The Aug. 28 incident involving Portal Elementary School physical education teacher James Parker – against whom all criminal charges have been dismissed – and a young student was the one that her family’s attorney, Francys Johnson, spoke about publicly Jan. 20.
That day during the NAACP’s local Martin Luther King Jr. Day community service, Johnson called the student and her parents in front of a capacity crowd inside the Elm Street Church of God. He voiced criticisms of the school system, especially Superintendent Charles Wilson, and also of the district attorney’s office over their handling of the matter.
The Statesboro Herald decided not to name her or a second young student involved in the warrant applications, although both were identified in multiple documents and testified in Magistrate Court.
After Senior Judge Michael Karpf on Feb. 19 found no probable cause for charges, he gave Johnson until the following Monday, Feb. 23, to file something related to previous restraining orders, now expired, in the case.
“At this point, the legal case is over,” Johnson wrote in a Feb. 24 reply email to the Herald. “However, as Judge Karpf said, this is a matter left to Charles Wilson and the school board. They will have to reckon with the personnel disciplinary decisions (that) have no rhyme or reason.”
After Johnson went on to accuse the superintendent of “arbitrary and capricious decisions,” the newspaper informed Wilson and requested his response. In the email to Wilson, the reporter also noted Karpf’s opinion that the PES incident had been “blown out of proportion.”
Jan. 17 letter
During the hearing, Johnson made repeated reference to a letter, which Wilson and PES Principal Dr. Carolyn Vasilatos sent out to Portal Elementary parents Jan. 17, after the district attorney dismissed the original charges that week.
“All local and state education and law enforcement entities who investigated the case thoroughly, each dismissed the complaint due to lack of evidence of physical assault,” the administrators stated in the letter.
Without mentioning Parker by name, they referred to him as a “faculty member with a 16-year record of service as an educator with no previous complaints or reprimands of physical abuse of a student.”
The letter also stated that while the parents and their legal representation had a right to further court proceedings, the public did not have the right to infringe on the rights of students or faculty members or to commit “defamation, slander or libel.”
Interviewed after his Jan. 20 remarks, Johnson said this letter angered him and prompted him to “go public.”
“I believe the young student and her eye witnesses,” he said in his email last week. “What she experienced should never happen again.”
He said he understood the principal was working with the parents of his two young clients to ensure they had no further contact with Parker.
“That’s really all the parents wanted,” Johnson wrote. “The (school) district told these parents they had no options. …”
He also said it was an unusual case for him because he normally is involved in defending teachers “against arbitrary and capricious decisions of Charles Wilson. …”
In his response, Wilson said he agreed with the judge’s opinion that the matter had been “blown out of proportion.”
“In his pursuit of blowing things out of proportion, Mr. Johnson obfuscated the facts surrounding the matter at hand, unduly attacked employees of the school system, and created ill-will toward our schools, particularly at a time when the safety of our schools and students as well as the need for responsible role modeling for others is paramount,” Wilson wrote. “Why anyone would behave in such a way is a riddle but it is fair to say that Mr. Johnson's behavior speaks for itself.”
Wilson said that Johnson had attempted to “criminalize” Parker’s actions after previous charges were dismissed by the district attorney and county solicitor, only to have them dismissed again by a judge.
“It seems clear from all of this that if anyone has been arbitrary and capricious, it has been Francys Johnson,” Wilson said.
He also said he stood behind the content of the Jan. 17 letter, but that “for technical purposes” he wanted “to clarify that all agencies were notified but none chose to investigate further based upon lack of evidence to proceed.”
The Herald also asked him about an apparent contrast between school system’s handling of the Parker case and that of Julia P. Bryant Elementary School music teacher Thomas Sye, who did not face criminal allegations but did go to a fair-dismissal hearing.
After Sye was reported to have pulled a kindergarten child by the hand to an assistant principal’s office for discipline Jan. 17, administrators met with Sye the next week and Wilson recommended termination of his contract. But after hearing from witnesses Feb. 11, the Bulloch County Board of Education rejected the recommendation and allowed Sye to return to work.
Wilson said that due process worked in both instances.
“The board heard the evidence of this administration's decision regarding Mr. Sye, and then duly overturned our decision based upon lack of evidence,” he wrote. “Not only did due process work like it should, the board's decision affirmed expectations regarding the level of evidence needed for termination, which validates the appropriate nature of how this administration handled Mr. Parker's situation. We have always been committed to fair and consistent treatment of our employees and students, and will continue to do so.”