Decatur Schools defends investigation of teacher accused of sexually harassing students

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt June 18, 2017

Jon Reese. Photo obtained via Twitter

This story has been updated.

A Decatur High School teacher resigned last month before he was fired for allegedly sexually harassing his students.

The school system’s investigation revealed that the teacher, Jon Reese, was questioned about harassing students 17 years ago. He kept his job, and a record of the incident was not in his personnel file when school officials began investigating him this year. It turned up because the school system’s attorney kept a copy.

Experts Decaturish spoke to say the way the school system handled the case potentially violated federal discrimination law.

Reese, who taught journalism at the high school, denied the allegations against him. He has not been charged with any crime and is not currently the subject of a criminal investigation. Reese said City Schools of Decatur officials did not treat him fairly.

“No, my conduct should not result in termination, and I was not terminated,” Reese said. “I resigned because I did not think I could get a fair hearing to defend myself. The investigation deprived me of due process and violated tenure and fair dismissal rights outlined by board policy.”

Some of Reese’s students praised him in testimonials provided to CSD officials. But other students who talked to investigators described a teacher whose unwanted physical contact and inappropriate comments made them feel uncomfortable.

Students may have a legitimate argument about having their rights trampled on, experts on federal discrimination law say.

Under federal law, repeated unwanted physical contact and inappropriate comments constitute sexual harassment, something school officials must immediately remedy.

Following its probe, which officially began in March 16 and ended with Reese’s termination notice on May 12, CSD filed a complaint about him with the state Professional Standards Commission, which certifies teachers. School officials believe that they took the appropriate steps to promptly remove a potentially abusive teacher from the classroom.

But attorneys who handle these kinds of cases think the school system could be sued and investigated over its handling of the case. They point to the decision to keep Reese on the job in 2000 as evidence the school system failed to protect students from harassment.

Gerry Weber, an Atlanta attorney who has litigated Title IX discrimination cases, said the school system’s prior knowledge of the teacher’s questionable behavior means students and their families could sue the district for damages. It also opens the school up to an investigation by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. Title IX is the federal law that protects students from discrimination. Sexual harassment is considered a form of discrimination.

“They were aware in 2000 that this teacher was engaged in inappropriate sexual comments and conduct and yet they retained him and took no actions to protect students from future inappropriate actions,” Weber said.

School officials are not concerned about the prospect of a lawsuit or a civil rights investigation however.

“It’s not something I’m worried about, if that’s what you’re asking,” Superintendent David Dude said. “If the school district took action or failed to take action that they should have … obviously we will address that in whatever way we have to do.”

When School Board Chair Annie Caiola was asked if she was concerned about CSD being sued or investigated over Reese’s case, she said, “Not at all.”

City Schools of Decatur Board of Education: (left to right) Tasha White, Vice Chair Garrett Goebel, Lewis Jones, Chair Annie Caiola, Superintendent Dr. David Dude, and Bernadette Seals. Source: City Schools of Decatur

“The very first that any of us heard about allegations in connection with this particular teacher, Dr. Dude and his staff acted immediately to first remove the teacher from the classroom, pending the investigation, complete a prompt and thorough investigation and acted quickly to terminate the teacher,” Caiola said. “In terms of what CSD knew and when it was discovered, there was no delay at all in terms of acting swiftly and quickly to handle situations appropriately.”

Documents obtained through an open records request tell a different story, however.

The timeline

The unraveling of Reese’s career as a Decatur High teacher began in February. He took students on an overnight field trip to north Georgia the weekend of Feb. 25.

During the trip, Reese entered the girls’ room when some of his students were not fully dressed, despite having a female chaperone who could’ve gone into the room for him. He said it was because the students were being too loud.

A concerned parent who heard the story sent an email to the High School Principal Arlethea Williams on Feb. 27.

“Needless to say, if Mr. Reese is in fact walking in on young girls while they are showering and changing clothes during off-campus retreats, that would be a very serious problem, both for the school and more importantly the kids,” the parent wrote.

That email was not forwarded to Human Resources Director David Adams until March 16, records show.

Through a school system spokesperson, Williams said she was in contact with Adams about the allegations against Reese between Feb. 27 and March 16.

The spokesperson did not respond to a follow up question about why the email detailing the Feb.25 incident did not reach Adams until March 16.

Records provided by CSD do not mention any prior communication between the two, and suggest the investigation officially began on March 16 when Adams received the email.

The Decatur High School handbook says that any report of sexual misconduct by a teacher “shall be investigated immediately by the school or school system personnel.”

Dude wasn’t sure why the parent’s Feb. 27 email had not been forwarded to Adams until nearly three weeks after Williams received it.

“I can’t speak to that,” Dude said. “I don’t know. All I know is once it reached our level of consciousness, that we were aware of what was happening, we immediately moved forward with the process [of investigating the complaint]. I can’t speak to what happened in between.”

Reese was not placed on administrative leave until April 12, 44 days after the allegations first surfaced. When asked why he wasn’t removed from the classroom sooner, spokesperson Courtney Burnett said that school officials were still gathering evidence.

“Yes, Jon remained in the classroom during the initial phase of the investigation,” she said. “However, during the course of the investigation, additional information was discovered, and reassignment was determined to be the appropriate action at that time.”

During that time, at least one student said she felt Reese was retaliating against her following the field trip, the records provided by CSD show.

Reese denied this.

“I do not retaliate against students,” he said. “I am direct and honest with students when I have a conflict with their performance or behavior, and I involve parents when their support can be useful. As almost all of the seniors on this year’s media crew can attest, I welcome opportunities to write college recommendations, nominate students for recognition, and serve as a reference for job applications and summer opportunities.”

Several CSD employees investigated the Feb. 25 incident, including HR Director Adams, Principal Williams, and Elementary Education Director Mary Mack. Superintendent Dude did not know whether the employees involved in the investigation were trained to handle complaints about sexual misconduct.

“I don’t know of training we have provided to the individuals on how to handle this,” Dude said. “That doesn’t mean they haven’t received training specific to that type of investigation.”

The field trip

Once the investigation began in earnest, school officials learned the female chaperone for the trip was Reese’s former student. She hadn’t completed the necessary background checks to travel with his class.

A student on the trip told investigators they thought the chaperone wouldn’t have any real authority because Reese had taught her. The student said they would’ve preferred another teacher to chaperone the trip.

Dude did not have an explanation about why the background check did not occur.

“No one at the school was aware that she was the chaperone,” Dude said. “We are revisiting that process. That’s not an acceptable outcome.”

The summary of the investigation said that Reese did not immediately leave the girls’ room when he saw that some students weren’t dressed and talked to a student before leaving.

Follow-up questions uncovered allegations of Reese giving students unsolicited back massages and making comments with sexual overtones. The chaperone on the trip told investigators when she was Reese’s student she received unwanted shoulder rubs and was “weirded out” by them. She said it “tended not to occur” when she got older.

One of his students demonstrated Reese’s alleged behavior to investigators by squeezing her dad’s shoulders with both hands.

According to the notes released by CSD, the student, “Explained the squeeze was hard enough to clearly feel the thumbs in her back.”

Another student compared it with “ways that my boyfriend would touch me.”

Reese said he did not give students back massages.

“I have used touch to re-direct an off-task student, to keep from surprising a student when I approach to inquire about their work, and to acknowledge a student when I circulate during classwork and class discussions,” he said. “This technique was not done in private but in settings where students and I were surrounded by others. Students, parents, nor my direct supervisors made me aware of any concerns about touch this year.”

According to interview summaries, Reese allegedly made “a blowjob joke” to a student. One of his students celebrated her birthday during the field trip. Reese allegedly said, “We can spank you if you like.”

The notes say Reese appeared overly interested in a student’s relationship with her boyfriend.

Reese is alleged to have asked a student what she did when she was alone with her boyfriend and about the size of her boyfriend’s bedroom.

“He said that did not want me to be alone with my boyfriend,” the student told investigators.

Reese did not directly deny these statements, but said he often jokes with his students.

“If my attempts to add humor to a group conversation were off color, I wasn’t aware of it and am genuinely sorry,” he said. “I’m embarrassed to think that something I said made a student uncomfortable. I wish I had been given the chance to address it directly with that student and their parents. It was never my aim to offend anyone.”

Burnett, the CSD spokesperson, said Reese told investigators that he did date a former student. The records released by CSD showed no evidence that the relationship began before the student graduated.

Reese acknowledged the relationship.

“Almost two decades ago, I publicly dated a woman for several years who had graduated from DHS and whose parents were supportive of our relationship,” he said.

Some female students felt uncomfortable around Reese and didn’t want to take his class. They felt that Reese would take actions to retaliate against them. One student said she felt like she was being retaliated against in the classroom after the field trip and alleged Reese made fun of her in front of other students. He was accused of retaliating against another student by leaving her name off a list of editors given to a substitute teacher.

“He is very deliberate and methodical, so it felt retaliatory,” the student said, according to the notes provided by CSD.

The records released by CSD contained positive comments about Reese and testimonials from other female chaperones who had been on trips with him. One female chaperone said Reese was “professional and respectful” with students. Another former chaperone described the experience as “very positive.” The former chaperones praised his rapport with his students and said his trips were well organized.

Praise from other colleagues wasn’t enough to save his job, however. A key factor in the decision to fire Reese involved 17-year old allegations that came to light during the inquiry.

‘A very awkward position’

Reese became a teacher at Decatur High in 1992 and coached girls’ soccer and volleyball. He was not coaching any teams when he resigned last month. Reese said he stopped coaching in 2004 because, “I decided that 12 years of after-school and summer athletic commitments was enough.”

In April 1999, the principal at the time, Karen Eldridge, informed Reese that girls on the soccer team felt uncomfortable around him. The girls were concerned about the way he worked with them in the weight room and touched them while coaching. After that discussion, high school officials received a call from a parent who had similar concerns about the way Reese acted around her daughter.

Attempts to reach Eldridge for comment have been unsuccessful.

Eldridge summarized her February 2000 meeting with Reese about the allegations in a write up, a document that CSD uncovered while investigating the 2017 field trip incident.

According to the write-up:

– Reese allegedly referred to one of the players as “his favorite STD” and said he had a “special relationship” with the student. Reese said at the time he liked to joke and banter with students, but denied saying he had a special relationship.

– Reese allegedly stared at a student’s breasts as she walked across the soccer field towards him. Reese said he did not do this.

– Reese allegedly met with a female student at his home. In response, Reese said the student entered his home on two occasions and she “initiated the interaction.” One visit was to discuss homework and playing on the soccer team. The other visit was when the student did not have a key to get into her home. He said a friend was there during the second visit. After that, Reese said the student kept trying to enter his home, but he would only talk to her while standing at the door.

– Reese allegedly touched the student’s waist while she was using the weight bench while helping her and stood over her while she lifted. Reese said he did not do this and did not interact with the student because she never showed up for training.

– The student alleged Reese “tried to come on to her” without specifying what he had done. Reese said he had never done anything to the student that could be interpreted this way.

– Reese was accused of getting “very close” to a student during soccer practice. On one occasion he was allegedly so close that his chest was touching the student’s back and that she could feel Reese was sexually aroused. Reese said, “This is not true.”

In a Thursday, June 15 interview, Reese said the 2000 investigation cleared him.

“The allegations made by one athlete’s disgruntled mother were investigated and resulted in no finding of wrongdoing,” he said.

School officials were concerned enough about the allegations at the time that they contacted Decatur Police, but the police department said it could not investigate because the student was unwilling to talk.

Eldridge told Reese that, “When we receive allegations of this nature, it puts you and the school system in a very awkward position.”

According to the write up, the allegations were forwarded to the superintendent at the time, Ida Love.

Love said she doesn’t recall receiving any reports about Reese’s conduct.

“I know absolutely nothing about that,” Love said. “I never heard of that before … I can’t imagine something like that coming up and not being a big story at time.”

Eldridge gave Reese a list of things that could result in his termination. He was told not to have students in his home or in his car. He was told never to be alone with a female student and if he had to work with an individual student, to leave the door open. He was warned not to physically touch students. He was warned to watch what he said around students and warned not to retaliate against the students who complained.

She concluded her list by saying, “When you take a field trip or athletic trip, you shall have a reliable female chaperone in attendance and present at all times.”

The write-up was supposed to be placed in Reese’s personnel file. When the investigation of the Feb. 25 incident began, the write up was not there.

‘Things die in Decatur’

School officials have not been able to offer an explanation about why the write up was not in Reese’s file.

Caiola, the School Board chair, said it caught board members off guard.

“I think everyone was a little bit surprised by it,” she said.

Superintendent Dude said school officials became aware of the letter when CSD’s attorneys became involved. The school system has been represented by the Wilson, Morton & Downs law firm for more than 18 years. The firm represented CSD when questions about Reese were first asked in 1999 and 2000 and had a copy of the write up. A message left with one of the firm’s attorneys was not returned.

When CSD was first asked about why the document was not in the personnel file, Burnett, the school system spokesperson said, “None of the current central office administrative staff members worked for the district in 2000, so we cannot comment on what may or may not have occurred at that time.”

In a follow-up interview, Dude said he could not say for sure what happened to the write-up after Eldridge had written it.

“I wouldn’t say that it never made into the personnel file,” Dude said. “All I know is it wasn’t in the personnel file now. The principal’s recollection is that it was in the personnel file. The attorney’s recollection was it was in the personnel file.”

Reese did not know why the write-up was not there.

The documents released about the investigation don’t shed any light on the mystery. When Adams, the human resources director, first reviewed Reese’s personnel file he found it “void of any past disciplinary actions and complaints” about how Reese interacted with students. He obtained the letter from the attorneys and also obtained Eldridge’s notes.

Love, the former superintendent, did not know anything about why that document was not in Reese’s file.

She did recall, however, that when she was there Reese was a popular teacher with parents.

“He was one of those teachers there that was a can-do-no-wrong type person and parents were very, very supportive of him, and usually when that happens, things die in Decatur,” she said.

Violations

Decaturish spoke to experts and attorneys experienced in dealing with teacher sexual misconduct.

Mary Jo McGrath, an attorney who is a board member for the advocacy group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation (S.E.S.A.M.E.), said she doesn’t think school officials did a thorough investigation 17 years ago.

“I think they underreacted,” McGrath said. “They should’ve done an independent investigation. They should’ve spoken to at least 15 girls, not one.”

McGrath said that the Police Department’s inability to pursue a case against Reese should have had no bearing on the school system’s investigation.

“In Title IX they had an independent duty to investigate apart from the police,” McGrath said. “Police have to prove the allegations beyond a reasonable doubt. The school system only needs to show the preponderance of the evidence, which is a different standard.”

Terri Miller, president of S.E.S.A.M.E., reviewed some of the materials obtained under the open records request. She sees evidence of Title IX violations by the school district.

“The students were subjected to fear and intimidation when their privacy was breached on the field trip,” she said. “It appears they were ill-informed about how to report what happened to them and could not define what happened as a violation of their rights. I believe the teacher was not fully informed about the rights of the students and his responsibility to protect those rights under Title IX. I believe his actions put the school administrators and school district in jeopardy regarding liability and Title IX violations.”

Miller said it is the school district’s responsibility to provide Title IX training for “every stakeholder in the school community.”

Reese said he never received training on his Title IX obligations and the federal law was not discussed during the investigation.

Superintendent Dude said the school system does provide Title IX training, but did not have information about specific training programs. There’s a nondiscrimination notice on CSD’s website and the high school handbook does not contain contact information for the Title IX coordinator. It directs parents to ask the principal for this information.

The school system’s published student grievance and complaints policy doesn’t mention sexual misconduct.

Weber, the Atlanta attorney, said students should’ve been aware of their rights under federal law.

“It doesn’t appear that any of the students filed Title IX complaints,” he said. “To the extent that they talked to school officials about it, the school officials should’ve really directed them into the Title IX process.”

Robert Shoop, an educational law professor on the S.E.S.A.M.E. board, said that the school system didn’t run afoul of Title IX if it took immediate action. That could change, however, if other students make claims about Reese’s conduct in the years between 2000 and the most recent investigation.

“If other children came out and complained, then that’s a negligence issue,” he said. “But if nobody complained and as soon as they got this information they acted on it, I don’t think the school [system] has a problem.”

Dude said he doesn’t know of any other sexual misconduct complaints against teachers in the last five to 10 years. He said investigators did not attempt to contact Reese’s former students to look for evidence of misconduct between 2000 and 2017.

“The information I was provided was sufficient for me to make a decision,” Dude said.

Checking off the boxes

Based on a review of the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance on Title IX, the incident involving Reese appears to check off all the boxes for Title IX violations.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, if a school knows or should reasonably know sexual harassment is occurring, the school must take “immediate action” to stop the harassment.

In the investigation of the field trip, school officials waited longer than a month to remove Reese from the classroom, potentially allowing harassing conduct to continue. Then there’s the prior knowledge the school system had in 2000, which – as Attorney Weber noted – could open the school system up to damages in a lawsuit.

Title IX protects students from retaliation. Specifically, it is unlawful for a teacher to retaliate against a student who participated in an investigation of sexual misconduct. One student alleged that Reese retaliated against her following the field trip, and other students said they felt he retaliated against them.

U.S. Department of Education says sexual harassment can “deny or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the school’s program.” Students at the high school said they didn’t want to take Reese’s class because they felt uncomfortable around him, denying them an equal opportunity to participate.

The possibility of Title IX violations doesn’t appear to have registered with anyone at CSD involved in this investigation. Dude said the school system’s attorneys didn’t mention it.

He also didn’t realize that CSD was not fully in compliance with the law.

The U.S. Department of Education says that every school in the system must have an employee who serves as a Title IX coordinator, someone who is specifically trained to deal with potential discrimination issues.

CSD only has two coordinators at the system level, one for students and one for employees.

Dude was not aware that every school must have a Title IX coordinator.

“I appreciate you bringing that to our attention so we can look into that and if we need to make changes we will,” he said.

Athletic Director Carter Wilson served as the student Title IX coordinator in 2017, but he retired and is being replaced by incoming Athletics and Activities Director Rodney Thomas, who will also be the new student coordinator, Dude said.

The employee Title IX coordinator is Adams, the Human Resources director.

Wilson, the student coordinator, was not involved in the investigation of Reese.

“I guess this didn’t come to us as a Title IX complaint,” Dude said. “We were investigating it as we would any other personnel issue. Title IX just hadn’t really been part of the conversation … I do think based on your questions, that’s something we’ll review and see if we needed to handle that differently. That wasn’t a piece of the consideration as we were discussing the allegations.”

According to guidance published by the U.S. Department of Education, if the school system handles sexual misconduct allegations through its standard disciplinary process, the Title IX coordinator is responsible for making sure that process complies with the law.

Additionally, federal guidance advises against making an athletics director the Title IX coordinator because of the potential for a conflict of interest. Dude said in other school districts he’s had experience with, the Title IX coordinator has been the athletics director.

“We will review whether or not that is the appropriate placement of those responsibilities,” Dude said.

He said Decaturish raised “good points” about the potential Title IX issues.

“We always learn things from any of these experiences,” Dude said. “We try to strengthen how we would handle any similar cases going forward.”

Caiola, the school board chair, doesn’t think any changes are needed within CSD.

“I think that our policies are pretty clear with respect to students’ rights,” she said. “I think our policies are sufficiently communicated to students, I think the fact that students came forward in this particular incident as quickly as they did, would suggest at least these students understood what their rights were. I do think our policies are clear. I think they are more than adequately communicated to students.”

If anyone feels their rights were violated, they can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. To learn more about that process, click here.

Read more: Here are the investigative summaries obtained by Decaturish.com via an open records request. 

InvestigationPDF

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About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of Decaturish.com. https://www.linkedin.com/in/danwhisenhunt

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