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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Pender County School District silent on questions about its handling of racism investigation

The investigation began after Pender High basketball coach Ray Hankins, pictured at a Board of Education meeting last month, published several documents to social media indicating racist behavior of two colleagues. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

BURGAW — Pender County Schools did not answer questions regarding the use of an outside law firm to investigate alleged racist comments by Pender High employees, instead of using its contracted firm Schwartz and Shaw, whose attorney was reprimanded in 2006 for detrimental conduct in a school sexual assault investigation in Avery County.

The district also declined to answer whether one of its teachers, Pender High basketball coach Ray Hankins, was asked to attend a “required meeting as part of a school system investigation” and to bring his own attorney, according to an email Hankins sent to attorney Dhamian Blue. His firm, Blue LLC, was hired by PCS to conduct the investigation.

Hankins first brought the allegations to public light on June 8 when he posted on social media two separate documents allegedly showing the use of the word n—r by two Pender High employees.

Last week, Port City Daily asked the following questions of Pender County Schools: Why was Hankins asked to meet with Blue with his own attorney present? Could this request have been intimidation, as some have claimed? Why did PCS hire Blue, LLC to conduct the investigation rather than using its own contracted firm, Schwartz and Shaw?

In response, PCS spokesman Alex Riley said because Blue, LLP is “continuing to conduct interviews and gather information related to the investigation at Pender High School, we cannot comment on that process or those involved at this time.”

‘Under what obligation do I have to meet with you?’

Hankins is skeptical as to why Blue, LLC has asked him to attend an interview with his own attorney.

In an email to Blue, Hankins wrote, “This is the second time that someone has contacted me on behalf of Pender County Schools regarding this investigation. You have stated in the email that ‘This is a required meeting as part of a school system investigation’ and you have recommended lawyer representation on my behalf. Under what legal obligation do I have to meet with you? Also, will the Board of Education cover my lawyer fees?”

In response, Blue tells Hankins he cannot provide legal advice, but reminded him of the state’s education standards of professional conduct that states the “submission of information in the course of an official inquiry by the employing” school is among the professional duties required by an educator.

However, he does not include the full section in the email, which declares that such “submission of information” is required for “facts of unprofessional conduct, provided, however, that an educator shall be given adequate notice of the allegations” (Section .0602 (b)(3)(G)). To date, no administrator with the district or Pender High has publicly labeled Hankins’ conduct — bringing to light alleged acts of racism — as unprofessional.

Blue also informs Hankins that the same section explains that an educator “may be represented by legal counsel” during any such inquiry.

“Legal counsel is not required for the interview, but whether you retain counsel is entirely up to you. Although the Board of Education will not cover any attorney’s fees, the North Carolina Association of Educators may be able to provide information to you about securing an attorney,” Blue wrote.

According to Dante Murphy, president of the Pender County chapter of the NAACP, Hankins has turned to him for guidance; Murphy said he is now attempting to find an attorney for Hankins, who has agreed to an interview with Blue on July 17.

“He does not want to go by himself. Once he talks, they have full control of how the report is made out,” Murphy said.

He said the final report may end up with the school’s long-term legal firm, Schwartz and Shaw, which Murphy alleged, “has a history of rigging up independent investigations.”

Schwartz reprimanded by state bar in 2006

In 2006, Richard Schwartz was reprimanded by the Grievance Committee of the North Carolina State Bar for misconduct during an independent investigation of an alleged sexual assault that took place in an unidentified North Carolina school district. Schwartz was hired by a county board of education to provide legal advice and services “with allegations of sexual assault committed by upperclassmen against underclassmen.”

According to reporting by The News Herald in Morgantown, the case involved a hazing incident in the Avery County School district.

“Arrangements were made by school administrators for you to interview students and some parents. You and your associate attorney distributed your business cards to those interviewed, and told the parents of the underclassmen/victims that you had been brought in by the board of education to determine the truth about the events,” the 2006 letter states.

But the committee noted that some parents of the victims believed Schwartz was an independent investigator hired by the board of education “solely for the purpose of conducting an investigation and were not aware that [he] had a preexisting attorney-client relationship with the school system.”

“While conducting your investigation, you also provided ongoing legal advice to school officials, including advice about the wording of a press release on the issue. You failed to notify the parents [of some victims] about your pre-existing attorney-client relationship with the school system and about the fact that you were providing additional legal services and advice to the board of education or failed to clarify those facts,” the committee informed Schwartz.

The committee cited notes taken by an associate attorney for Schwartz during an interview of a victim, showing that the victim gave conflicting statements regarding the alleged assault and therefore concluded that the victim was not credible “as to whether there was an act of penetration.” If true, such an act would result in a felony sexual offense.

Furthermore, the Grievance Committee said Schwartz was aware of these statements when he met with the district attorney; although he invited the district attorney to subpoena the notes, including all witness statements describing the alleged acts, he had failed to mention the victim’s statements to his associate and “instead left them with the impression that [his] investigation had yielded no evidence of penetration.”

Schwartz was given a formal reprimand, and not the more severe penalty of a censure, because the committee found that his misconduct was “mitigated by [his] lack of prior discipline and by [his] apparent lack of any dishonest motive.”

Why no hearing with subpoenaed witnesses?

Pender Board of Education Chairman Don Hall, center, listens to a protestor Tuesday evening while PCS Superintendent Steven Hill, pictured in the foreground, looks on. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Pender Board of Education Chairman Don Hall, center, listens to a protestor speaking up against the alleged racist acts of Pender High employees while PCS Superintendent Steven Hill, pictured in the foreground, looks on. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Murphy, the Pender County NAACP president, said he was skeptical as to why PCS decided to go with an independent investigation, led by an outside law firm, versus using its state-authorized power of subpoena for witnesses while conducting a hearing on the matter.

As outlined by § 115C-45 – Judicial functions of board, the state gives local boards of education the power to issue subpoenas for witnesses to testify in a hearing.

“Local boards of education may request the chief district court judge or the judge’s designee to grant approval for the local board of education to issue a subpoena for the production of all tangible things in matters where an employee is suspected of committing job-related misconduct and which, in the discretion of the board, require investigation,” the law states.

The school board may also issue subpoenas for documents, papers, letters, photographs, sound recordings, and other documentary material. A board of education is allowed to designate hearing panels composed of at least two members of the board to hear and act upon appeals, according to the law.

“Why are they spending thousands of dollars on an independent investigation when they can conduct a hearing?” Murphy asked.

He believes that witnesses testifying under oath would produce results in a more transparent investigation than an investigation conducted by a law firm behind closed doors.

Murphy was also critical of the PCS Board of Education’s long-term contractual agreement with Schwartz, noting that various board of education meetings across the state have brought up his 2006 reprimand, as it was discussed in Burke County and Craven County.

“I don’t know how you can keep a lawyer with this record,” Murphy said.

Editor’s Note: To get an understanding of how much Pender County Schools has spent on legal fees, Port City Daily has sent a public records request to the school district for all itemized invoices and legal bills from Blue, LLC, Schwartz and Shaw, and any other attorneys representing the district from July 2019 to present.


Send tips and comments to the reporter at mark@localdailymedia.com or (970) 413-3815

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