Child abusers beware

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 3, 2004

J.L. Chestnut, attorney in a civil case filed against the county school system, says there are more cases of sexual misconduct in area schools and perpetrators should be ready because the law is coming after them.

“We are looking at a whole series of cases that could possibly involve other folks,” Chestnut said last week after arranging a plea agreement with former Southside Vice Principal John Harris.

Harris pled guilty to a lesser charge of misdemeanor sexual misconduct. The three felony sex abuse charges were held, not dismissed.

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If Harris ever works with children again, the charges will be re-instated. He also received a suspended sentence of a year in jail and placed on two years’ probation.

“If he violates that he not only goes to jail the other charges are reinstituted,” Chestnut said.

Harris isn’t the only former local educator to face these kinds of charges.

Back in June, former Shiloh Elementary teacher, Tipton Middle School Principal and Craig Elementary teacher Harold Kynard was acquitted of sexually abusing one fifth-grade girl.

He faced another charge for a different girl, but the jury was hung in that case.

Since the verdict, Kynard has been charged with three counts of sexually abusing young girls while working in the Dallas County

School system.

Those charges are currently pending.

“I expect more cases to come out, not merely out of the county school system, but the city school system as well,” Chestnut said. “We are not through here by a long shot.”

Dallas County Schools Superintendent Wayne May is unable to comment on specifics because of the pending civil case filed against the school system, Harris and others.

However, he did refer to a 2003 press release that outlined the school system’s policy in dealing with sexual abuse cases.

“This administration takes seriously its obligations to provide a safe school environment,” May said in the statement. “Under Alabama Law the Board of Education is required to provide notice of any claim or claims of abuse to the following agencies 1) Department of Human Resources 2) Sheriff Department 3) District Attorney’s Office. As Superintendent of Education, I also make direct contact with our Board Attorney and each Board Member in order to inform them of said claim along with the steps I am initiating for the investigation.

Upon receipt of a report of abuse, this administration provides immediate notification to the Department of Human Resources, the Sheriff Department, School Board Attorney and each School Board Member.

In the notification I personally request DHR and the Sheriff Department to investigate all claims.

Each department is provided with all information and resources that I have at my disposal.

Claims of abuse require immediate attention.

DHR and the Sheriff Department investigate to determine if criminal charges should be filed against the employee.

The Board, however, investigates to determine if the employee should be terminated.”

Since 1999, the state has decertified three teachers in the county school system, including Kynard and Harris, according to a state department of education list.

“This list shows the Department of Education is continually stepping up efforts to make sure unsuitable teachers are not in classrooms,” May said in 2003.

The plea bargain agreement is crucial because, while it allows Harris to avoid any jail time, it opens the door for the civil case to begin.

A judge had ruled Harris couldn’t be deposed in the civil case until after the criminal one had been completed. The judge said it would be a violation of Harris’ Fifth Amendment rights.

Chestnut said the prosecution of the Harris case and the Kynard case should be viewed as a warning to anyone tempted to commit crimes against children.

“People who engage in this sort of conduct ought to be aware of how far it reaches,” Chestnut said. “This agreement protects the children. The state of Alabama will protect the children in school, at home and at play. A civilized society protects the young and the elderly.”

Chestnut said the civil case could result in property seizures and other actions against Harris.

Back in 2003, well before Harris had even been charged, May stressed the board had followed proper procedure in the case.

“The Board wants the public to understand it reports and investigates every claim of abuse,” May said. “These procedures were followed in the case of Mr. Harris, and are consistent with procedures followed for every claim of abuse received during this administration.”

Chestnut stressed that constant vigilance is necessary.

“I don’t know what it is, but it seems that some people with these problems seek out certain kinds of jobs, because it gives them access,” Chestnut said. “The problems are always there and you have to be always watching it.”