The city prosecutor has released the case file for Lafayette Parish School Board member Tehmi Chassion’s simple battery complaint against Superintendent Pat Cooper, and the witness statements given to police illustrate two very different scenarios.
The file, which was released Wednesday morning by city prosecutor Gary Haynes, includes witness statements from Cooper and Chassion, as well as LPSS Risk Management Director Ramona Bernard, the board’s former legal counsel Assistant District Attorney Roger Hamilton and three additional board members — Shelton Cobb, Hunter Beasley and Rae Trahan.
While all seven statements detail the same event — an alleged altercation between Cooper and Chassion during a closed-door executive session on Feb. 5 — an examination of each witness account shows the emergence of two diverging story lines.
Starting with the statement from Chassion, the board member writes:
While in executive session, after repeated requests to Mona Bernard by myself asking for an email concerning improper dismissal of employees hired with board approval and dismissed without board approval, Dr. Cooper tells Mona Bernard after she ask [sic] him should she go to get the email right now that it can wait till tomorrow.
I politely ask [sic] Ms. Bernard that I would like to see the information tonight. Dr. Cooper gets up and yells in my ear that she is his employee and I can’t tell her anything. I politely say that I am asking kindly in front of every board member for information needed and I am using ‘ma’am’ [sic] being very respectful.
Dr. Cooper then leans over into my face and grabs my arm and pulls me in his direction causing my chair to spin in his direction away from Mona Bernard’s direction and continues squeezing my arm as he yells and spits in my face as he states she is his employee and will get it tomorrow.
I then ask Mr. Hamilton if he witnessed what happened, he did not respond. I re-asked him and he again refrained from saying anything. I then asked every board member if they witnessed the event and half said yes they did, the other half remained quiet.
Hamilton did in fact witness the event, but unlike Chassion’s version of events, the board’s former legal counsel described the altercation much differently, writing:
While in executive session, Dr. Cooper touched Tehmi Chassion during a conversation between Tehmi Chassion and Ramona Bernard. Dr. Cooper placed a couple of fingers on Tehmi Chassion. Tehmi Chassion was sitting to my left. Dr. Cooper was off to the side.
Similar statements came from Bernard and board member Shelton Cobb. According to Cobb, here’s what went down:
During discussion in which Mr. Chassion was requesting info from a system employee, the superintendent indicate [sic] to Mr. Chassion that information being requested should more properly be requested from the [superintendent].
The [superintendent] touched Mr. Chassion inadvertently while talking to him.
Despite Chassion's claim of remaining polite throughout the ordeal, Bernard had a different take:
During the discussion, Dr. Tehmi Chassion became very agitated and was shouting. He asked me if I could produce a particular document for him, and I answered, ‘Sure.’ He then began to demand that the document be produced immediately. Dr. Pat Cooper, Superintendent, said we will produce it tomorrow.
Dr. Chassion began shouting that I said I could get it for him. Dr. Hunter Beasley, President of the Board, was conducting the meeting, and he very calmly told Dr. Chassion that he had the right to request information from the superintendent, and the Supt. would secure it from the staff and give it to him.
Dr. Chassion started shouting again, and Dr. Cooper started shouting that I worked for Dr. Cooper, and Dr. Chassion was not listening, so Dr. Cooper stood, leaned over, and put his hand on Dr. Chassion’s right arm to get his attention. Dr. Cooper was leaning and shouting close to Dr. Chassion. Dr. Chassion was also shouting. At some point Dr. Cooper stood and walked out. Dr. Chassion continued to yell, ‘Did you see him put his hands on me?’ He ranted and cursed, then started dialing his phone.
And according to Cooper:
I was sitting behind Mr. Chassion. As his voice got louder and more belligerent toward Ms. Bernard (my employee), I stood up and touched him on the arm to get his attention while stating to him that she wasn’t his employee, stop talking to her that way, and that if he wanted something he needed to go through me, the superintendent and her boss.
He screamed he was tired of me putting my hands on him and that something needed to be done. I simply said I touched him to get his attention so he would stop ordering my employee around and screaming at her. I then walked out ...
While the statements from Cooper, Bernard, Cobb and Hamilton all tell a much different story from the one given by Chassion, he at least got corroboration from board member Rae Trahan, though that shouldn’t be too surprising given the disdain she’s held for the superintendent since day one of his arrival in Lafayette.
Here’s how Trahan described the events of Feb. 5:
While discussing legal action to be taken, Dr. Cooper became angry with Dr. Chassion. He began shouting at him and pulled on his arm on two separate occasions. Dr. Chassion asked him politely to let him go and to not lay hands on him again. Dr. Cooper came around the table, laughed @ him (Dr. Chassion) made a snide comment and walked out of the room.
A more neutral take on the incident came from board president Hunter Beasley:
Dr. Chaisson [sic] was asking questions of a staff member, Mona Bernard. Staff member would not provide direct answer. Dr. Chassion kept asking questions. Dr. Cooper eventually got up and said to Dr. Chassion to ask him the questions. Dr. Chaisson [sic] continued to question staff member. Dr. Cooper stood up and grabbed Dr. Chaisson [sic] on the arm. Dr. Chaisson [sic] turned slightly. Dr. Cooper left the room. The people in the room left to go back to the board meeting room.
So, what do we take away from this story other than an already-held understanding that some board members like the superintendent and others don’t?
For one, Chassion’s actions proved a big waste of time not only for those attending the school board’s Feb. 5 meeting, but also for the Lafayette Police Department, which had to stop patrolling the city and head over to the school system offices to conduct an investigation into his allegations, as well as the time taken by the city prosecutor’s office to review the case and decide whether prosecution was worth pursuing. It wasn’t.
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