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DA declines to prosecute SRCA interim director

DA declines to prosecute SRCA interim director

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of stories on Haywood County’s public charter school, Shining Rock Classical Academy, which has been beset by a host of academic and organizational problems since opening in 2015.

Two weeks after holding an illegal meeting to dismiss parent grievances against Shining Rock Classical Academy Interim Head of School Joshua Morgan, the charter school’s board found itself facing questions from parents who want to know what, exactly, is going on at the troubled school. 

“I guess it’s been a tumultuous year and I’d like to know where were are from a board perspective, and number two, the plans for going forward,” said John LaFata during the June 19 regular board meeting, held at the school. “Teacher attrition and stability, I think that’s really important.”

Shining Rock is currently searching for its third head of school in less than four years, and Morgan had emerged as a leading candidate for the job just before three women filed grievances against him May 8 alleging he used improper disciplinary practices on their children.

The hiring process was put on hold until Shining Rock’s board-appointed attorney, David Hostetler, was able to present the results of his investigation into the grievance allegations.

In accord with Hostetler’s recommendations, Shining Rock’s Governance Committee dismissed those grievances during a June 6 meeting that failed to comply with all of the state’s public meeting laws because the required 48-hour meeting notice was not emailed to the school’s “sunshine list,” which includes local media outlets. Hostetler said the board did however post the meeting on the school’s website and posted a physical notice on the school building.

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LaFata’s questions to the board came before it was learned that founding board member and current finance director Tara Keilberg would not return to the school once her contract expires June 30. Keilberg’s departure also leaves unfulfilled a comprehensive public records request made April 30 by The Smoky Mountain News for documents related to the school’s financial condition.

LaFata’s questions also came just after Kelsey Stamps, a former teacher at the school, voiced her displeasure at not being offered a contract for the coming year. 

“I am not here for myself. I need no validation from SRCA, its board, or Joshua Morgan. When I arrived in January [2019], 7 percent of my students were on grade level. By the end of May, those numbers had jumped to 77 percent, the highest in kindergarten,” said Stamps, who’d rushed from Brooklyn, New York, where she was interviewing at other schools, to speak at the meeting. “I had two satisfactory observations. I never needed admin for assistance with behavior. I was praised for leading my team. Based on data, and the feedback I received, I was meeting or exceeding expectations. Mr. Morgan chose not to extend my contract.”

Stamps, who’s taught in charter schools for almost 15 years, said she had no idea why she wasn’t asked to return to the taxpayer-funded school, which has seen academic progress drop in each of the three school years for which performance data are available; the school’s scores are now below the state average, and well below those of Haywood County Schools, which is in the top 11 percent in the state. 

“Due to his assumed position as the next leader of SRCA, this decision and how it was handled would give me pause as a parent, staff member, community member and certainly as a board member,” she said. “My support for my students and families was honest and genuine. My support of Morgan was done out of fear. My praise of SRCA was done out of fear. My support of Samantha Crawford was done out of fear. My opinions haven’t changed. Now, I no longer speak from a place of fear. SRCA is a school of choice. Families deserve the right to be able to make an informed choice.”

The Smoky Mountain News has continued to question SRCA officials on how the process to find a new director is going, but hasn’t received any communication from the new Board Chairwoman Michelle Haynes. Haynes has requested to answer questions via email instead of in person or over the phone, but she has yet to respond to a June 19 email containing a number of questions about the June 6 illegal meeting, the hiring process and the school’s finances, among other things. [see page 8].

“I am wondering about the progress of finding a new director, what the enrollment numbers are this year, how the test scores are and why this wasn’t put on Facebook or text message,” said Shining Rock parent Dara Alweiss during the meeting. “I got a text message about going to Spiderman [an out-of-school event] downtown, but … how many parents know that this is going on? I think that should be discussed — transparency.” 

Board members didn’t directly address the June 6 findings of the Governance Committee during its regular June 19 meeting, but board member Jason Moody did ask Haynes if meeting notices were posted on the school’s Facebook page.

“No,” Haynes told him, adding that meeting notices are posted on the school website’s calendar as well as physically posted on the building where the meetings take place, per state law. 

However, Haynes mentioned nothing about the sunshine email Shining Rock’s attorney said “doesn’t appear” to have been sent out. 

Another parent, Erin Norman, said during the public comment session of the meeting that her child was recently bullied at Shining Rock after she’d spoken up in defense of Morgan, back in May. 

That’s perhaps a testament to the controversy surrounding the embattled Morgan, who certainly has his defenders, but has also been the subject of former colleagues’ wider allegations of anger management issues beyond the grievances filed against him. 


No charges against Morgan

One of those grievances, filed by parent Kelley Messer, also became the subject of a Waynesville Police Department investigation.  The police department sent its findings to District Attorney Ashley Hornsby Welch, but a June 20 press release from Welch’s office stated that her office would not be prosecuting Morgan due to a lack of probable cause. 

“On May 14, 2019, the District Attorney’s Office in Waynesville, NC was contacted by a parent of a child enrolled at Shining Rock Classical Academy, located at 1023 Dellwood Road. This parent had been referred to our office by the magistrate because she had sought a warrant charging Joshua Morgan, the Interim Head of School, with assault upon her child. She alleged that this event occurred on April 23, 2019,” the press release stated. “By law, a magistrate may not issue criminal process against a school employee for an offense that occurred while that employee was discharging the duties of his or her employment without express written approval of the District Attorney.”

To decide whether or not charges were appropriate, the DA’s office requested a “full and complete investigation” by the Waynesville Police Department on the same day Messer contacted the DA.

On June 14, Welch received the results of the investigation from the WPD, including “a forensic video interview of the child, a video interview of Mr. Morgan, an interview of the child’s parent, written statements from other persons at the school who had been present and a copy of surveillance videos, the grievance filed by the parent, the school’s policy manual, various emails and photographic evidence. The investigation was exhaustive and detailed,” reads the release. 

Upon review of the evidence, Welch determined that there was insufficient probable cause to charge Morgan with a crime. 

“Surveillance video and witness statements show the child disobeying his teacher, and thereafter Mr. Morgan, after refusing to participate in a class setting and refusing to go the principal’s office. Mr. Morgan admits and surveillance video shows that Mr. Morgan used a reasonable amount of force and physical restraint to move the child from a class room to the principal’s office,” the release said. “There is no evidence of injury or excessive force.”

N.C. law declares that school personnel may use “reasonable force” to control behavior or to remove a person from a scene when necessary to correct a student’s behavior and to maintain order in the classroom, among other reasons. Moreover, the law allows the use of physical restraint “as reasonably needed” to escort a student safely from one area to another.

“The investigation shows that the child refused to leave a classroom to go to the office and that Mr. Morgan used a reasonable amount of force and physical restraint to move the child from that classroom to the office, and such force was not excessive,” concludes Welch’s release. “Such conduct is justified under current law. As such, probable cause does not exist to charge Mr. Morgan with assault.”

Messer said June 24 that she was considering further legal action against Shining Rock and Morgan, and that she would consult an attorney “to see if there is anything that can be done.”

Now that it’s clear Morgan won’t be charged or sanctioned due to the accusations, grievances and investigations into his alleged conduct, some in attendance at the June 19 meeting expected the board would hire him to assume the head of school role vacated by Nathan Duncan in February after allegations of sexual harassment resulted in his termination. But after a 45-minute closed session, Haynes said the board had taken no action. 

Repeated emails to Haynes asking about the hiring process and projected timeline went unanswered.


Shining Rock calls special meeting for Thursday

Shining Rock Classical Academy’s Board of Directors will hold a special called meeting at 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 27 at the school, 1023 Dellwood Road, in Waynesville. 

According to a corrected announcement emailed by the school on June 25, the meeting’s only agenda item is a closed session per N.C. General Statue 143-318.11(a)(6), which involves the discussion of personnel matters. 

Shining Rock’s head of school position remained vacant as of press time, but the closed session June 27 could result in some sort of action being taken. 

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