Professional Standards Commission investigating Decatur High teacherThe front steps of Decatur High School. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt
The state Professional Standards Commission, which certifies teachers, has opened an investigation into a Decatur High journalism instructor who resigned after being accused of sexually harassing students.
Depending on the outcome, the teacher could lose his license.
In response to a Decaturish story about how the school investigated the allegations against the teacher, City Schools of Decatur has begun to reexamine how it complies with federal discrimination law, in this case Title IX. CSD officials said the way the school system handled the case did not violate federal law. Attorneys and experts Decaturish spoke to said there were potential violations, but one expert said the school system is “moving in the right direction” by taking steps to improve how it handles Title IX cases.
Jon Reese, who taught journalism at the high school, resigned in May before he could be fired following an investigation into his conduct. While he did not respond to a request for comment about this story, he has previously denied allegations against him and says he was not treated fairly by school officials. He has not been charged with any crime and is not currently the subject of a criminal investigation.
The school system’s investigation started after a field trip in February. 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.
Students told CSD officials that Reese had made inappropriate remarks and gave students back massages.
During the course of its investigation, CSD uncovered prior allegations of sexual harassment from 2000. The documentation of these allegations had been removed from Reese’s personnel file and no one has been able to explain how that happened.
At the conclusion of its investigation, CSD filed a complaint with the Professional Standards Commission and the commission decided to investigate further. Paul Shaw, director of the PSC’s Ethics Division, said the earliest the investigation could be completed is in September and Reese would have 30 days to appeal the commission’s decision. Possible outcomes include the commission finding “no probable cause,” giving him a warning or a reprimand, suspending him from teaching from one day to three years or revoking his license.
“The investigator assigned to the case will interview all whom he or she deems appropriate, including the educator and witnesses/compaintants,” Shaw said in an email.
Shaw said the investigation will be limited to the current allegations against Reese, but could be expanded if the evidence reveals that it needs to be expanded.
While investigating how CSD handled Reese’s case, Decaturish learned that the school system did not have Title IX coordinators at each school, which is required under the law. During the investigation the system had two Title IX coordinators, and the one representing students was not involved in the investigation of Reese’s conduct.
Until now the student Title IX coordinator has also been the athletics director, which is not recommended under federal guidance because it could be a conflict of interest. CSD’s student grievance policy did not mention sexual misconduct and there’s no evidence students were made aware of their rights under Title IX.
CSD spokesperson Courtney Burnett said, “We stand by our position that this was not a Title IX issue.”
But CSD is taking steps to improve its compliance with federal law, the spokesperson said.
Here is what CSD plans to do, according to Burnett …
- Evaluate our Title IX practices and procedures including our materials to ensure we are in full compliance with the law and best practice
- We have been in communication with the local Office of Civil Rights to review the training we provide and identify further areas for which additional training is needed
- Name Title IX coordinators at each school and provide training
- Develop communication protocols, so all students and staff know who the Title IX coordinators are and the process for sharing concerns
“It is very important that students and parents know that this administration takes allegations of inappropriate behavior between staff and students seriously, as we did in this situation, and that we will continue to handle such situations with fidelity,” she said.
Terri Miller, president of the advocacy group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation, had previously criticized the school system’s handling of the case. Decaturish asked her what she thought about CSD’s plan to address some of the concerns she’d raised.
“Looks like they are moving in the right direction to comply with Title IX and provide training to students and staff,” she said. “Under Title IX, parents should be included in training and communications equation. When all stakeholders are informed on first response protocols in adult-to-student sexual misconduct incidents, it is a win-win for all.”
Two parents of students interviewed about the field trip with Reese had differing views of how CSD handled the case. Their names are being withheld to avoid identifying the students involved.
One mom thought school officials could’ve been more transparent about how they handled the case. She said she was never informed of the outcome and didn’t know about the allegations from 2000. She said CSD should’ve handled it then.
“We pay enough taxes living in the city of Decatur for our schools,” the parent said. “You better satisfy the parents, or you’re going to be in bad trouble.”
Another parent said she was satisfied with how CSD handled it.
“I felt really good about the process,” she said. “I felt like they listened, they were respectful. I felt really good about it.”
She said the only part she took issue with was the uncertainty students felt not knowing whether Reese would return.
“The only piece was what I wish could’ve done a little bit better was more what was happening in the classroom during this limbo period,” she said. “It was hard for the students to know who was going to be grading them. They no longer had their teacher. The limbo period was rough on them academically as students. Other than that … I wasn’t dissatisfied with it from any other perspective. I considered it a complicated and messy thing.”