School system, teacher, vindicated

by Jim Longworth

I take no pride in telling Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill and the SBI, “I told you so.” But I told you so.

In an earlier column I advised that the DA and the SBI take a step back from their investigation of school officials, and just let educators and law enforcement work together to reach a consensus on when and how to deal with allegations of sexual misconduct by teachers.

Instead, the DA sought to punish certain school officials for not adhering to a new state policy of reporting crimes to police in a timely fashion. But the new law is open to interpretation because it requires a school principal to report a criminal act to police, and very rarely does a principal have firsthand knowledge that any act has been committed. Also, there was confusion over whether “act” meant an actual act, or an “allegation” of an act. That’s why the previous reporting process used by the Winston-Salem Forsyth school system was the best approach.

Under that policy, if an incident was reported to a principal, then the principal reported it to Superintendent Don Martin and/or to school attorney Drew Davis. Davis would then question the relevant parties’ to determine if that case merited involvement of law enforcement. It was the medical equivalent of how emergency room doctors assess and triage a patient before ordering radical surgery. A preliminary investigation by school officials protects both students and teachers, and can determine if allegations were “acts” that warrant police involvement.

Last week I warned that the new policy would result in persecution and prosecution of innocent teachers, and I cited an international study which reported that over 70 percent of sexual-abuse allegations against male teachers prove to be false. Well, guess what? Jason Ford, the Wiley Middle School teacher who was accused of sexual misconduct by five students has been cleared of any wrongdoing. Police discovered what Davis already knew: that the students were angry over having been disciplined by Ford, so they framed him for criminal acts which he didn’t commit. This is exactly why principals shouldn’t be made to turn a teacher over to police without first being able to ask for an internal investigation.

Yes, prosecutors and police know how to deal with criminals, but principals, superintendents and school attorneys know the personal histories of students and teachers, and can better assess who, if anyone, may have engaged in criminal behavior.

I only hope that O’Neil and the SBI have the decency to publicly apologize to Davis and Ford, and that they will drop their investigation immediately. A little egg on your face now is much better for the community than continuing a retroactive witch hunt of school officials.

In the meantime, Ford has been told to return to teaching as if nothing happened. But something did happen, and someone needs to pay for the damage done to Ford’s reputation and career. Same goes for Davis, who was suspended by the board of education because he was being investigated. Both Ford and Davis incurred legal fees which should be reimbursed by the district attorney and the state. The two men also have the makings of a legitimate lawsuit, but if legal fees are paid and apologies issued, perhaps no legal action will be pursued.

And that brings us to those five darling brats whose false accusations could have sent an innocent man to jail. These kids should first be made to write a formal apology to Ford, and pay for it to be placed prominently in a newspaper. Next, they should be expelled from Wiley, not suspended. The expulsion should last for one year, during which time they would be located to an alternative school so they can keep up with their studies. While attending the alternative school, they should be ordered to perform eight hours of community service on the weekends. After the year is up, they will return to school, but not to the same school. These students nearly ruined a man’s life, so they must be separated, and sent to different schools from here on out, where they will be less likely to gang up on anyone else.

Finally, the State Board of Education should see this fiasco as a teachable moment, and quickly move to amend their new reporting policy so that school officials are given the latitude they need in dealing with accusations and allegations. After all, a little triage can prevent a lot of unnecessary pain.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).