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Middle school teacher cleared of wrongdoing SBI probe of school system continues

by Keith Barber

Jason Ford, a Wiley Middle School teacher, has been cleared of any wrongdoing after five students alleged that he touched them inappropriately in May. The Winston-Salem Police Department was not aware of the allegations until Ford approached a school resource officer on May 27 to inquire about the status of his case. The State Bureau of Investigation is looking into the school system’s failure to report the allegations to the law enforcement. (courtesy photo)

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Last week, the Winston-Salem Police Department announced that Jason Ford, a teacher at Wiley Middle School, had been cleared of any wrongdoing after five students alleged that Ford had touched them inappropriately.

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Four of the students made the criminal allegations against Ford, who teaches English as a Second Language, on May 6, while another student came forward on May 7. The criminal investigations division of the Winston-Salem Police Department began looking into the matter only after Ford spoke with the school resource officer assigned to Wiley Middle School on May 27 to inquire about the status of his case.

“At [that] time the school resource officer was unaware of the allegations,” said Winston-Salem police Capt. David Clayton in a press release. “It was learned this information had not been reported to law enforcement.”

The police investigation revealed that the students who made the allegations against Ford did so because of prior disciplinary action the teacher had taken against the students. The matter is considered closed, said Clayton. On Sept. 16, the school system issued a press release stating that Ford had been suspended with pay during the police investigation.

“The school system welcomes Ford back, and Wiley Middle School will return to its normal routine,” the release stated.

However, the State Bureau of Investigation’s probe into why the school system failed to report the students’ allegations to law enforcement remains ongoing.

Earlier this month, SBI investigators served subpoenas at the school system’s administrative offices in Winston-Salem. On Sept. 7, Donny C. Lambeth, chairman of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board, issued a statement acknowledging that the school system had retained the law firm of Bell, Davis & Pitt to work directly with the SBI and the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office “to support the investigation and to ensure a continued level of cooperation.”

Lambeth said the school board had directed Superintendent Donald L. Martin to fully cooperate with the investigation and “work toward any necessary policy revisions resulting from the ongoing investigation.”

The school board also suspended with pay Drew H. Davis, the school system’s lawyer, pending the outcome of the investigation.

NC General Statute 143B-146.15 deals directly with school administrators’ duty to report certain acts to law enforcement. The law states: “When the principal has personal knowledge or actual notice from residential school personnel or other reliable source that an act has occurred on school property involving assault resulting in serious personal injury, sexual assault, sexual offense, rape, kidnapping, indecent liberties with a minor, assault involving the use of a weapon, possession of a firearm in violation of the law, possession of a weapon in violation of the law, or possession of a controlled substance in violation of the law, the principal shall immediately report the act to the appropriate local law enforcement agency.”

Failure to report a crime that occurs on school grounds is considered a Class 3 misdemeanor. Under state law, a Class 3 misdemeanor carries a sentence of up to 30 days in jail.

Currently, Bell, Davis & Pitt is conducting a review of the school system’s policies for reporting criminal allegations to law enforcement, Lambeth said. The school system is working closely with Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill, Forsyth County Sheriff Bill Schatzman, Winston- Salem police Chief Scott Cunningham and Kernersville police Chief Ken Gamble to develop a set of protocols by which law enforcement will be immediately notified of allegations of criminal activity on school campuses.

On Sept. 7, O’Neill, Schatzman, Cunningham and Gamble met with the principals of all 80 schools in the district. Schatzman said the goal of the meeting was to emphasize to school officials that they are responsible for reporting any incident involving a crime to law enforcement but not for investigating criminal allegations.

“We wanted to make it clear there is a line between their role as educators and our role as law enforcement,” Schatzman said. Cunningham said he observed some confusion among educators at the Sept. 7 meeting about the criteria for what should be reported to law enforcement versus what should be reported to the school system. Some school officials appeared to be following a policy of only reporting crimes after they determined a crime had occurred, Cunningham said.

“If their investigation determined that it didn’t occur, in many cases these accusations were not reported to law enforcement,” Cunningham said. “We as law enforcement believe this was not the intent of the guidelines and requirements, and did not contribute to having the safest possible learning environment for our children.”

A new policy on reporting allegations has been proposed in which any serious offense reported to a school official will be immediately reported to law enforcement. Meanwhile, SBI investigators continue to look into the school system’s handling of the Ford case as well as any past incidents and allegations against other school personnel.

“Any inappropriate acts or behaviors by a teacher or staff member will not be tolerated in this school district,” Lambeth added. “We share the same goals as those of the district attorney, sheriff’s office, police departments, parents and students whom we serve to maintain and protect the safety and dignity of each one of our 52,000 students.”

A number of school board candidates have expressed dismay at the school system’s handling of the Ford case.

“The community is somewhat upset and concerned about the handling of this incident as well as other incidents that have gone on within the district as it relates to allegations of misconduct by teachers,” said Jimmie Lee Bonham, who is running for a seat in District 1. “There needs to be a performance audit which will help establish a baseline for corrective action. A lot of the problems that our school district is having resonates from bad policy and lack of oversight of current policy that we have.”

Bonham said the school system’s failure to follow the law and report criminal allegations to law enforcement can be attributed to a lack of leadership on the school board and in the administration.

“I think failure starts at the top and therefore, if we’re going to improve quality of education delivery in our school system, we have to look at leadership to give us efficacy where we can have safe schools,” Bonham said. “I believe we want something different.”

Donald Dunn, a school board candidate in District 2, said the recent revelations about the school system’s actions raise a number of troubling questions.

“Who knew? Dunn asked. “When did they know? When were they going to report it if [the SBI] didn’t come in September? And when would we have known about it?”

The suspension of Davis speaks volumes about the school system’s handling of the Ford case, Dunn said.

“I think it’s another indication that the school board is not managing the situations — a lot of situations are managing them,” Dunn said. “They are reactionary, which is preventing us from moving forward as a county.”

Nancy Sherrill, at-large school board candidate and former principal of Brunson Elementary, expressed concern that there is a gray area for school faculty and staff regarding proper protocol when someone makes a criminal allegation.

“Anytime there’s a gray area, things get lost in the shuffle,” Sherrill said. “The roles of each of the school administrators need to be defined in that situation.”

Cunningham said the new policy that is being put forth should erase all doubts in the minds of school personnel regarding when they should file a report with law enforcement.

“I believe that the procedures we are collectively putting forth and implementing will lead to greater communication, coordination and cooperation,” Cunningham said. “But most importantly it will lead to a safer school environment.”

Despite the SBI investigation, Sherrill expressed confidence that the school system will take the necessary steps to correct the problem, and move forward.

“I strongly believe there should not be any doubt in anybody’s mind that the school system is doing what’s correct,” Sherrill said. “People in the community should know that the school system will follow the law and do what is the right thing to do.”

Carla Farmer, a District 2 school board candidate, questioned whether Davis acted alone in not reporting the criminal allegations to law enforcement.

“Anybody that did not abide by the law, they need to be dealt with accordingly,” Farmer said.

Robert Barr, an at-large school board candidate, said his thoughts go out to Ford and his family, and that the whole situation could have been avoided.

“[His] reputation has been marred and scarred, but now he’s been cleared,” Barr said. “If the school system had followed the state’s process, he and his family wouldn’t be going through this.”

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