Duval County Public Schools has received notice from two law firms about potential lawsuits over misconduct allegations at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, according to district attorney Ray Poole.
“At least two claims are out there that we can expect to see,” Poole told the School Board Tuesday. “What I have to say I’m wording carefully with that in mind.”
One of the law firms, McGrath Gibson, tells Jacksonville Today the family it represents hasn’t decided whether to sue, but the firm filed a notice with the district to keep the option open under a Florida law that requires a six-month notification period before suing a government agency for certain claims.
In anticipation of lawsuits, the school district plans to hire an outside law firm to look into possible “systemic” problems.
“My immediate interest is in knowing from a legal standpoint, are there any missteps by the district?” board member Lori Hershey said Tuesday.
The revelation of two potential lawsuits came during a School Board workshop Tuesday on unrelated business.
Douglas Anderson has been the center of a growing controversy in recent weeks, after the arrest of vocal teacher Jeffrey Clayton on charges of lewd conduct with a student.
Shortly after his arrest, the district stated that “additional reports and allegations” prompted a “comprehensive investigation of the matter in addition to our normal investigation regarding the arrested employee.”
About a week later, another employee from the school was removed from the classroom for unspecified reasons and “out of an abundance of caution,” according to a message principal Tina Wilson sent to parents.
Then, during the public comment portion of last week’s School Board meeting, some alumni and teachers alleged that school administrators had ignored misconduct complaints about Clayton for years.
“We have a bigger issue here than just one vocal director’s arrest,” Douglas Anderson alumna Shyla Jenkins told the board last week. “This is a toxic culture that has been allowed for decades to go unchecked.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, no lawsuits about Douglas Anderson had been filed in Duval County courts. Florida law requires pre-suit notices to all parties, so civil suits on the matter likely wouldn’t be filed until September.
Looking into ‘systemic’ issues
The district has filed complaints about Clayton with the state’s Office of Professional Standards and Florida Commission on Ethics about employee misconduct — but those investigations center on the individual’s actions, Poole says. An outside attorney would look at the district level.
“What I think is that it would need to be more systemic: When did we know? When should we have known? What do we do about it?” the district’s attorney told the School Board on Tuesday.
He added that hiring an outside attorney would keep certain investigatory materials outside the public record. “It would enable you to know, while at the same time, it would be privileged from public consumption,” Poole told the board.
In an statement emailed to Jacksonville Today about why it’s hiring outside counsel, a district spokesperson wrote, “Given the nature of the investigation, independent oversight is beneficial to the inherent trust in the process.”
Poole recommended one legal firm during Tuesday’s meeting, but School Board members requested that Jacksonville’s Office of General Counsel consider multiple legal firms to avoid appearances of conflict of interest.
“I don’t want there to be any idea with the public that we are trying to cover anything up,” board member Charlotte Joyce said.
District on notice
McGrath Gibson Law – the firm representing the family involved in the criminal claims against Clayton – is one of the law firms that notified the district of a potential claim.
When asked about the district’s plan to hire outside counsel to investigate Douglas Anderson, attorney Brad Gibson said, “Many times, these investigations are performed to kind of circle the wagons and attempt to limit fallout of the bad actors.”
“Time will tell as to whether the [district’s] investigation will shine the light on what occurred or set up roadblocks to get to the truth,” Gibson said.
Duval Schools has asked anyone who would like to assist with its investigation to contact the district’s head of professional standards, Tameiko Grant, at GrantT1@duvalschools.org.
Gibson’s firm – which specializes in personal injury – has set up an email tip line for its investigation at DA@learnyourrights.com.
Gibson says Douglas Anderson teachers, students and alumni should consider whose interests each attorney is representing when deciding whom to speak to.
“When you’re speaking to the district or you’re speaking to the attorneys for the district, they’re representing the school and the school district and all of those individuals,” Gibson said. “To me, it kind of reeks of conflict of interest.”
In an statement emailed to Jacksonville Today, the district wrote, “A thorough investigation and exploration of accountability is the primary objective.”
Proposed policy changes
During a workshop Wednesday, the board also discussed modifying its “fraternization with students” policy. Poole told board members that changing the policy now — which would be considered a “subsequent remedial measure” — can’t be used against the district in court as an admission of prior wrongdoing.
“That frees the board up to take action without worrying about an attorney beating us over the head with that,” Poole says.
The current policy prohibits sexual or romantic contact with students or “having a relationship with a student that is harmful to the student’s mental and/or physical health and/or safety.” Violating the policy is grounds for firing.
School Board members discussed shoring up guidelines about administrative notification, investigation and follow-through when someone reports violations of the policy.
The discussion on potential changes continues. They would go before the public for comment and a board vote before taking effect.