Attorney Michael Hester and his girlfriend were stunned when they learned the Biloxi School District would no longer allow him to attend parent-teacher conferences about her 7-year-old twins, even though he is helping raise them and the family considers him their father.
Last year, while the twins were in first grade, Hester attended parent-teacher conferences with his girlfriend at Popp’s Ferry Elementary School. But the school’s academic strategist recently informed Hester’s girlfriend that he is no longer welcome at the conferences, she said.
Hester’s girlfriend did not want her name used because she wants to protect her children, including a third daughter who attends middle school. Their biological fathers are deceased.
Hester and his girlfriend have been together for six years and have been living in the same house for three years.
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“We are a family unit,” Hester said. “We are fully intending to get married, but I’m not going to let the school board force me into it.”
“I intend to act in the best interest of the children. I don’t want to draw any attention to myself. I don’t want to draw any attention to them.
“But I think the policy is wrong.”
“I am actively involved in the children’s education. If they have special needs or are falling behind and there’s something I can do to strengthen their academic progress, I would like to do so.”
School Superintendent Arthur McMillan said he believes the policy is needed so that the teacher can have a productive conference with the parents or legal guardian. He did not specifically address Hester’s situation.
“You might have two people who are living together and all of sudden they are not living together anymore,” he said. He said he does not know how other districts handle the issue, but he wants to make sure only parents or legal guardians are included in Biloxi parent-teacher conferences.
Hester shared with the Sun Herald a letter he received from school board attorney Henry N. Dick III.
In the letter, dated Sept. 13, Dick said, in part:
“These meetings are school meetings designed to allow the teacher to explain what he or she is doing for the child and to hear from the parent about issues the parent might have.
“They are brief and not designed for lengthy discussions. Districts typically do not allow parents to bring attorneys, friends, pastors, etc. as this is (sic) parent-teacher conference only.”
“These are school meetings and attendance can be dictated by the particular school district.”
The letter also included this paragraph: “We feel these procedures are necessary to keep the meetings productive and to keep the teacher from being intimidated by strangers and other attendees who many have a different agenda.”
The Mississippi Department of Education leaves individual school districts to decide who should be at parent-teacher conferences, communications director Patrice Guilfoyle said.
Hester said he plans to challenge the Biloxi district’s stance.
“I don’t know of any registration of marriage certificates that goes on, so how do they know if this person is a wife or husband or simply a live-in?” he asked. “I just know that there are a lot of different types of families out there.”
“It’s discriminatory. Are they going to register all marriage certificates? Are they going to require proof of marriage before they are allowed in a conference?”
Hester said he is a father to the girls in every sense. He’s changed his share of diapers, read bedtime stories, taken the girls to the park and done everything else a father does.
He attends other school functions, including open houses and field trips.
He said he attended family night at Popp’s Ferry after the decision excluding him from parent-teacher conferences. Hester said it was clear to him all the teachers had heard about what happened. It made him uncomfortable, he said.
He told another couple at family night what had happened. One of them responded, ‘Well, you’re in Mississippi’.”
He replied, “Yeah, I’m just another possum eater.”
Hester said he intends to ask his attorney to talk with the school board. He feels too emotionally involved to address the public body. He said he won’t drop the issue because nobody else is going to stand up for his children.
“These people are messing with my family,” he said. “I’d like to see a policy of inclusion rather than exclusion. Use a little common sense.”