Accusations against teachers put school officials in tough spots

Accusations against teachers put school officials in tough spots

October 22nd, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Standing in front of the Walker County School Board, Superintendent Damon Raines speaks to an over crowded board room of more than 100 about his silence on the issue of Mike Culberson, principal of LaFayette High School. "He will return to work tomorrow," Raines said. Board members from left are, Bobby McNabb, Karen Stoker, Phyllis Hunter, Mike Carruth and Dale Wilson.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

In June 2010, a girl told a forensic interviewer her kindergarten teacher, Charles Mark McCormack, took a picture up her skirt. A prosecutor did not pursue charges, believing that the evidence wasn't strong enough, and McCormack remained in the classroom at Chattanooga Valley Elementary School.

Five years later, a female student accused McCormack of sliding his hands down her pants. The Walker County Sheriff's Office didn't pursue charges, citing a lack of physical evidence. McCormack remained in the classroom.

In May 2016, federal agents raided McCormack's Flintstone, Ga., house as part of an investigation with the national Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Agents have not released information about the raid.

After news of the search broke, although McCormack had not been charged with a crime, Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines moved him into a role at the central office, away from a classroom full of children. Raines did not know what officers were looking for; he still doesn't. But he said he made the decision "just based on the level of attention that [McCormack] was getting from the agencies involved."

McCormack, 54, retired two months later.

He now faces federal prison time after a grand jury in the Northern District of Alabama indicted him two weeks ago on a charge of sexual exploitation of children. According to an accusation filed in the case, McCormack videotaped a 5- or 6-year-old girl in his bathroom. His attorney, federal public defender Allison Case, said she could not discuss pending charges.

Asked about previous investigations into McCormack, Raines said he and other school officials are in a tough spot. When a teacher is under criminal investigation — even after police file charges — education administrators have to make choices among imperfect options, especially when the supposed crime unfolded outside of the classroom.

There are two competing interests. On the one hand, teachers are innocent until proven guilty. But at the same time, they don't work an office job; they work directly with children, sometimes unsupervised.

Walker County has no policy for handling employee arrests. So, Raines said, he makes those decisions on a case-by-case basis, trying to decide which of the two interests carries more weight.

"We don't want to jump to conclusions," he said. "We're not a criminal body. We're not trying to prove a crime or the attempt of a crime."

Raines is facing a similar problem over LaFayette High School special education teacher Sam Forrester, who has been arrested on domestic violence charges four times in seven months. Raines moved him out of the classroom after his third arrest, in September. He said he reassigned Forester because the third arrest was a felony, while the first two charges were misdemeanors.

The accuser, Forester's ex-wife, says the school system should have fired Forester after his first arrest. Forester's attorney, David Cunningham, says his client "vehemently denies" the allegations and that the charges are the ex-wife's "calculated attempts to get him fired."

Marissa Brower, a spokeswoman for the Catoosa County school system, said administrators there also run imperfect calculations in the event of an arrest. Pat Holloway, a Dalton City Schools spokeswoman, said her system officials look at each arrest individually, though they will hold termination hearings in the event of some crimes — such as an assault arrest or inappropriate contact with a child. Neither school system has an official policy for handling teacher arrests.

"We absolutely have to take allegations seriously," said Craig Goodmark, an Atlanta attorney who specializes in education justice. "But again, they have to be proven. We can't just go on accusations. People file accusations all the time."

Multiple investigations, stopped short

The charge McCormack faces now dates back two decades, but the evidence surfaced just last year.

In October 1998, McCormack was with his girlfriend in a Memphis hotel room when a videotape slipped from his briefcase. He panicked, his girlfriend later told investigators, and she became curious. She took the tape from him.

According to an accusation in U.S. District Court, McCormack had a camera in his bathroom in Muscle Shoals, Ala. Images show him staring into the lens and adjusting the camera before walking out and talking to somebody off screen. Then, according to the accusation, a girl — about 5 or 6 years old — walked in, sat down on the toilet and urinated.

After watching the video, the woman called the Muscle Shoals police. They told her to come down to the station to file a report, according to the accusation. The woman, who lived in Arkansas, said no. The accusation does not explain why. Instead, she filed the tape away.

Around the same time, McCormack, then in his mid-30s, enrolled at Alabama A&M to pursue a master's degree in elementary education. He graduated in 2002 and took his first full-time teaching job at Chattanooga Valley Elementary School, according to his personnel file.

The first criminal complaint against him came eight years later. A girl in his kindergarten class said she saw him take out his cellphone and snap a picture under her skirt. She told her mother, according to an incident report, and the mom drove to school to meet with McCormack and the school's principal at the time, Jason Pelham.

McCormack denied taking a picture. He said he had his phone out that day to get updates from his wife at his son's graduation. He showed the mom his phone, according to the incident report, and she could not find any photos of her daughter.

But the girl was adamant.

"Mr. McCormack told my mother a big fat lie," she said during a forensic interview at the Children's Advocacy Center.

According to the file, Assistant District Attorney Beth Evans said there simply was not enough evidence to pursue a case against McCormack.

The next charge came in January 2015, when a girl told her mother that McCormack fondled her by his desk. Asked by a forensic interviewer to show where she had been touched, the girl circled her chest and groin. She said McCormack had been doing this for two months.

"She also stated that this happens every day and she tells him to stop," the investigator wrote, "but he doesn't."

McCormack again denied the charges. He said the girl acted out, which the school's counselor and principal confirmed. He also showed an investigator a letter the girl wrote him, telling him she wanted to have a sleepover. A paraprofessional who worked in the classroom said she didn't see anything inappropriate between McCormack and the students, though she isn't always in the room.

Based on the set-up of the classroom, the investigator wrote, McCormack could sit in front of the girl at his desk in such a way that no one else in the room could see her. McCormack said he would take a polygraph test about the accusation. But a week later, through an attorney, he withdrew the offer.

The sheriff's office declined to pursue charges, citing a lack of physical evidence.

Raines, who was not in Walker County during the first investigation, could not remember last week whether he and other administrators considered moving McCormack out of the classroom after the 2015 allegation. Nothing in his personnel file mentions either case. And the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which investigates whether a teacher should retain his or her certificate, did not receive an ethics complaint about the accusations.

Meanwhile, after the federal agents searched McCormack's home in May 2016, the videotape resurfaced. The accusation filed in court does not explain what happened after 1998, when the girlfriend took the video from McCormack.

But in September 2016, federal investigators got their hands on it.

History in the region

Before McCormack's arrest, North Georgia was already marked by sex abuse accusations against teachers. In August 2015, a Catoosa County jury convicted former Lakeview Middle School band director Thomas Blevins of molesting a former student.

But the region's most well-known case did not lead to a conviction. In May 2008, the Catoosa County Sheriff's Office charged Chickamauga Elementary School kindergarten teacher Tonya Craft with several counts of child molestation.

A jury would later acquit her in a trial that drew national attention. But in the meantime, Craft was out of work. A school board tribunal voted to fire her.

Chickamauga City Schools Superintendent Melody Day said last week that Craft did not lose her job because of the criminal case. Craft's bond barred her from being near children. As a result, she didn't show up for work.

"It's basically like abandonment of contract," Day said.

Craft disagreed with that version of events. She said she met with Day after the arrest and was presented with two options: resign or face a tribunal. Craft said Day "strongly suggested" she resign so she wouldn't experience an embarrassing public hearing.

Craft, who now works as a consultant for criminal defendants, said Day should have granted her a temporary leave without pay while her case was pending. She said she's still disappointed in the tribunal hearing, which occurred two years before her criminal trial. She called the school board meeting "an absolute zoo."

Still, when she hears about cases like McCormack's, she admits school administrators are in a difficult position. Many teachers accused of crimes won't be acquitted like she was.

"It's absolutely a Catch-22, a double-edged sword," she said. "But I think there has to be a balance. I am scared that my case has caused people that are guilty to get off, or that victims are afraid to go forward. Or also, that people are becoming more cautious about investigating a case like this."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.


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