A 24-year-old former special education aide at Waco Independent School District said she was forced to resign after she was arrested on a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge last year, the same charge for which Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson was arrested.
The former aide, who asked to remain anonymous for fear that publicizing her arrest would hinder job prospects and disappoint family members, worked for the district from August 2017 to August 2018. A Lacy Lakeview police officer arrested her Aug. 14, 2018, after pulling her over for not using her turn signal. The officer smelled marijuana upon approaching her vehicle and searched it, finding a grinder with marijuana particles in the center console, according to an arrest affidavit.
Nelson’s arrest echoes the former aide’s, from the traffic stops that led to their arrests to both spending a night in jail. They both also entered pretrial diversion programs that allow them to avoid jail time and any criminal conviction, and to clear their arrest record if they stay out of legal trouble.
A state trooper arrested Nelson on March 6 after stopping him for driving in the passing lane of U.S. Highway 190 outside Hearne, about 55 miles southwest of Waco. The trooper smelled marijuana, which gave him cause to search Nelson’s vehicle, and found less than 2 ounces of marijuana in the passenger seat, according to an arrest affidavit.
Nelson was booked into the Robertson County Jail in Franklin and released the next day on his own recognizance. He signed the plea agreement Friday to enter a 90-day pretrial diversion program, which cost $500. The marijuana possession charge will be dismissed if Nelson completes the 90-day program without problems, Robertson County District Attorney W. Coty Siegert said in a statement.
Nelson did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
While the former aide, who now works at a Schlotzsky’s, does not blame anyone but herself for her arrest, she said she is frustrated and hurt by the massive outpouring of support Nelson has received from the community, including a group of local pastors who held a news conference Monday to voice their support of the superintendent’s work in Waco.
“I didn’t advertise what happened to me,” she said, “but even if I did, no one is going to support me. Pastors weren’t lining up to help me. They’re not going to go fight the school district for me, like they have for him.”
The former aide said she called her principal the day after her arrest when she was released from the McLennan County Jail because that is what the district told her to do at orientation. Administrators told her to inform them immediately of any arrests or risk worse trouble with the district. She said they mostly discussed driving while intoxicated arrests at orientation and that the district stated that employees may not lose their jobs right away for a DWI arrest.
The district’s human resources department and her principal told the former aide she could either resign or be terminated, she said. She asked if she could do custodial or warehouse work, but the district refused. She submitted a letter of resignation.
“They didn’t let me explain myself,” she said.
Nelson will have a chance to explain himself to the Waco ISD Board of Trustees on Tuesday night. School board President Pat Atkins said he does not recall the board facing a similar situation.
“Our typical approach to these types of issues is to look at each individually, and fortunately these issues don’t arise very often with our staff,” Atkins said. “There’s not a clearly defined pattern.”
He said the board of trustees would have to grapple with the fact that other staff members in the same situation as Nelson, like the former aide, have been treated differently by the district.
“Is there some set of consequences that we’re comfortable with that allows this board and this district to maintain the moral authority to tell students and staff members that certain behavior is unacceptable?” he said. “I think that will be, frankly, a significant part of the discussion among board members Tuesday night.”
The school board may suspend Nelson with pay “as determined to be in the best interest of the district,” according to Nelson’s contract. The board also may suspend Nelson without pay or terminate his contract for “good cause.” The board renewed Nelson’s contract in December, extending it through June 1, 2024.
Teaching aides, unlike teachers and administrators, generally do not have employment contracts.
The Texas Education Code states the board of trustees may terminate a term contract and discharge a superintendent at any time for “good cause as determined by the board.”
Nelson’s contract outlines multiple reasons that constitute “good cause” for suspension without pay or termination, including “illegal use of drugs, hallucinogens or other substances regulated by the Texas Controlled Substances Act” and “conviction of a felony or crime involving moral turpitude.”
Nelson’s contract with Waco ISD is void if his superintendent certification expires or is canceled or revoked, according to the contract. His certificate was listed as valid on the Texas Education Agency website as of Friday.
The Premont ISD board of trustees faced a similar decision in 2016, when its superintendent was arrested on the same misdemeanor possession of marijuana charge as Nelson. Premont is about 70 miles southwest of Corpus Christi.
The school board placed Eric Ramos, the superintendent, on paid administrative leave the day after his arrest in Duval County, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported. Ramos and the board signed a separation agreement two weeks later.
The former Waco ISD aide said Nelson should be fired.
“I don’t think he should get away with it,” she said. “This is someone who is supposed to be a role model for children. We do work for a school district. There’s a zero tolerance for drugs. Breaking the law doesn’t teach the kids in our school district anything. It teaches them if they get caught and suck up, they can get away with it.”
Waco ISD’s personnel database states the former aide resigned for “personal reasons,” district spokesman Kyle DeBeer said. She is not currently eligible for employment at the district.
The school board policy manual states that an arrest “does not establish that criminal conduct has occurred, and the District shall not disqualify a person based solely on an arrest.” It also states the district may make an employment decision based on the conduct that led to the arrest if it makes the person “unfit for the position in question.”
The former aide said she remembers a moment in jail when her cellmate asked her why she was so upset about getting arrested. She told her cellmate, “I just ruined my whole career.”
“I made the decision, and I have to deal with the consequences,” she said. “I don’t want a pity party, but I want everyone to be held to the same standard.”
Since leaving the school district, the former aide has worked low-paying jobs and long hours just to get by. She moved back in with her parents to save money after paying $2,500 for an attorney. She lost her health insurance and racked up more than $8,000 in medical bills when she got sick over Christmas. She said her job at Waco ISD was the best job she ever had and that she would go back if she could.
While she believes Nelson’s intentions are good, she said she does not think he should be above anyone else. She said she hopes by sharing her story that people would “open their eyes.”
“It’s a law,” she said, “and we chose to go against it and have to deal with the consequences, no matter how unfair they are.”