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Sunday, March 9, 2014

Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Corruption In The RCBOE & The Broken Tribunal System

If you are a parent or high school student, particularly in Georgia, you need to read this. What you will find is quite shocking and appalling.

On Thursday, January 16th 2014, I had the displeasure of witnessing what could best be described as a legalized lynch mob or, better yet, witch hunt - an RCBOE (Richmond County Board of Education) tribunal. I feel it is my duty to reveal to public what goes on during tribunals, at least here in Georgia. Tribunals function under the pretense of serving justice and determine if disciplinary (and what degree of) action is necessary when students are found in violation of the elusive Code of Conduct. It promises to separate negative influences from student bodies. In execution, the tribunal serves to shield the Board of Education from legal action and rule in favor of educators, regardless of what evidence is provided.
According to the above-linked Greg Gelpi article from the Augusta Chronicle (2009), roughly 90% of all tribunals end in a guilty sentence. Veterans in law, education, and parenting all agree that it is not very likely that these rulings are right most of the time. It could be said that BOE (Board of Education) tribunals in Georgia merely seek to make examples of random students and scare everyone into playing by their rules, rather than doing what is truly just.
Here is the format and  [extremely] loose guidelines followed by the tribunal:
  • Parents/students receive a packet providing the tribunal date, the charges/allegations in question, and, if you're lucky, all written statement.
  • Students can be represented by parents, attorneys, or themselves.
  • Students can give testimonies but must stick to the "facts".
  • Only the designated representatives can question witnesses or speak during the proceedings.
  • Only family and witnesses can attend, with no exceptions.
  • Witnesses must be subpoenaed.
  • School records and "priors" are taken into account after testimonies are given.
  • All tribunal proceedings are recorded.
  • Appeals must be filed within a few days of any hearings.
Sadly, this system sets up students and their representatives for failure. According to parents and educators, written statements are often not provided until the day of the hearing though otherwise is falsely guaranteed. Participants are not made aware of the standards evidence must meet nor are they provided with links or copies to tribunal guidelines beyond the bare minimum. Thus, all evidence can be thrown out at the discretion of the tribunal. Much like everything else, those charged in the tribunals are at the mercy of the panel. What's worse is that the tribunal members are often very old, retired educators, so they are out of touch with the world around them, making decisions based almost exclusively upon old biases and ways.

In the case of substance abuse or possession (Rule 7B of the Richmond County Board of Education Code of Conduct), drug tests are inadmissible unless the administrator is present to testify. Susan Porter, one of the RCBOE-appointed attorneys confirmed this though she had said at one point that a certified copy of a drug test would suffice. The lack of clarity here again shows how the system sets up the allegedly guilty for failure. Conveniently, these types of stipulations are not shared unless someone asks.
What's more disheartening and ridiculous is how there is a mere ten-day period from alleged incident to hearing. This does not accommodate due process and preparation, especially if you are hoping to have a doctor or nurse come in to validate drug test results. In order for a continuance to be granted, all parents must be in agreement and, sadly, that rarely happens since most foolishly think that having an expensive lawyer will suffice. Even experienced tribunal lawyers will tell you that the system is unfair and no guarantees can be made. Ultimately, the mood of the tribunal panel determines their decision.
Now most of that provides an account of what is supposed to happen at tribunals but the reality is even more scary. Tribunals are a haphazard collection of loose proceedings, hidden agendas, bullying, and bureaucratic crap. Everything I have heard and seen first-hand points to the fact that the tribunal hearings are a huge waste of time, a mere song and dance to create the ruse of due process when, in reality, it is often assumed the students are all guilty; after all, educators don't ever make bad judgement calls, right?
With all that in mind, I feel parents should unite and not just give up. Preparation and a calm, logical approach are crucial. Here is what you should expect and how to prepare (and help others do the same):
  • Written testimonies are supposed to be provided by mail or in person but don't be surprised if you receive them minutes before the hearing. Be persistent and demand, in a civil manner, that all paperwork be provided in a timely fashion.
  • Be ready to question how information is obtained because the tribunal has a bit of a double standard for "hearsay". Evidence is given weight or validity based upon the tribunal's discretion.
  • Do not rest your defense on any single strategy as even physical evidence and chain of evidence tactics can be discredited. The best bet is usually to discredit opposing parties and witnesses.
  • Avoid emotional responses. Character and reputation weigh heavily in the tribunal's mostly subjective decisions. If you have a lawyer, follow their guidance and stick to the plan.
  • The first part of the tribunal hearing focuses on first-hand accounts of relevant details from the accused and witnesses (who most be subpoenaed from with very little notice). Afterwards, the opportunity is provided to present grades, recommendations, disciplinary records, and other items to build a character profile. The tribunal will try to assume patterns or likeliness/believability of the charges, regardless of what the prior evidence points to.
  • If you wish to appeal a decision, be sure to do it quickly as the window is usually small (10-20 days at most).
  • Even if a decision is appealed and the "sentence" is reversed, charges may stick and records may remain blemished.
In the hearing I attended, I saw just how frivolously the tribunal panels handled the proceedings. I noticed that the three tribunal panel members seemed distracted or like they could not be bothered. Testimonies were rushed (it's no wonder since each scheduled tribunal is giving a mere hour of time and this one already bordered three hours) while panel members spaced out. One panel member even fiddled with his clicky pen during testimonies. Clearly, their minds were already made up before evidence was even provided.
Coach Waters of Westside High School provided a very shaky, inconsistent testimony. The two experienced attorneys (only two of five students had legal counsel) that were present called out Coach Waters, citing the inconsistencies in his written and verbal accounts, as well as the fact that he was unsure of the actual verbiage used when he suspected students of drug use. In fact, the "prosecution" stretched details, acting as if nods given under duress were verbal admissions.
Mind you, no drugs or paraphernalia were found and, though two students were of age, no criminal charges were sought. Perhaps Scott McClintock and Kevin Waters knew their mishandling of the situation and the weak testimonies would be thrown out in a fair, legal setting? Heck, most of their evidence would have been thrown out in a proper legal setting, which one of the lawyers pointed out.
To be more specific, Coach Waters was unsure if students "nodded" to the questions of drug possession or use. He was also unsure what was actually asked and what the responses were verbatim. Those are details I would think he would have sorted out if things truly transpired as he claimed. Kevin Waters changed his story a lot, especially if you compared his written statement against his verbal testimony. The key take-away is that no one was caught in the act, nor were there controlled substances found.
Coach Waters knew he had a weak case so they pulled out all the stops. An investigator was tasked with getting more incriminating information from the students. When the answers were not as expected, the investigator told one student (a fifth student trapped and tricked into providing false testimony), "I'm not going to accept that." As expected from an unrepresented student, the same student failed to mention this very important fact during his testimony.
Call his methods entrapment, bullying, or manipulation, this investigator's testimony should have been thrown out. Here we have young, malleable minds pressured into saying what they want to believe or, better yet, need to be said. For the BOE and it's constituents, this is not a scenario of doing what's right. This is about justifying jobs, creating a ruse, and winning.
Anyone that has first-hand experience with interrogation techniques knows that torture leads to false information. Torture anyone enough and they will say what you want to hear just to end the discomfort and pain. Young people are more easily influenced and they do not know their rights typically. There's no denying that Coach Waters and his dogs took advantage of these facts.

Don't let the smile fool you: Susan Porter of Fletcher Law (FHFLaw) is one nasty witch.  Be warned.
What I find ironic is how Susan Porter, a senior attorney at Fletcher Law and the tribunal's resident legal liaison, was adamant in reminding us that this was not a criminal case and, by extension, standard legal provisions did not apply. In spite of that fact, the words "that's hearsay" were thrown out a lot. This means that students have to share what they experienced first-hand and, if they forget to mention a detail, tough cookies for them. The tribunal is quick to adhere to due process and nuances when it is convenient to them; otherwise, they will throw out evidence on a whim, as we have established here. Even more ironic is the fact that "he said she said" was acceptable so long as it favored the RCBOE and it's constituents.
The Augusta Chronicle, a news source I have great respect for, ran a brief report on the case on January 17th (just a day after the tribunal hearing) headlined "Four Westside wrestlers kicked off team." Clearly, this was the BOE trying to circumvent any potential PR nightmare and do some damage control. Coach Kevin Waters was made out to be a hero and the readers were fooled, unfortunately. This so-called report was also a knee-jerk reaction to the threat of lawsuits and further legal action. Here are the major discrepancies in the report as well as what was conveniently left out:
  • The four unnamed wrestlers were not caught smoking marijuana, as the article explicitly states.. In fact, no pot was found and I reckon Coach Waters can't tell the difference between the scent of skunk spray and weed smoke unless he himself smokes marijuana. Long-time Augusta locals have told us that Kevin Waters and other school officials have used and even sold controlled substance. Of course, that's been conveniently swept under the proverbial rug.
  • Coach Waters claims this was the first such incident yet one of the students said in his written statement that he thought the coach would just let them slide IF they were caught in the act, implying Coach Waters has covered up previous incidents.
  • Building upon the previous point, Coach Waters wrote in his own statement, "I've been doing this a long time..." This contradicts everything he has said and done before and after the incident. It also clearly contradicts what Kevin Waters said in this January 17th article.
  • The events that transpired took longer than 15 minutes, as Coach Waters testified that he spent two to three hours on and off to find out who the fourth participant was. During this time, he claims he was watching football.
  • The fourth student that was mentioned was with Coach Kevin Waters when they went to the Chick-Fil-A in Commerce, GA so when did he have time to smoke marijuana? If the argument is that he was in possession, why weren't his bags searched? Where is this elusive stash?
  • Two of the students involved, including a fifth student who was tricked into providing false testimony, were of age. Conveniently, local authorities were not involved. If due process were followed, only two or three students would have been found guilty at best, giving the RCBOE the "wins" they so desperately seek. I and legal professionals we have spoken with firmly believe the entire case would have been thrown out due to lack of evidence and mishandling thereof.

I find it interesting that none of the parents and students involved were interviewed for this article so this was a very one-sided account. That is a failure on behalf of the journalist, Wayne Staats, to get the full story. To be fair, the RCBOE has been effective at duping people under the guise of a righteous cause. I wonder if Gregory J. Gelpi, Education Reporter from June 2008-July 2009, wrote the article for the Chronicle, perhaps this report would have been handled better and honestly since he and several others have seen the glaring flaws in the tribunal system.
I will note that Mr. Staats did provide the opportunity for parents to share their side but their lawyers thought it would be prudent to wait until appeals were completed. These lawyers knew that provoking the RCBOE would make proceedings much tougher. The fact that the school board holds so much power here is scary.
In any case, the one-sided story by Wayne Staats only serves to make Coach Kevin Waters and the RCBOE seem like heroes. Sure, if the actual potheads and troublemakers were sent to alternative school, this would have been a big win for everyone but that is not the case. The 12 other wrestlers Coach Waters mentioned in the article did not learn that substance abuse is bad and brings negative consequences.
What the 12 remaining Westside wrestlers did learn during the tribunal aftermath is that lying is okay if you have other people back up your lies.. Oh, and if you get caught, don't go down alone, even if you were alone in the act. Bullying and harassment is okay too if you are on a witch hunt, pardon, crusade for a good cause. Is this what we want our youth to learn? Is this the learning environment we want for them?
Let's talk some more about the mishandling of the case and general lack of professionalism here. In the case of the five, not four, Westside wrestlers, Coach Kevin Waters went as far as to start a smear campaign against one student. He was aware that the wrestler took two supervised drug tests and both came up negative. In an effort to discredit the results and tarnish the student's reputation, Coach Waters told others that the student obtained urine samples from his nephew. Mind you, his nephew was not even in town but people fell for it.
These rumors spread so fast that the students all started to believe that it had to be true. You know what they say about ignorance set ablaze.. Sadly, no teacher attempted to quell the rumors and likely many agreed with them to save Coach Waters' face. The so-called public safety investigator used similar deceptive tactics to support the gossip and obtain false testimonies and evidence. Kevin Waters even reinstated other wrestlers (ones that were suspended due to disciplinary issues of their own) to gain their loyalty. Well-played, sir! They get what they want and you get what you want.
Overall, the behavior and tactics employed by the staff at Westside High School was unprofessional and deplorable. Even those siding with the students kept their distance to avoid being caught up in the storm. I would describe the whole RCBOE approach as under-handed bullying. Hopeful parents and educators will try to justify tribunal actions to feel better about it but, in the end, this is a system meant to cover behinds and pass the buck.  I would say there are bigger issues school boards should pursue, such as bullying and hidden weapons, both of which are prevalent issues that they have only scratched the metaphorical surface on.

An appeal was filed (by the student they wanted to be the scapegoat) the week after the tribunal decision. The secretary for the Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Roberson, was very rude in her cooperation. She accepted the documents hesitantly, stating in a very short manner, "Are you sure you followed all the guidelines? If not, you better go back home and check because I don't know what the guidelines are." Apparently, none of the school board administration knows these guidelines.. until it serves their own purposes. This puts parents and students at a loss once again.
The following is a passage from the school board policy provided before and after tribunal hearings:

"The tribunal shall conduct the hearing and after receiving all evidence render its decision, which decision shall be based solely on the evidence received at the hearing. The decision shall be in writing and shall be given to all parties within ten (10) days of the close of the record. Any decision by such disciplinary officer, panel, or tribunal may be appealed to local board of education by filing a written notice of appeal with the Superintendent of Schools within twenty (20) days from the date the decision is rendered. Any disciplinary action imposed by such officer, panel, or tribunal may be suspended by the Superintendent of Schools pending the outcome of the appeal."

Where are these supposed guidelines for the written appeal? We (I helped by providing an outline of sorts) prepared an appeal that outlined all the inconsistencies in testimonies and how their was not any solid evidence provided during the hearing. There are over five pages of valid points that we wonder if the school board even bothered to address. During the appeal process, the student in question refused to go to the alternative school based on principle. Sadly, he eventually had to "play ball".

According to the Deputy Superintendent of Schools, Tim Spivy, the bit about suspending a tribunal decision during the appeal process was misinterpreted by us. He stated that he sees it quite differently. It's as if there are no firm procedures or precedence in place. They know most students and parents just give up by this point. It's no wonder parents and students alike surrender their rights since everything the school board does surrounding tribunals is highly subjective and perhaps whimsical. Our lawyers would interpret the preceding policy passage quite differently than Mr. Spivy.

Parents, don't fool yourselves into thinking the tribunal or school board is on your side. If it were your child, you would be offended by the shenanigans that take place during the tribunal process. It's not fair nor is it setting a good example for impressionable young minds. If you check out the comments on related Augusta Chronicle articles, parents foolishly think the RCBOE actually cares to do the right thing.

Let's fast forward close to two months later. The innocent student I have discussed here has finally been allowed to leave the alternative school. Sadly, he has been hesitant about going back. In just a few days, he has been harassed, threatened, and shunned by even the teachers, whom should be keeping things professional.

Coach Kevin Waters and other corrupt school officials, many of which have their own dirty little secrets (Kevin Waters was charged with sexual harassment back in the 70s and was a known drug user, by the way), decided to tarnish a motivated young man's reputation in order to protect their own reputations. So many youths are having their futures ruined by these foolish, self-serving whims. This is the epitome of bullying!

The student, the intended scapegoat, who was wrongfully accused in this case got a letter that stated he would be able to go back to Westside High School. They were sure to mention that they still find him guilty of wrong-doing. The school board refuses to do what is right if it means admitting defeat. This behavior begs the question: who are the real kids here?

Kevin Waters and his cohorts have spared no expense to defame the innocent student and turn his friends against him. Prior to these incidents, this same student was liked by almost every teacher and held as a sort of role model. He was popular, supported his school in every way possible, and never caused any trouble aside from a few tardies and absences (let's face it: every student these days has those). Good 'ol Kevin knows that, in high school, rumors and ignorance spread faster than wildfire. It's easy to have a student's reputation do a complete 180-degree turn for the worst. Once Kevin Waters planted the seeds of deception, even long-time friends turned on said student. They believe that he is a snitch, a coward (the kids have stronger words for this), and a liar.

Again, one would think that at some point in the vicious game of telephone, someone mature (read as "not Kevin Waters") would intervene and try to quell the rumors. The whole case was a game of entrapment and deception. I mean, to have a fifth student charged days before the hearing and then tell him he was ratted out, just to get him to spout out whatever lies or unfavorable "facts" could put the so-called main offender in a bad light.. Petty high school games. Kevin Waters and gang were sure to pull a hail-Mary here.

Today, students feeling betrayed are threatening and badgering what the school administration would have everyone believe were the rats or ring leaders that brought everyone down. In this case, the intended scapegoat has gotten severely beat up by self-righteous students who think they are settling a score or serving justice. Of course, the school administration is waiting for the one student, their fall guy, to slip up.

All they need is another story to flip around, some facts to take out of context again, and some desperation. This is the delicate situation many students face every day: they walk a thin line and feel ostracized, shunned by the very system that should be protecting them. Instead of preparing students for brilliant futures, this very system destroys futures. The tribunal and the rest of the school board members do not even blink an eye so long as they look like the good guys.

If you want someone that will truly be on your side, the real good guys, consider Demetrius Abraham or Gregory J Gelpi. Both of these gentlemen have the compassion and thirst for justice to get the job done. Greg Gelpi is particularly determined and his experience with the many RCBOE exploits puts him in a very special position. Greg can be contacted at (706) 434-3597 and Demetrius at (706) 250-2397. God bless and good luck!