Monday, July 22, 2024

Courts dismiss CFCC student’s claim she was mistreated, but there’s more to the story

A sonography student has started a website describing being pushed out of CFCC’s program, claiming people worked in concert to lower her grades. It evolved into a lawsuit that has been dismissed, but Camryn Young sent ‘Corruption: From the Classroom to the Courtroom’ live online to detail her evidence. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

This article was co-reported as part of a media partnership by WECT, Port City Daily, and WHQR.

WILMINGTON — When Camryn Young’s hopes of pursuing a career in sonography through a program at Cape Fear Community College came to a halt, she started to question if the deck may have been stacked against her.

“I decided to go into sonography because you have to pay attention to the details,” Young said. 

Soon after Young started CFCC’s sonography program in 2022, she claims several people involved with the program worked to lower her grades to have her dismissed. She says Program Director Kellee Stacks, along with other CFCC employees and clinical staff, made it seem as though Young was not succeeding and should be removed. 

According to court filings, the parties subject to Young’s allegations maintain her dismissal was due to her inadequate academic performance. Faculty and instructors involved state inappropriate personal factors did not influence Young’s evaluations, which were carried out within their authority.

Young’s rocky road during the program

In January 2023, Young says she started her clinical rotation at Delaney Radiology. She believes CFCC instructor Angela Meeker, who works under Stacks, called Young’s clinical instructor, Lisa Carter, to inform her Young would be going on a plan of action after a poor clinical evaluation. Young says the call happened before the evaluation took place. She provided screenshots of text messages that appear to show the interaction.

“How is it OK for the instructors that aren’t with the student all day, every day at clinicals to go in a system and lower a student’s grade — for a grade they received at a clinical site — where they weren’t even there?” Young said.

Young provided additional screenshots of text messages as evidence of Stacks telling Young’s clinical instructors she was being dismissed from the program before she was even informed.

“I know she will not go down easy and she will most likely file an appeal,” Stacks wrote to lab instructors for the program.

Young said the texts were retrieved from Amber Vencill’s phone by her boyfriend, Connor, also Young’s brother. He dated Vencill — another sonographer, who works for Novant/NHRMC — on and off for three years; this included some of the time Young studied at CFCC. Vencill also interacted with Young’s instructors regarding the student, the texts show. 

Young says she learned about her dismissal from the sonography program in May 2023 after completing six competency exams. Young claims students are only required to complete three by the end of the spring semester.

Following her dismissal, Young says she met with CFCC Dean of Student Affairs Robby McGee.

According to Young, McGee thought her claims merited involvement from CFCC Academic Affairs Vice President Brandon Guthrie. Young said she thought “action was going to be taken.”

During what Young says was supposed to be an appeal hearing on her dismissal from the program, Guthrie entered and said no one else was coming because Young did not sign the agreement confirming she would be at the hearing.

According to a document provided by Young, however, she had signed the agreement and arrived at the hearing on time.

Recordings provided by Young appear to show Guthrie telling Young during their meeting that her case was “different” and he would explore her allegations. 

[Editor’s note: CFCC declined an interview, and didn’t comment on the recordings, which Young posted online and WECT shared with the college for comment. However, reporters from WHQR and Port City Daily recognized the voice as Guthrie’s. The voice on the tape will be referred to as Guthrie’s in this report.]

“Nine times out of 10, when a situation comes up like this, it’s exactly what somebody like me would think, right? It’s like, ‘OK, here’s somebody got a bad grade. They want to blame it on somebody else.’ As soon as I saw this stuff [Gutherie referring to some of the text messages Young showed], I was like, ‘Yeah, this is a different situation,” Guthrie said on the recording.

A few days after her first meeting with Guthrie, Young was readmitted into the sonography program.

“I spoke with him and I felt really good about things,” Young said. “I felt like my voice was heard, action was going to be taken. He was furious about the situation, but he didn’t display that in a way that would come back on the college. He just was visibly upset with the situation … I mean, he said he was appalled at the situation.”

In the following summer semester, however, Young claims she had a clinical evaluation grade lowered from 95.44% to 84%, grounds for a plan of action.

Feeling as though she was still stuck — and being pushed out of the program after having already been dismissed once — Young hired an attorney.

“I realized this has got to go somewhere because I’ve already taken it through the proper channels here at Cape Fear and it hasn’t gone anywhere,” Young said. “So, it needs to be taken [to] legal.”

The text messages

CFCC’s sonography students receive supervised practice in clinical rotations with partners, including Novant Health, Delaney Radiology, and New Hanover Regional Medical Center. Young cites texts of conversations between her instructors to argue personal grievances influenced their evaluations.

Screenshots provided by Young between Novant New Hanover Regional Medical Center sonographers Vencill and Sicilia Cipalla appear to show them celebrating Young’s dismissal from the program. 

Vencill wrote to Cipalla: “that family doesn’t go down easily” and “it’s also gonna give me clarity on how Connor [Vencill’s former boyfriend and Young’s brother] handles this.”

When reached by phone for response to the texts, Vencill said “no comment” before hanging up abruptly.

Another text exchange between Vencill and Delaney sonography instructor Carter shows further personal animosity potentially influencing Young’s evaluation process.

When Carter told Vencill that Young was attending her clinical rotation at Delaney, Vencill responded “ewwww, happy Monday to you.”

Carter later wrote: “I think I made Camryn cry,” followed by a shrugging emoji. Vencill responded with a laughing emoji.

Later in the conversation, Vencill also referenced Young’s “bad attitude” as an annoyance.

Vencill later informed Carter that Young was removed from the program, which was celebrated with laughing and clapping emojis.

CFCC vice president wants to avoid media scrutiny, public records 

In another recording Young provided, again allegedly of Guthrie, he admits to asking her for only paper copies of text messages between CFCC instructors and those clinical staff who work with the college’s students. 

“If I get a public information request, and somebody pulls my emails; this is all going to go to the media, that’s going to cause more trouble for us programmatically, and hinder my ability to really make a cultural change within the college,” he said. 

This continues CFCC’s trend of avoiding media interviews on stories that aren’t explicitly positive, and the concerted effort to not put government business in writing, since those would be subject to public records law.  

On the recording, Guthrie then added he was going to do an audit of CFCC’s clinical sites and its own sonography faculty to assuage Young’s concerns. 

He reiterated to Young the college was taking “positive proactive actions to correct things that are not on the up and up and to be able to go those clinical sites and tell them, ‘You’re not honoring our memorandum of understanding (MOU), and make everyone aware that needs to be aware.’”  

According to CFCC spokesperson Christina Hallingse, “Guthrie visited each clinical site in June of 2023 and met with the clinical supervisors. Throughout these interactions, Brandon addressed the standards anticipated and expected from clinical sites when engaging with CFCC students.” 

Media outlets requested documentation of CFCC’s process but did not receive it.

Guthrie also told Young, if she didn’t pursue legal action,  he would “handle this” because the college had “enough media stuff that they’ve had to deal with here.” 

Young’s attorney, Ellie Bragg of Leitner, Bragg & Griffin, sent a letter to CFCC leadership on June 29, 2023, calling for terms of a settlement to avoid litigation. The letter demanded $300,000 in damages — an amount Young said her attorney determined  but that she agreed to. The settlement also requested the termination of eight CFCC staff and instructors, proof of an audit with clinical site providers, and a CFCC stakeholder announcement to the medical sonography program that Young’s removal was caused by the wrongdoings of former staff.

Two months later, on Aug. 28, Young filed a 350-paragraph lawsuit against more than a dozen defendants, including individual instructors, CFCC’s board of trustees, and the college’s sonography program partners — Delaney Radiologist Group, Novant Health, New Hanover Regional Medical Center, and Pender Medical Center.

Young claims CFCC offered her $12,000 to settle the suit the next day. Her lawyer responded with a counteroffer of $150,000, along with the termination of Stacks and Meeker — the CFCC program director and instructor – Young believed had conspired against her.

Case dismissed, sovereign immunity wins

Superior Court Judge Bob R. Cherry ruled on Jan. 23, 2024 to honor CFCC’s motion to dismiss Young’s claims, alleging FERPA violations, breach of contract, fraud, and invasion of privacy. The judge also dismissed all claims against Stacks.

Young had previously voluntarily dismissed the claims against CFCC President Jim Morton and Vice President of Academic Affairs Brandon Guthrie. She said her attorney viewed them as extensions of the board and felt naming them individually was excessive.

“Since I didn’t have anything tying Morton or Guthrie to the slanderous part of the lawsuit, they were dropped,” she said. “I didn’t want to seem vindictive.”

After Cherry’s dismissal ruling, Young says she did not know where to turn and her attorney filed to dismiss the entire lawsuit.

“Just after the hearing on January 23, I did not hold any faith in the legal system in Wilmington,” Young said. “So, I figured it would be best to just show everyone what had happened. Not as a ‘pity me’ situation, just, this is corrupt and it needs to be exposed,” she said

On Oct. 12, 2023, CFCC’s attorney, Sean Partrick of The Pettey and Partrick Law Firm, filed a motion to dismiss the suit. 

Partrick invoked sovereign and governmental immunity law, which grants government officials freedom from punishment or damages in a number of circumstances, as a core component of his argument in defense of Morton, Guthrie, and Stacks. He further claimed Young’s claims had insufficient evidence even without immunity. 

Sovereign immunity typically protects government agencies unless they have violated a plaintiff’s state or federal constitutional rights. Governmental immunity usually cushions employees while they are working in an official capacity — unless it’s proven they acted with malice.

CFCC’s threat to sue over the post

On Thursday, Feb. 29, Young and her sister, Cortlynn Gonzales, created a webpage called ‘Corruption: From the Classroom to the Courtroom’ detailing the evidence of their claims. 

They suspect this whole saga had something to do with Vencill. Vencill worked with Young and the college as a host for one of their clinical sites, and she is the former girlfriend of Young’s brother. Young also claims another clinical instructor at Delaney Radiology was complicit with lowering her evaluations, a person who was a friend of Vencill’s. 

Shortly after Young and Gonzales posted the site, Young claims she received a letter from CFCC lawyer Sean Partrick. The letter said CFCC would be forced into legal action if the website was not taken down. He said the online content was “defamatory” and the remarks were “false and disparaging,” claims that were “dismissed by the court.” 

In this, Partrick questioned the “source of the texts” and asserted Young had “poor performance at several sonography clinics.”

Young and Gonzales said they’re not concerned about a potential “cease and desist” letter because what they are posting is factual information; hence, they feel they cannot be sued for defamation. However, North Carolina is one of 17 states without an anti-SLAPP law — referring to strategic litigation against public participation — which is meant to prevent drawn-out intimidatory litigation.

Two CFCC sonography lab instructors were ‘non-renewed’

As for instances of grade changes, Young’s mother, who attended one of Young’s meetings with Guthrie, asked him if CFCC denied changing her daughter’s grade.

On the recording, Guthrie said: “They didn’t deny it.”

He added: “So it’s not entirely uncommon to change a grade, but it seems that there’s some question about it. And I saw the competency [grades] prior to this, and I said, ‘I don’t know how you go from ‘always using the machine correctly’ to ‘sometimes’. It’s like, ‘If something fishy, so let’s look into it.’”

In a conversation with Guthrie, Young discussed how people both in the program and outside of it seemed to be aware of her dismissal before she was told about it. She told Guthrie that CFCC staff denied leaking the information. In another audio recording with Stacks, the program director, Young asked her which lab instructor shared this information. Stacks didn’t deny the leak; she told Young she would work to find out who it was.  

Many CFCC employees work on contracts, so it’s uncommon for them to be fired like a traditional employee — they are simply “nonrenewed.” This means a termination letter, which is a public record, is not necessary, and the reason for their dismissal remains unknown.

Because of that, it’s not possible to know for sure if CFCC took action against anyone in response to Young’s complaints. But there is compelling evidence that’s what happened.

CFCC spokesperson Hallingse confirmed two sonography lab instructors — who Young had sued but later voluntarily dropped her case against — were “non-renewed” for the 2023-2024 school year. 

Hallingse was speaking of Ashley Gaul and Nicole Herren. According to their personnel files, Herren and Gaul both worked part-time; Herren started in 2021 and Gaul was hired in 2016. They had no demotions or suspensions listed. 

Guthrie also acknowledged during the recordings with Young that in these text messages with clinical staff who worked with CFCC students: “It was obvious that there was a beef, that they had bias there. That’s clear.”

He told Young she was “courageous for coming forward” and “willing to come back into the program,” in May 2023. 

Guthrie went on to say he was “appalled by the behavior” in the text messages and for Vencill, she was “targeting Camryn, and she was reaching out to other people so that they would have bias against her at these clinical sites.” 

At one point, Young says to Guthrie she apologized for calling Vencill “a snake.” In response, Guthrie said, “That’s not untrue.” 

CFCC administration, trustees decline interviews

Hallingse declined a request for an interview, but did send the following statement in response to the allegations listed on Young and Gonzales’ site

“Cape Fear Community College and its employees were recently dismissed from a lawsuit filed by a former student in our medical sonography program. Based on our obligations under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the College and its employees are restricted from discussing this matter because it involves the former student’s academic and educational records and history. While we dispute these allegations, we wish this former student well in their future endeavors.”

So far members of the CFCC Board of Trustees either didn’t respond, didn’t know details of the case, or declined to comment on the matter, saying to contact college administration.

The media outlets reached out to Gary Shipman, who represents former trustee Ray Funderburk in an ongoing case against the CFCC board. Funderburk was dismissed from the trustees board in March 2023 for violating policies, which included allegations he asked an instructor to change a student’s grade. Funderburk denies it. 

Ray Funderburk was removed from the board of trustees over a lie that someone promoted that he attempted to get an instructor to change a grade — when in this case, a student’s grade was changed, at the instance of someone who was directly involved in grading. I just find it ironic,” Shipman said. 

Attorneys for Delaney and Novant (who also represented Cipalla) also declined to comment, noting the case had been dismissed.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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