3 On Your Side Investigates: Teacher Misconduct - MSNewsNow.com - Jackson, MS

3 On Your Side Investigates: Teacher Misconduct

JACKSON, MS (Mississippi News Now) -

How well do you know employees at your child's school?

It's a question many parents are asking after finding out last week that a Jackson Public Schools bus driver had been arrested for sexually assaulting an elementary student.

UPDATE: Bond denied for former JPS bus driver arrested for sexual assault of elementary student

That arrest took place on Dec. 8, 2017, but JPS didn't notify the public about this until after MSNEWSNOW learned of the arrest from concerned parents, six weeks later.

It's a common practice among school districts.

In this 3 On Your Side investigation, we set out to answer one simple question: how prevalent are cases of unethical conduct between teachers and students in Mississippi?

The most recent information -- a 2000 study from the American Association of University Women -- indicated 1 in 10 students suffered some form of sexual abuse in school.

That statistic could be much higher because those findings were before Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook, where there are now multiple ways for educators to communicate with students.

3 On Your Side spent months trying to enlist the Mississippi Department of Education to help us answer that question, but state education leaders say you don’t have a right to see just how widespread this “unethical conduct” could be.

"I leave my child here from morning until it's time to get her, and my concerns are in the air. I don't know what to think sometimes," said parent Kristen Alexander.

Her daughter goes to Murrah High School.

Alexander said she hasn't heard of anything inappropriate going on there, but if she did, her response would be swift.

"Depending on how big, [I'd] pull her out. It wouldn't even be a question," Alexander said.

Most of the time, cases of teacher sexual misconduct hit the news because concerned parents end up telling reporters.

Sometimes law enforcement gives news organizations a heads up.

That initial information almost never comes from the school district.

With that in mind, we wanted to find out how many teachers had been accused of this bad behavior in the Magnolia State, so we asked MDE for all Standard 4 violations -- dealing with unethical conduct -- filed by school districts in 2016.

The state gave us 34 different educators accused or reprimanded for that behavior.

The offenses ranged from non-sexual -- neglect of duty -- to behavior that could have turned that way: text messages, harassing statements, physical abuse.

In one case, a teacher in Kosciusko was accused of texting a student to meet her at a bar and allowing the student to drink alcohol.

Five teachers on that list were right here in the metro: one in the Rankin County School District and four in the Jackson Public School District.

However, none of those teachers’ names had ever been reported by the press until this story.

We also wanted to know if those 34 teachers STILL worked at the schools despite their alleged actions.

Administrators told us that of those 34, at least 4 still worked in those respective districts.

The Rankin County School District terminated James Andrew McKay -- accused of “unethical conduct and fraternization with a student” -- within a week of the allegation, but that information came from MDE, not the district.

When asked how McKay was punished by the district, RCSD spokesperson Kristen Windham declined to give specifics.

"When warranted, the RCSD does investigate instances of alleged misconduct regarding its 3,000 plus employees, but that further comment as to the specifics of such investigation is not desired at this time," Windham said in an email Sunday. 

The four teachers who worked for JPS -- Nathaniel Brown, Genetra Robinson, Valerie Mignott and Curtis Wells -- had all been accused of violating the same standard.

While some Standard 4 violations could lead to sexual acts or harassment -- as defined by the Mississippi Educator Code of Ethics and Standards of Conduct -- not all do.

The paperwork, signed by former superintendent Cedrick Gray, said all four violated Standard 4.2b, “committing any act of cruelty to children or any act of child endangerment.”

The punishments varied, according to the documents.

Mignott was fired two weeks after the violation.

With Brown, the form indicates the district said “disciplinary action is pending.”

Robinson’s punishment was simply labeled as “undetermined.”

JPS spokesperson Sherwin Johnson would not elaborate on how the district punished Brown or Robinson specifically.

"Teachers are subject to disciplinary action which may include a suspension or termination for substantiated misconduct. JPS adheres to the reporting requirements of the Mississippi Department of Education," Johnson said in an emailed statement.

Johnson also confirmed that only Mignott -- the one teacher confirmed as being terminated by the district, according to those records -- is employed with JPS again.

“I think we’re having more and more instances due to social media and the frequency at which people are involved in it," said Madison County School District Superintendent Ronnie McGehee. "So many young people and so many young employees are caught off guard with it because they don’t see anything wrong with it. But it can lead to some very serious issues.”

McGehee said his district doesn’t mess around when it comes to unethical conduct because parents deserve to know their kids are protected.

“You gotta take every report seriously. Wherever it leads you, you must go. And sometimes you go down cold trails, and sometimes you come back. Sometimes you find some things, and sometimes you don’t," McGehee said.

While the Madison County School District wasn’t named in the cases received from MDE, McGehee has had to deal with these issues years ago, when they discovered a softball coach and his wife -- both faculty -- had been in a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl.

READ MORE: Husband and wife, both former Ridgeland school coaches, face child sex charges

“I think we definitely learned some things from prior incidents. I think we’d have to stress, though, that we really have to train our school administrators and teachers, particularly the ones that are there every day, the principals," said Madison County School District Associate Superintendent Charlotte Seals.

Seals said she believes that attention to detail on the front lines remains incredibly important because districts are tasked with investigating it -- sometimes in tandem with law enforcement -- and reporting those findings to the state’s department of education.

While districts can suspend or fire bad teachers, only the state can determine whether they can still teach in Mississippi.

“There’s consequences for educators that engage in unethical conduct," said MDE Chief Accountability Officer Paula Vanderford.

Those consequences haven't stopped them from happening, though.

Data provided by MDE shows a sharp increase in the number of alleged Standard 4 violations: from 4 in 2011 to 89 in 2015.

All of these cases have one common thread, too: abuse of trust.

Many students bond with their teachers. Educators find themselves in positions where some students even consider them role models.

When someone takes advantage of that, Seals says that trust is destroyed.

“It hurts. We have so many great educators in this district, in this state, in this country. It hurts when the actions of a few -- when that happens, it’s a reflection on all of us. We don’t want any of those incidents," Seals said.

The information we got from MDE indicates that almost 20 percent of Mississippi’s school districts had at least one educator accused of “unethical conduct.”

That’s not the whole picture, either.

When 3 On Your Side first asked for these cases in March 2017, Office of Educator Misconduct Investigator James Thompson from MDE called and informed me that they had about 200 cases that met our criteria.

When we met with Vanderford a few weeks ago, she said that number was actually much different: 57.

What follows is a partial transcript of that interview.

C.J. LeMaster: "I remember – and I wrote down in my notes – that there was a much higher number than 57 given to me. I don’t know if that’s because it hadn’t been whittled down at that point, but I seem to remember ‘200.’

Paula Vanderford: “We have a number of cases in educator misconduct, and to…so, to pull the cases that we have and know that they’re specific to 2016, you probably did receive that number. But it did take time, and it will take more time if you ask for additional information for us to go back through each of the case files and pull out only those that are related to Standard 4 and only those that were related to the calendar year 2016 as you requested."

LeMaster: "So there were not 200 as originally –"

Vanderford: "Not 200 Standard 4s."

LeMaster: "[When I recall Thompson’s conversation, he said] it will cost a lot of money because of how labor-intensive the process is. It could cost upwards of $1,000 or more. I was also told off the record that more than 200 cases that they’re pulling would fit my criteria. I thanked him for the call and said we would deal with the cost estimate once we received it. You’d imagine my surprise when, on May 17, I received a response with a PDF of 24 reports with no cost –"

Vanderford: "-- that were closed –"

LeMaster: "-- no charge. So I was just wondering, why the shift?"

Vanderford: "Well, so, when I read the public records request, it specifically asked for “report.” The Appendix C Form is the report, so there in many cases is a substantial amount of supporting evidence for that, that supplements that report. You take a case from a local district where they’ve had a disciplinary hearing or due process hearing and we get a transcript. I mean, that transcript alone could fill a three-inch binder. So, it is time consuming and labor-intensive to go back, even for the ones that we’ve provided you for 2016, if you wanted to go back and see all of the supplemental evidence that’s involved in these cases, that in itself would be labor-intensive. Not only do staff in Educator Misconduct have to pull this information, this information then has to be reviewed even through our [Attorney General’s] representatives to ensure that we have the proper redactions and that there’s no personally identifiable information that’s being released that would protect particularly a student that may be involved."

LeMaster: "Right. I’m still not getting why I was given a number of 200 and now I’m hearing 57."

Vanderford: "I’m sorry. I can’t speak to that. I apologize."

The first time Vanderford was asked about the case number discrepancy, she said the investigator had quoted a higher number because he was talking about cases outside what I asked for.

But that's simply not true.

The second time, Vanderford talked about the process and how it takes time to get the information.

That information amounts to 34 cases MDE sent 3 On Your Side out of 54 -- again, whittled down because of two duplicate files and one misfiled case.

MDE refused to release the rest -- 20 in this case -- because the department claims those records are open investigations, and therefore “investigative reports” that are exempt, according to state law.

However, we maintain that the public has a right to see them, and MDE’s decision not to release them is illegal.

When asked if withholding certain cases was a violation of state law, Vanderford repeated the same thing she had already said a few other times during the interview.

“It’s the agency’s position that the Appendix C Forms that remain open are investigative reports," Vanderford said.

The Attorney General's Office backs up that claim, too, but WLBT will continue to pursue every possible avenue to get the rest of those documents released.

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