Friday, April 12, 2024

Why did attorneys investigate racial slur whistleblower? Pender Schools says actions were appropriate

Pender High teacher and basketball coach Ray Hankins speaks to the Board of Education a week after he posted documents to Facebook showing the use of racial slurs by the principal and a fellow teacher. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

BURGAW — A report released by Pender County Schools, describing the use of racial slurs by the Pender High principal and an English teacher, revealed that attorneys who conducted the investigation probed—but ultimately cleared—the actions of the whistleblower who first made the allegations. 

The investigation was spurred by teacher and basketball coach Ray Hankins, who posted two documents to Facebook in early June. One showed the word “n—er” written on a notepad by Principal Caroline Godwin and the other was an email describing how English teacher Karen McGowen used the same word in a classroom.

RELATED: After investigation, questions remain about the use of n-word in Pender schools

Asked in early July why Hankins was encouraged to bring an attorney to an interview with Blue LLP, district spokesperson Alex Riley said he could not comment on the process or anyone who was involved at this time.

On Wednesday, Riley issued a long statement from the district, which gave reasons for its investigation into Hankins. The statement clarified how it was appropriate for Blue LLP to interview Hankins because the attorneys wanted to determine “what he knew about the situation to better develop a complete understanding of the matter.” 

Hankins was interviewed on July 30. According to Pender NAACP President Dante Murphy, who advised Hankins in the early phase of the investigation, the district denied Hankins’ request to cover his attorney fees. 

In an email to an attorney at Blue LLP, Hankins wrote he had been contacted twice on behalf of the school district regarding the 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?” Hankins asked.

In response, attorney Dhamian Blue told Hankins that educators must submit information in the course of an official investigation of a school as part of their professional duties, outlined by the state’s Standards of Professional Conduct

“Legal counsel is not required for the interview, but whether you retain counsel is entirely up to you,” Blue wrote.

However, Blue does not include the full clause of the state’s law regarding professional conduct. The clause also states submission of information is required for “facts of unprofessional conduct, provided, however, that an educator shall be given adequate notice of the allegations.” At the time, no administrator with the district or at Pender High had publicly labeled Hankins’ conduct of highlighting alleged racist acts as unprofessional. 

This week, when asked if anyone at the district had encouraged Hankins to have an attorney present during the July 30 interview, the district responded: “Mr. Hankins, like every employee interviewed by Blue LLP, was informed that they had the opportunity to have an attorney present for their interview.” 

The district also said it tasked Blue LLP with advising whether there had been violations of board policy, law, or any professional standards. 

“The mandate given to Blue LLP was to ‘conduct, as quickly as possible, a thorough, efficient, and complete investigation without compromising the integrity of the investigation for any reason.'”

The district noted a board policy that requires employees to report any acts of discrimination to Superintendent Dr. Steven Hill or a chosen designee. The investigation report’s summary of the Hankins interview said he reported the use of the slur in the principal’s notes prior to posting them on social media, but declined to provide that person’s response. 

“He said that he reported it above the school level and at the county level,” according to the report. “Mr. Hankins was uncomfortable answering whether he reported it to anyone in the Central Office.”

Hankins’ attorney, Jim Lea, said his client had verbally reported the issue to the person he believed to be the proper official and thought the report would be delivered to Dr. Hill, but nothing was done in response. Hankins said he was not provided examples of what is inappropriate for posting on social media, and the district’s social media policy was not addressed at a faculty meeting at the beginning of the year. 

In the district’s response on Wednesday, the board policy outlined expectations of employees using social media.

“[G]iven the mandate given to Blue LLP to ‘conduct a thorough, efficient and complete investigation,’ it would appear obvious that Blue LLP would want to interview the person who shared the altered documents and who made the allegations, Mr. Hankins, to try to ascertain information and facts, some of which only he knew,” the district wrote.

The altered documents refer to a photocopied image of the principal’s notepad that Hankins posted to social media and a notepad Principal Godwin submitted to the district after Hankins’ post. In Hankin’s image, the word “n—ers” is written in the column next to the names of two students who had been involved in a fight. Yet, the principal’s submitted photo shows “my n—ers” was written. Hankins’ image also shows the name of a student written at the bottom of the notes, while the principal’s photo excludes it.

Investigators said there was no evidence to prove either the principal or Hankins altered the document. According to Godwin, she wrote the slur to quote a student. That student allegedly used the phrase “my n—ers” to describe two fellow students involved in the fight.

When asked what kind of privacy or job security protections the district provides whistleblowers, Riley pointed to a board policy prohibiting discrimination, harassment, and bullying: “The board prohibits reprisal or retaliation against any person for reporting or intending to report violations of this policy, supporting someone for reporting or intending to report a violation of this policy or participating in the investigation of reported violations of this policy.”

Ultimately, the investigation found that Hankins’ social media did not violate board policy. In addition to redacting the students’ last names, “nothing about Mr. Hankins’ posting can reasonably be construed as unprofessional,” the report noted.

Regarding the publication of a profane racial slur, the attorneys called the board’s policy — measuring what “could reasonably be anticipated to cause a substantial disruption to the school environment” — vague and subjective in its description.

“Mr. Hankins explained that, in publishing both documents, he sought to publicize what he believes to be discrimination at [Pender High School],” according to the report. “Moreover, what Mr. Hankins published ultimately is true—[Pender County Schools] employees have, in fact, verbalized or written racial slurs under varying circumstances.”

Send tips and comments to the reporter at or (970) 413-3815

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