Two independent investigations released last week sharply criticized the Clarke County School District’s handling of an alleged sexual assault at Cedar Shoals High School in 2016 and said a coach who was charged with sex crimes should have been more thoroughly vetted. Taken together, the audits paint a picture of a district where individual buildings and departments were “silo-ed” without clear policies or leadership from the central office, allowing administrators to pass the buck over and over.
“The complete void of any centralized coordinated response to and management of this situation by the highest level of administration created significant gaps in responding to and informing stakeholders, resulting in a loss of trust and confidence in the District by stakeholders,” Mary L. Hubacher of the law firm Buelow Vetter wrote in a report to the Clarke County Board of Education dated Apr. 12. The report—commissioned by Superintendent Demond Means in September, shortly after he was hired—was made public on May 10 and is available online at clarke.k12.ga.us.
On Jan. 7, 2016, a female student at Cedar Shoals told a school resource officer that three classmates had sexually assaulted her in a stairwell. The three young men were allowed to remain in school with the alleged victim until they were arrested nearly a month later, and teachers, students, parents and the public were never notified of the incident until the Athens Banner-Herald published an article about the arrests on Feb. 4, 2016, leading to widespread outrage.
A subsequent investigation by Flagpole found that administrators did not take the accusation seriously, which is confirmed by the audit. “Until the word ‘rape’ was used in the newspaper article, this situation did not appear to raise any significant concern among District administrators,” Hubacher wrote.
Then-Cedar Shoals principal Tony Price took the fall. But while the audit doesn’t exonerate Price, it places the blame for mishandling the incident on “lack of leadership at the highest level of the Administration”—in other words, then-superintendent Philip Lanoue. District policy states that the “superintendent ensure[s] the safety of all those within the Clarke County School District.” Yet a crisis plan for a violent act against a student was not in place at the time, as required by CCSD policy.
Hubacher also criticized administrators for communicating through terse emails rather than picking up the phone to ask for more information. “Perhaps knowing the gravity of the situation would have enabled them to lead the district through a very difficult situation,” she wrote.
The top administrators who were involved are gone. Price was essentially fired, Lanoue resigned at the end of 2016, associate superintendent Ernest Hardaway and district police chief Fred Stephens both retired, and communications director Anisa Sullivan-Jimenez now works for the Oconee County School District.
While some reforms have already been made, the report recommends further revisions to the district’s Emergency Operations Plan and sexual harassment policy. If a similar incident occurs in the future, the district should convene a Crisis Response Team to ensure proper communication both internally and with the media and the public, the report says.
Because the audit only examined CCSD’s response, the report leaves several questions unanswered, such as why it took two years text messages for text messages to surface that eventually led a grand jury to drop the most serious charges against the three accused students because jurors came to believe the encounter was consensual.
Hubacher also investigated the circumstances surrounding the employment of Michael Scott, a substitute teacher and coach who was charged with enticing a child for indecent purposes, displaying pornographic materials to a child and child molestation last July. Scott was sentenced to three years in prison and 12 more on probation earlier this month.
At several points there were “red flags” that warranted additional review, but no procedures were in place to alert administrators to issues regarding Scott. In February 2016, ACCPD informed CCSD that Scott had a history of sending inappropriate materials to students. In October of that year, he was banned from the Cedar Shoals grounds for unknown reasons; three months later, Clarke Central hired him as a track coach. And in February 2017, human resources was made aware that he texted a student asking him to come over to play video games.
The audit suggests putting a system in place to track the performance of substitute teachers and coaches, and doing a better job of documenting personnel issues, among other recommendations.