassed and intimidated every day she taught in that school,” Barber said.
During the hearing, the students —who were in one of Zittrouer’s special education classes — were not identified by name and only their initials were used. The student who received the messages and photos has reading comprehension difficulty, and the other student involved has math deficiencies.
Zittrouer, who had taken her practicum and then was a student-teacher at Effingham County Middle, was hired as a special education teacher in December 2014. The allegations began to surface in March, and she was placed on administrative leave March 19. Zittrouer initially submitted her resignation but she rescinded her resignation before the board could accept it formally.
Barber said his client’s dream had been to become a teacher.
“She knew since she was a little girl that she wanted to be a teacher, and now she is accused of doing some terrible things,” he said. “Some are true, and some are not.”
“You will hear Kayla Zitterour is an Effingham County girl,” Kreyenbuhl said in his opening statement to the board members. “Their side is going to show she developed a relationship with one if not two students.
“You’re going to hear about communication of a sexual nature. You’re going to hear about sending photos and of physical contact that was uninvited and never went reported. Most of the evidence is going to come in the form of her own statements. It is her own statements to the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office.”
An Effingham County Sheriff’s Office investigation determined Zittrouer, an Effingham County native who graduated from Armstrong State University, provided a 14-year-old male student with obscene pictures and had inappropriate sexual contact with the student.
Zitterour also had a Kik, a social media application, account, and she was charged with using that means to communicate with the students. She pled the Fifth when asked about the account, and she also declared her Fifth Amendment rights when asked if she reported unwanted contact or with the student or feeling intimidated to any one in administration.
After school administrators learned of a potential problem, they conducted interviews and eventually summoned sheriff’s deputies. ECMS principal Billy Hughes started the investigation March 19.
“The administrators at the school did a great job in their investigation,” Shearouse said. “They handled the situation correctly. You take any report like that as a very serious matter. Involving law enforcement early on is important, which we did. That was an important part of this process as well.”
Hughes said he had no reason to believe anything was going on before that date and also said Zitterour never said anything about feeling intimidated or harassed by the students.
Hughes said he got an email from the in-school suspension instructor, who said the student needed to see the principal.
“He shared information with her she thought I needed to see,” Hughes said in his testimony before the school board.
Hughes said he interviewed the student who received the messages and photos and then talked with Becky Long, the school system’s human resources executive director. Hughes brought in assistant principal Lisa Woods and they interviewed Zitterour. Hughes said Zitterour told them she deleted the Kik account and told the students to stop messaging her.
“That’s why I called Becky Long to help me sort out the details,” Hughes said. “I felt there was a breach of code of conduct.”
According to Hughes, Zitterour also said the student touched her on the butt, but she did not report. When she was presented with photos that had been sent to that student, who shared them with a classmate, “she put her head down,” he said. Hughes said he thought Zitterour was now uncomfortable and Lyn Long took his place in the interview.
An Effingham County Sheriff’s Office investigator, John Bradley, got possession of the student’s phone. Though the student said he had deleted everything off that phone, he shared the messages and a photo with a classmate, who had those on his phone. Hughes also sat in on the interview of the student, which took place March 20.
Zitterour had written up the student for disrupting class, prompting his stay in ISS. He was reported to say that Zitterour would regret sending him to ISS, but Zitterour told Olson she did not know what that ment.
Hughes said the student had been written up previously. He had been called to classrooms sporadically for his behavior and had not been summoned to a class for problems with the other student.
He also said he had no knowledge of the students cursing at Zitterour, touching her inappropriately or taking property from her and damaging it. Olson also said Zitterour never told her before March 18 that she felt threatened by the two students.
When asked if she believed it was wrong to send pictures of a sexual nature or engage in discussions of a sexual nature, Zitterour invoked her Fifth Amendment rights. She also pled the Fifth when asked if she discussed her sexual history with the students in question.
Barber objected to Kreyenbuhl’s line of questioning and asked the hearing officer to dismiss the school board from the case and bring in another board to hear the testimony and render a decision. His objection was overruled.
Under conditions of the bond she was granted, Zitterour could not have contact with any witness in the case or with the students involved.
She also could not have contact with any juvenile without another adult present. When asked if that made it impossible to continue in her job as a teacher, she pled the Fifth.
When special education department head Julie Olson’s class reached its maximum size, the students were split, creating a need for another teacher. Zitterour, having completed her teaching practicum and her student-teaching under Olson, applied and was hired for the new spot.
Olson said Zitterour is a “very intelligent young lady.”
“The kids liked her. They were very engaged in her lessons,” Olson said.
She also said Zitterour had undergone the training, along with other teachers, and appropriate student-teacher relationship, including “don’t give them your cell number, don’t send them text messages and don’t give them rides.”
The two students wound up in Zitterour’s class after Olson’s class was split because there was one student Zitterour felt she could not reach. So Olson took that student and the other two were sent to Zitterour in order to separate the three of them.
ECMS assistant principal Lisa Woods testified that Zitterour said in their initial investigation that she did not send pictures of herself to the student but later admitted they may have come from a workout video she and her sister were making.
“It’s at that point she began to get a little uncomfortable,” Woods said, adding Zitterour then acknowledged other pictures may have been sent.