American Lens has been delving into the quiet epidemic of teacher arrests, background checks and what districts are doing – or in some cases, not doing – to ensure a safe learning environment for North Carolina children.
In the last installment in the series, A Quiet Epidemic, we examined a case study of a teacher with serious past drug use who has had Child Protective Orders issued against them.
We covered the history of this teacher that we have named ‘Jane Doe’ and began to unravel what the school district knew and when about Doe.
Enter a ‘tipster’. The tipster had read the USA Today special investigative report on teachers in the classroom and was shocked by North Carolina’s failing rating for teacher background checks.
For several years after, tipster had wondered how on earth Jane had remained a teacher in a classroom.
Had Jane concealed the truth, or did North Carolina public schools simply not care if a teacher’s parental rights have been permanently terminated and connection with a Child Protective Services intervention, related to drug use or otherwise?
It turns out both appear to be true. What’s more, it appears that the school district is taking advantage of the opportunity to deter reports from the public about concerning behavior of teachers.
Tipster made two phone calls and began an effort to raise awareness and legislative change around gaps in the backgrounding process in North Carolina schools. The first call was in July to the principal of Jane’s school and the second one in August to Chatham County Human Resources.
Tipster was careful to keep the information she gave in each call as identical as possible. She sat back and awaited the results of Chatham County’s investigation into her report.
In this article, we’ll lay out what has been done about Jane Doe and the arguable effort by the district to keep this case quiet.
Quiet Epidemic – Human Resources
In the last installment, it was noted that Jane Doe was made aware of a citizen poking around in her history with Child Protective Services and past drug use.
Doe responded by filing a civil suit against the citizen tipster.
Jane Doe’s civil lawsuit against the tipster hinges on her claim that school officials informed her that the tipster had reported that Jane Doe was currently (i.e. actively) using cocaine, a contention the tipster emphatically denies.
For Jane to prevail, she has to prove that the statements made by the tipster were not false, were conveyed as a fact, and believed to be true by the person receiving the statements.
In a deposition, the principal denied telling Jane the identity of the tipster or the allegation that the tipster accused Jane of current/active cocaine use.
Yet also in a deposition the principal emphatically asserted that the tipster told her Jane “was and is a current cocaine user.” This assertion is in contradiction to both the Principal’s notes from the July call and her reaction to the call.
If this contradictory testimony by the Principal was the case, it raises very concerning questions about the principal’s inaction with respect to an allegation of a teacher’s active use of cocaine.
Notes from the tipster’s call taken by the Superintendent of Human Resources in August 2016 do not mention any accusation of current/active cocaine or other drug use of Jane.
Human Resources notes specifically state, “Thinks she has been on and off drugs for 5 years.”
Human Resources testified that if she wrote those words down, then it was the words used by the tipster.
More Denials, Then Quiet Admission
The tipster reports that during the August call with Human Resources, they discussed the FOIA request which Human Resources had received the prior week related to information on hiring and background check practices of the county. Similar FOIA’s have also been sent to several other North Carolina county school districts.
The tipster also reports that Human Resources was very thorough in asking questions seeking more depth of understanding about the knowledge tipster had about Jane.
In a deposition, Human Resources denies asking questions or even saying much at all.
In addition, Human Resources also at first denies understanding why the tipster called or that it was in relation to the FOIA request.
It isn’t until after tipster’s attorney directs Human Resources to several locations in their own notes of the tipsters call that Human Resources admits that the call discussed the FOIA request and its purpose on their August telephone call.
Yet, when counsel questioned Human Resources if the word “thinks” means someone is about to convey an opinion or belief, HR went round and round with the attorney trying to avoid confirming that what followed “thinks” was an opinion or belief.
The transcript of this testimony is comical, the back and forth goes on for four pages.
By the end, Human Resources begrudgingly admits that such statements were conveyed as opinions.
Keeping It Quiet – The Principal
In early October 2016, the tipster circulated an editorial to several news outlets raising the issue of NC not requiring a Child Protective Services (CPS) order check.
The editorial did not name Jane, but it did state that Chatham County and another county had hired a teacher with a CPS order which resulted in the termination of a teacher’s parental rights.
That same month, tipster informed the Chatham County Superintendent about the editorial. At this time, almost two months had passed since Jane admitted that her child had been removed by CPS and some information related to her history of illegal drug use.
The superintendent sent the tipster an email, expressing that his hands were tied by NC law on confirming if the teacher was the subject of a CPS order.
Keeping It Quiet – Closed Sessions
In e-mail correspondence dated October 12, 2016, which contained the minutes of a closed session of a school board meeting, the minutes reflect that the superintendent named the tipster.
The superintendent also informed the county school board that tipster made allegations about Jane abusing illegal drugs, and a child being removed from custody.
In the e-mail, the Superintendent tells the board that Jane Doe volunteered to take a drug test and agreed to an updated criminal background check.
The Superintendent also tells the board that the drug results are negative, yet it the results were actually, “abnormal.”
The superintendent does not tell the board that there was a seven-day warning period for the drug test that was administered in September.
Based on those minutes, the superintendent does not tell the school board that Jane admitted to a child being removed by CPS in connection with her drug use. He also does not share that she admitted to some history of cocaine use.
According to the minutes of the school board’s closed session, the superintendent goes on to try to discredit the tipster to the board based on Jane’s statements about the tipster made while she was being questioned by Human Resources.
Jane Doe’s Criminal Track Record Expands
In October of 2016, an arrest warrant was filed against Jane for criminal computer trespass. She was not arrested until late January 2017.
According to county policy, Jane was suspended with pay until the resolution of the case.
In March 2017, Jane admitted to and plead guilty to the facts supporting the criminal computer trespass charge as set forth in the warrant.
As a first time offender, Jane was offered a “deferred prosecution agreement”, whereby her case would be dismissed if she complied with steps specified and overseen by the district attorney’s office.
Because the computer trespass charge was under the jurisdiction of a court order in the separate civil lawsuit Jane had initiated in March of 2016, the District Attorney declined to further oversee the matter and dismissed the criminal charges on the same day as Jane’s admission of guilt.
A deferred prosecution agreement can remain on an individual’s criminal record for several months to a year, depending on the reporting county and background check service.
Chatham County schools brought Jane back into the classroom based on her statement to the administration that the charges had been dismissed.
No record of dismissal was produced to Chatham County administrators nor did they request one.
In a deposition, Human Resources stated that she had no knowledge of the deferred prosecution agreement that Jane had entered into with the District Attorney in March 2017.
The Need For Independent Investigations
Meanwhile, in January of 2017, the tipster now had enough proof of her claims provided through the two lawsuits filed by Jane Doe to make a report to the State School Board.
The tipster contacted one of the State Board of Education’s attorneys about the case study in Chatham County. The tipster also provided the discovery documents obtained from the lawsuits.
The caller continued to update the file with more admissions by Jane Doe including that she had also violated Chatham County Schools Handbook Rule 7110:
“All information provided to the personnel office by an applicant for employment or by an employee must be true, accurate and complete to the best of that applicant’s or employee’s knowledge.
Presenting information to the personnel department that is intended to defraud, falsify, materially misrepresent or conceal the truth will be considered just cause for terminating the application process or, as a violation of board policy, grounds for dismissing an employee.”
In April 2017, the State School Board informed the tipster that they were sending the file to County Counsel.
The ‘county counsel’ turned out to be the same counsel who advised the superintendent and Human Resources on the original Jane Doe investigation.
In an email to the tipster about the case, State Board of Education attorney indicated this was the ‘normal procedure’.
“Our normal procedure when we receive documents and/or complaints from the public concerning a licensed teacher is to forward that report to the local board attorney. This office does not have the staff to do the necessary investigation regarding reports of teacher misconduct and rely on the local board attorney(s) to assist us. I am sure that someone from Tharrington” Smith will contact either you or us, when they have had time to properly review the situation.”
What this turn of events illustrates is that, in some cases such as the Doe case, there is no independent investigation function even at the state level.
In other words, the districts seemingly have no oversight. Cases like Jane Doe’s are being shuffled around and kept quiet.
This broken process has allowed a teacher, who had a history of known crack use and criminal violations, to remain in a North Carolina classroom.