State Department begins investigation of Selma City Schools

Published 11:48 pm Thursday, June 20, 2013

Led by two state investigators, the Alabama Department of Education began an investigation of the Selma City School System this week — an investigation which came after the department received numerous reports, expressions of concern and requests for assistance regarding allegations of inappropriate, sexual behavior between teachers and students within the city’s school system.

In a letter to Selma City Schools Superintendent Gerald Shirley, dated June 13, Alabama State Superintendent Dr. Tommy Bice explained that his office has been made aware of the allegations of inappropriate sexual activity involving Selma City School employees and students during school hours, at school-sponsored events and on school property

“If substantiated, these allegations would present serious concerns regarding the adequacy of school supervision, discipline and governance,” Bice wrote. “In any case, these allegations implicate sufficient risks to the welfare of Selma students to warrant invocation of the State Superintendent’s statutory authority to investigate their validity and impact on educational conditions in Selma’s schools.”

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Again, Selma City Schools Superintendent Gerald Shirley did not respond to multiple requests for comment made by the Times-Journal.

Bice included in his letter, which was also sent to Selma City School Board president Henry Hicks Sr., members of the school board, Selma School Board attorney, Katy Campbell, members of the Alabama State Board of Education and Dr. Craig Pouncey, chief of staff of the Alabama State Department of Education, an explanatory description of how the investigation would take place.

Bice wrote that two investigators from the state department have been sent to investigate the city’s school system to determine the validity of the allegations, noting that Dr. Pouncey would be overseeing the investigation on his behalf.

“Those were concerns that were brought to the state department’s attention by multiple sources, and we just felt like it was significant enough that we had to go in and at least review a number of the rumors that were flying around town,” Pouncey said. “I think it’s important that on behalf of the state superintendent that we do everything within our power to reassure parents that students, regardless of where they go to school or how old they are, have a safe environment with which to attend school and one they feel secure in.”

State School Board president pro tem and representative for District 5, which includes Selma, Ella Bell said she too received numerous calls from concerned parents in Selma as well as a copy of the petition for the Selma City School Board to reconsider conducting an investigation.

“I am very appreciative of Dr. Bice to move this investigation forward, because I think there’s nothing like offering our parents a sense of assurance that the state board is absolutely on point when it comes to making sure that all of our students are safe,” Bell said. “With the complaints that we have received and with the indictment that has been recently made, I think that in order to make sure all of our parents feel comfortable sending their children to school … an investigation was probably the best thing to do.”

Pouncey confirmed that the investigation is already underway and said the investigators are in no way affiliated with the Selma City School System.

To help ensure the integrity and thoroughness of the investigation, Bice said all records pertaining to this investigation should be turned over to the investigators. “I specifically request and direct that all records, reports, files or documents of any kind (regardless of the form in which they may be held or stored) that constitute or pertain to any charge or internal investigation regarding alleged or suspected sexual misconduct on the part of any school system employees, be secured and made available to the investigation team upon its request,” Bice wrote. “No such records or documents are to be removed, disposed of, destroyed, deleted, redacted or modified in any way.”

Pouncey said the investigation is not constrained to any sort of timeline, noting the investigators plan to take all the time they need to discover the truth behind the allegations.

“Our investigators are talking with people from within the community as well as employees of the board to make a determination as to whether some of these allegations that have been brought forth are factual or not,” Pouncey said. “If they are — has there been proper administrative oversight over the actions of these adults, and, or have the students been subjected to any form of mistreatment in any way?”

Selma City School Board president Henry Hicks encouraged residents to cooperate with the investigators and to come forward with any evidence they may have.

Pouncey agreed, noting if the investors find anything of criminal nature it will be forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement agency, and if they determine any negligence on the part of an employee it will be forwarded to the department for consideration for action against someone’s teaching certificate.

Pouncey said if residents have any information that could aid in the investigation to contact the State Department of Education’s chief lawyer, Larry Craven at (334) 242-1899, and emphasized that any information shared with Craven would remain strictly confidential.