Attorney: DeKalb Schools using illegal interrogation tactics

The DeKalb County School District headquarters, at 1701 Mountain Industrial Blvd. in Stone Mountain (AJC FILE PHOTO)

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The DeKalb County School District headquarters, at 1701 Mountain Industrial Blvd. in Stone Mountain (AJC FILE PHOTO)

An attorney representing a handful of current and former DeKalb County School District teachers says the district violated their constitutional rights during investigations related to various alleged infractions.

Sharese Shields said she sent a cease and desist letter to Superintendent Steve Green over what she called “bullying, coercive and threatening investigative tactics” where employees often are not informed of their rights to due process. She also asked that the district end what she called a widespread practice of principals requesting written statements from employees, only to then turn over the documents to public safety officials, which violates a person’s Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Most incidents Shields cited in her letter involved the teachers’ handling of disruptive students.

“There are so many cases,” she said Tuesday. “And in each, there’s a rush to judgment. Most teachers teach because they love it, and they’re often caught off guard when a legal issue arises. They don’t know what their rights are.”

In her letter, dated Nov. 2, she took aim at the district’s departments of legal affairs and public safety, saying officials “have been willfully employing unlawful investigative tactics designed to intimidate, bully and coerce school district employees into providing statements used to later criminally prosecute them without any regard for their rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.”

“Anytime a teacher is being told she has to speak to an officer, that teacher should be told she has a constitutional right not to talk to that officer,” Shields said. “The district does not routinely do that.”

District officials said they were reviewing the information and declined to comment on it.

For some teachers, those statements they gave came back to bite them.

Jason Sewell is on administrative leave with pay from Vanderlyn Elementary School after authorities said he assaulted students in an incident on Sept. 12. He said authorities asked him questions but were not specific about the nature of the incident. Several things happened in his classroom that day, he said, including several students arguing over a door and a student who vomited in class. The interview could have been about either.

He found out it was about how he broke up an argument involving four boys over a door.

“They were guiding it,” he said of authorities who interviewed him. “They were asking questions that were so vague, like ‘Did you touch any of your students at any time during the day?’ ”

Former Shadowrock Elementary School teacher Sherri Hall could face criminal charges from an incident last winter involving a first-grade student who was injured while attempting to lock himself in a bathroom stall during a test. Hall said she put her hand up to avoid the student being able to lock it, but the stall door swung toward the student, hitting him in the head. He was taken to a nurse, and school administrators were informed.

She was contacted by an investigator from the district’s department of public safety, then placed on administrative leave. She was terminated in May after 14 years. Hall said she’s now working as a cashier.

“I felt criminalized for an accident,” she said. “What happened in my classroom with my student was an accident. It was while trying to deal with behavior. I wasn’t trying to hurt him.

“It ended up with me in a jail cell.”