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DeKalb principal’s arrest shines light on district’s hiring practices

Towers High School Principal LaKeisha Griffith is currently on administrative leave. She was charged in December with theft by conversion and fourth-degree forgery after police said she wrote her name on a money order meant for Towers High School. The case is among many recent instances where the district’s hiring practices have been questioned.

When LaKeisha Griffith first applied for a job with the DeKalb County School District 15 years ago, she answered a series of questions about whether she had ever run afoul of the law, been accused of unprofessional conduct or subjected to disciplinary actions.

Each time, she answered no.

In July 2004 — five months before she applied to the school district — the Atlanta Police Department had terminated her employment and arrested her on financial identity theft charges.

According to her personnel record, she began working in a DeKalb classroom, a career change that would see her rise through the ranks to principal. When she was charged in December with theft by conversion and fourth-degree forgery after police said she wrote her name on a money order meant for Towers High School, her most recent assignment, it looked like a past coming back to haunt her.

The case is among many recent instances where the district’s hiring practices have been questioned.

Griffith, who is still on administrative leave with pay, did not respond to a request for comment. District officials declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

According to Griffith’s personnel file, she began with the district sometime between 2004 and 2006, either as a student-teacher, a certified teacher or a long-term substitute just two months after she was fired from the Atlanta Police Department in September 2004, and five months before she filled out the first job application in her personnel file.

According to an Atlanta Police investigation into allegations against Griffith, she used a fake name to place a $700 order online at Lowe’s Home Improvement using a SWAT team member’s credit card.

“But she used her real name and Georgia driver’s license number when she picked up the items from the store,” the investigator wrote.

The Fulton County District Attorney’s Office confirmed that her case was handled under the First Offender Act, which means she wasn’t convicted, and her record was expunged after she complied with the judge’s orders, but after she applied to work with the DeKalb County School District.

DeKalb personnel records indicate Griffith likely worked as a teacher from August 2006 to August 2012, when she took a role as a Title I coordinator at McNair High School, her alma mater. According to records, she left the district in 2013 to become an assistant principal in Fulton County. After several job changes, she returned to the DeKalb County School District in 2016 as an assistant principal. She was assigned as principal at Towers High School in July 2018.

In 2015, when Griffith reapplied for work with Dekalb County Schools, she said she had worked for “Atlanta City Government” from May 2002 to June 2005. She listed her direct supervisor as then-Police Chief Richard Pennington. When asked if she wanted the district to use her former employer as a reference, she selected no, according to her personnel file.

An APD spokesperson confirmed Griffith was hired in December 2003, but terminated in July 2004 following the internal investigation.

Caren Goldberg, an employment and human resources expert witness and consultant based in Virginia, said companies often have written hiring policies that are more an ideal way of handling the employee recruitment process, but may neglect some steps while vetting a potential candidate.

“I would hope, in the case of people dealing with minors on a daily basis, a thorough background check was being done,” she said.

She suggested a poorly performed background check could have missed the pending charges against Griffith.

“It’s hard to imagine a background check would not have caught (the termination and subsequent criminal charges), especially in the same state,” she said. “(or) did it so poorly that somehow that was missed. How that fell through the cracks, I don’t know.”

Griffith was placed on administrative leave in September, just over a month into her second year at the school. In December, when her charges were announced, the district said in a statement that financial irregularities were first discovered by auditors after someone complained of financial discrepancies.

“The (DeKalb County School District) Police Department conducted an investigation into the matter and, as a result, an arrest warrant for the charges of forgery in the fourth degree and theft by conversion has been issued,” the statement said.

Griffith is just the latest example of personnel difficulties that have caused district leaders to question the integrity of its hiring practices, including:

• A man hired in 2018 who subsequently walked off the job and was allowed to resign several months later.

• A woman hired as a math teacher in 2017 after being fired elsewhere for allegations that she had physically assaulted students.

• A woman hired as a substitute teacher in 2018 after being forced to retire in late 2017 amid allegations she threatened to call immigration officials on a classroom of Hispanic children.

“When you’re hiring someone, it’s like it’s by any means necessary of doing a background check,” DeKalb County Board of Education member Joyce Morley said. “It has to be forward, comprehensive and panoramic. If it means waylaying or stopping that process til you get everything you need? And checking references and not having internal recommendations? That’s where you have to be careful of the quid pro quos and the nepotism and all that.”

In 2017, then-Superintendent Steve Green said the district’s hiring procedures would be undergoing a modernizing overhaul, which called for human resources employees completing internet searches on prospective candidates, as well as connecting with references and past employers. Officials were to provide training on interview tips and annual safety awareness training for some HR employees.

He also attributed weaknesses in the district’s hiring process to efforts to recruit and attract people to the district.

“On the one hand, there’s a strong push to aggressively recruit and attract staff,” he said then. “There’s a campaign to ratchet up the supply of talent. But you draw attention from a variety of different types.”

There were no repercussions for the hiring woes, said Morley, who added that needs to change.

“Who are we holding accountable for these people who keep slipping through the cracks,” Morley said. “Or are they not really slipping through the cracks?”