In a public forum last week about the Montravious Thomas case against the Muscogee County School District, two board members alleged the administration delayed reporting the incident to the school board, downplayed its gravity and threatened to demote the assistant principal who filed a complaint with a state agency.
Frank Myers of District 8 and John Thomas of District 2 also accuse the Columbus Police Department’s lead investigator in the case of having a conflict of interest.
This controversy is part of the Muscogee County School Board’s systemic problem with governance, Myers and Thomas contend. They insist the board doesn’t exert its authority enough and allows the administration to act like the board answers to it instead of the other way around.
Montravious, then 13 years old, was injured Sept. 12, 2016, in the alternative education program called AIM (Achievement Integrity Maturity). According to the $25 million lawsuit filed in March on behalf of Montravious, contracted behavior specialist Bryant Mosley body-slammed Montravious “no less than” five times while trying to restrain him at the Edgewood Student Services Center, which houses the AIM program for students with severe violations of the district’s discipline code. Montravious’ right leg was amputated below the knee Oct. 18, a result of the abuse or negligence caused by MCSD or seven other defendants, according to the lawsuit.
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Antonio Carter, publisher and editor of Black Voices News and BlackVoicesNews.com, conducted the July 20 forum, attended by approximately 20 people in the Gallery at Fountain Park Shopping Center on Macon Road.
Since then, the Ledger-Enquirer has sought comment from the officials targeted by Myers and Thomas. Here is a summary of the allegations and responses:
Delayed and downplayed
Thomas said he and Myers “heard a rumor” about the incident, so Myers emailed superintendent David Lewis and asked whether the rumor was true.
“He did respond, saying that there had been an incident, a student had been injured, and he’d share more information with us later,” Thomas said.
“What we should be able to do is to contact the superintendent and get a straight answer, which we were not,” Myers said.
Thomas added, “We should be fully informed when we ask.”
Myers continued, “We were misled, we had information withheld from us, or we were ignored. ... This is all about arithmetic. We’ve got to get five votes before we can make change.”
Myers noted that the nine-member school board conducted a work session the evening of Sept. 12, a few hours after Montravious was injured, so the administration “had a chance to tell us right then.”
Instead, Myers and Thomas said, the administration waited until Oct. 10 to tell the board during a closed session.
“At that time, we were told that there had been an incident during a restraining,” Thomas said, “A student had been injured, that he had been up walking around. He had to go to the hospital, but they expected a full recovery. That’s what we were told in that meeting at that time.”
Thomas added, “There were comments made that were disparaging to the student and his family. … The insinuation was that they were well known to the police.”
“Blame the victim,” Myers said. “… They told such a good story, I left thinking the biggest problem we had, in terms of liability, was the delay in rendering aid to Montravious. Well, it wasn’t a delay; it was a total failure.”
Carter asked who made the comment about Montravious and his family being “well known” to the police.
“I don’t know specifically,” Myers said, “but I mean two people made the presentation: Melanie Slaton, one of the lawyers for Hall Booth, who works with (board attorney Greg) Ellington, and Dr. Lewis. They were the two providing information to the board that night.”
The Ledger-Enquirer emailed Lewis, Ellington and the board’s seven other members questions about these allegations from Myers and Thomas. Ellington replied via email on behalf of Lewis and his law firm, Hall Booth Smith.
Asked why the MCSD administration waited until a month after Montravious was injured to inform the board about the incident, Ellington said, “The full board was apprised that a student injury had occurred at AIM about two and half weeks after the incident. During those same days following the incident, the District complied with the mandatory reporter requirements, cooperated with outside investigations and was conducting its own investigation.”
Asked whether the MCSD administration and counsel downplayed the severity of Montravious’ injury and tried to cover up the incident, Ellington said, “No.”
Asked to respond to Thomas’ claim that disparaging remarks were made about the family to the board in closed session, Ellington said, “You are seeking a response to what two Board Members are publicly claiming was allegedly said in a confidential executive session. State law mandates that Board Members ‘maintain the confidentiality of all discussions and other matters pertaining to the board and the school system during executive session of the board.’ Additional confidentiality attaches to privileged communications with attorneys. That privilege belongs to the School District and cannot be waived by an individual. Beyond that, Mr. Myers’ and Mr. Thomas’ characterization of the child being disparaged is incorrect.”
Asked which state law he quoted, Ellington said in an email Saturday, “In OCGA 20-2-72 the State legislature said that by January 1, 2011 each local board shall adopt a code of ethics that includes at a minimum the state Board of Education model code of ethics. It is Domain V. 5 of the mandated Ga. BOE model code of ethics that says board members shall maintain the confidentiality.”
Naomi Buckner of District 4 and Laurie McRae of District 5 are the only board members who replied to these questions from the L-E.
Buckner said, “I am unable to answer these questions; I don’t know the answers. Dr. Lewis can best provide these answers. But, even if I knew more, I would be hesitant to answer because the matter is in litigation and I don’t believe it would be appropriate. I will say that I believe what happened to Montravious was a terrible accident and the incident has probably taken a toll on his family.
“I have no talking points and I think too much noise has been in the media, too much sensationalism. This is a real situation that the Thomas family is enduring and not just events in a saga. I think people should make effort to be respectful of this family and let the litigation take place in the courts.”
McRae said, “I was not on the board at the time of these events and have no firsthand knowledge of them, so I cannot answer/comment on what did or did not happen.”
Myers and Thomas said the administration threatened to demote Eddie Powell if he didn’t withdraw a complaint he filed with the Georgia Professional Standards Commission. Powell was the assistant principal of AIM when Montravious was injured, but Powell was in charge of the program that day because principal Reginald Griffin was absent. Powell filed the complaint against Zehra Malone, Montravious’ teacher that day, for allegedly not following protocol, they said.
Thomas called Powell “the hero of the story” for leaking the surveillance video that shows Mosley carrying Montravious to the bus, although it doesn’t show any of the confrontation in the classroom. Citing privacy laws, MCSD has refused the Ledger-Enquirer’s request to release the classroom video.
“He secured a lot of the video,” Thomas said of Powell. “Thank God for that because that’s what helped bring the truth to light.”
Powell “had not been informed of Montravious’ injury,” Thomas said. “So the first time he hears about anything serious having happened is when (Montravious’) mother shows up at the school (the next day) going, ‘What happened to my child?’”
“The school system came out with a press release that said he was walking around, not in distress,” Myers said. “Look, if there’s some evidence that supports that, I’m sure the school system would have put that out on video. I’m sorry. It was just a complete falsehood that was put out.”
Thomas said, “Eddie was put under a lot of pressure. The first thing they did was transfer him to work at the Taj Mahal (the derisive nickname for MCSD’s headquarters). He was there for a while, and he was told he was going to be demoted and that he would never work in the district again as (an assistant) principal.”
After Powell didn’t back down, Thomas said, “They said, ‘We’ll let you be an assistant principal again, but we’re going to put you on probation for a year.’ And he’s like, ‘For what?’”
Powell now is a shared assistant principal between Dorothy Height and Fox elementary schools.
Because AIM staff didn’t request medical assistance for the student and a timely report wasn’t filed to notify the administration about the incident, Powell filed a complaint with the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, Thomas said.
“After he filed the ethics report, he was threatened and told to withdraw that report,” Thomas said. “He was pressured to withdraw that report.”
Asked whether MCSD’s legal counsel threatened Powell with repercussions if he didn’t withdraw the complaint, Ellington said, “No.”
Ellington confirmed the commission remanded Powell’s complaint back to MCSD to determine whether a professional standard was violated. Asked for the status of the complaint, Ellington said, “It remains pending.”
Powell filed his complaint Sept. 19, and the commission remanded it back to MCSD Nov. 14.
Asked whether Lewis or anyone else in MCSD’s administration told Powell he was going to be demoted, Ellington said, “It is the policy of MCSD to refrain from discussing private personnel matters.”
Conflict of interest
Myers and Thomas said the Columbus Police Department’s investigation of the incident contains a conflict of interest because the CPD’s lead investigator on the Montravious case, Lt. Consuelo Askew, works part time as an MCSD school resource officer and was on duty at the AIM Program when Montravious was injured.
Myers said District Attorney Julia Slater knew about this situation when he and Thomas met Dec. 1 to discuss the case with Slater, an assistant DA, Superior Court Judge Gil McBride and two GBI agents.
“In fact,” Myers said, “my takeaway was that is the reason she asked the GBI to get involved, because it just didn’t smell right. And literally within five days, we had been contacted and cut off and the investigation was over.”
Slater told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email Thursday, “It is my recollection that in the meeting it was alleged that although the case was assigned to Lt. Askew, she was not actively investigating the incident. As District Attorney I asked the GBI to investigate the matter.”
The L-E reported Dec. 12 that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation declined Slater’s request for the GBI to investigate the Montravious case and the death of MCSD driver Roy Newman, who was killed when his replacement bus crashed into a tree on Aug. 22, 2016. GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles said then that the bureau wouldn’t investigate those cases while the Columbus Police Department is doing the same.
Askew and Lt. Clyde Dent, who has been investigating the Newman case, haven’t answered the Ledger-Enquirer’s requests for updates since February.
Myers said he or Thomas will make a motion for the school board to ask the GBI to investigate.
“Any board member who doesn’t vote to bring in the GBI under these circumstances, I mean, it seems like you could have a recall,” Myers said. “… (Former chairwoman) Cathy Williams (of District 7) and (chairwoman) Pat Hugley Green (of District 1), they won’t vote to bring in the GBI if they came in and chopped off Montravious’ other leg in the boardroom.”
Asked for the status of MCSD’s investigation of the Montravious case, Ellington said, “Discovery in the litigation is proceeding.”
Asked whether Askew leading the CPD’s investigation while being on the MCSD payroll is a conflict of interest, Ellington said, “No, but that is a question best directed to CPD.”
The Ledger-Enquirer asked Columbus Police Chief Ricky Boren that question. He told the L-E via email Friday, “Lt. Consuela Askew is a Police Officer with the Columbus Police Department. Her first and primary concern is to the Columbus Police Department and the citizens of Columbus. I do not believe that there is a conflict of interest in this case.”
As for the status of CPD’s investigation of the Montravious case, Boren said, “After communication with Lt. Askew, the case is still pending a final consultation with the District Attorney’s Office.” The CPD’s investigation of the Newman case is concluded, Boren said, “and a copy of the investigation will be available upon receiving an Open Records Request.” The Ledger-Enquirer subsequently made that request.
Carter told the Ledger-Enquirer he invited Myers and Thomas to publicly share their information and opinions about the Montravious case because “we need leaders and elected officials who are willing to step forward in tough situations and tell the truth, be transparent, let us know what’s really going on, and, in this situation, I found it’s very unique. You have two elected officials who are actually stepping up to the plate.”
Carter told the crowd that Myers and Thomas “can cry and scream and yell all they want to from the top of their lungs by themselves, but until somebody recognizes – you all, the constituents and citizens – until you all get behind them and start raising just as much hell as they’re raising, nobody’s going to pay attention. Right now, it looks like you’ve got two de facto, loose cannon, crazy school board members who want to agitate and piss off … when actually they do have factual information that really should be presented to the citizens.”
Myers explained why he and Thomas accepted Carter’s invitation.
“We don’t know where to turn next, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m here,” Myers said. “… People on the board say, ‘You haven’t followed the proper channels.’ I say, ‘Show me the rules. Show me where I have done something that I should not have done.’ Folks, if they could do it, they’d have me recalled in a heartbeat.”
Myers and Thomas, who were elected in 2014, have objected to the way the MCSD board governs as long as they’ve been members. The Montravious case is a prime example of the rift they have with the administration and the board members who, they claim, blindly back it.
“The superintendent and the school board attorney don’t understand that they work for the nine board members,” Myers said. “… They are the bosses collectively. That’s not the way the school system is run.”
Myers said the administration and board must “change the way we do business. This is not a power play. I will not be on the board forever; Dr. Lewis won’t be the superintendent forever. They’ve tried to make this to be some kind of personality conflict. It’s not; it’s an institutional problem that I’m just geeky enough to want to fix because I believe that, if we fix it, we will fix public education in Columbus and will also fix crime and we will also fix poverty. It won’t be 100 percent, but it’ll be a heck of a lot better than it is right now.”
Thomas said, “When we both were elected to be on the board, we both had every intention of fully supporting Dr. Lewis and his educational programs. And if you look back at our voting record, I would say that 90 percent of the time we have done that. But there have been other issues that don’t smell right. And so we’ve been ostracized by other members of the board. We’ve been ignored by Dr. Lewis. There’s no way to get information.”
Myers said, “The superintendent hides information from us, lies to us … and he ignores us. And that’s been going on for a couple of years. It didn’t take long to realize he wasn’t going to govern with us.”
The Ledger-Enquirer emailed those comments and characterizations to Lewis, Ellington and the seven other board members. No board members replied, but Lewis and Ellington did respond via email Friday night.
“I categorically deny these allegations from Mr. Myers and Mr. Thomas,” Lewis said. “Mr. Myers and Mr. Thomas have made these allegations before and the District has previously provided information to the Ledger that shows the falsity of such allegations. For example, it has been verified and documented by the MCSD Information Services Department that Mr. Myers and Mr. Thomas have both received all email communications sent from the Superintendent’s Office to the collective Board.”
Ellington addressed the governance issue by citing Policy 1.4 of the Georgia School Boards Association:
“A local board of education governs by legislatively enacting policies and by making executive and judicial decisions. Most importantly, the local board wisely and carefully selects a competent superintendent of schools to manage the day-to-day business of the school district, subject to the board’s rules, policies, decisions and its oversight. Governance of local school districts is a shared responsibility. The superintendent is the chief educator and professional advisor to the board. He or she serves as a chief executive officer to the school district and is responsible for implementing and enforcing state and federal law, the rules and regulations of all state and federal agencies affecting local school districts and the policies and decisions of the local board. The governance scheme in Georgia is predicated upon a close, professional relationship between the board and superintendent, one of mutual trust and confidence.”
“Mr. Myers’ characterization of the governance structure of Georgia school districts is inaccurate,” Ellington said. “Georgia law establishes a governance structure for the operation of local school districts. The Superintendent and the Board both have defined roles.”