Parents at Chamblee Middle School knew who Sandra Meeks-Speller was before the first day of school.
One searched the teacher online and uncovered stories from Ohio, where Meeks-Speller unsuccessfully fought her firing by Toledo Public Schools all the way up to the Ohio Supreme Court. She had been accused of assaulting students by putting them in headlocks and pushing them against walls. Ohio’s top court upheld her firing, but she kept her license to teach there.
DeKalb County Schools placed Meeks-Speller on administrative leave on Oct. 10 pending an internal investigation, shortly after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution requested her personnel file, and told district officials what was uncovered online about her past.
District officials admit failing to do such internet searches is among critical gaps in their background check process, and promise changes such as verifying the work history candidates provide on their job applications and making direct contact with references.
“Our background check process certainly needs shoring up,” Superintendent Steve Green said. “We need to keep up with the times for ways there are to get information. In the old days, if you were cleared to teach in Ohio, you would be cleared to teach here.”
Green admits the district erred with Meeks-Speller and said efforts will begin to modernize how recruits are researched. In addition, district officials said in an email Wednesday they would provide training sessions on interview tips, contacting boards where candidates are licensed and providing annual safety awareness training for some human capital management employees.
“On the one hand, there’s a strong push to aggressively recruit and attract staff,” he said. “There’s a campaign to ratchet up the supply of talent. But you draw attention from a variety of different types.”
Other recent personnel troubles include an administrator recently removed from her relatively new position and a teacher moved several times already this school year after being accused of inappropriately touching students.
Board of Education member Stan Jester says the district’s “human capital management department remains an obstacle to the academic success of the district.
“Compared to other nearby districts, DeKalb’s hiring processes are done too late and are too centralized, while lacking careful vetting procedures,” he said. “By the time DeKalb gets back to teachers, the best ones have already been hired by other districts.”
Jester has said previously that more needs to be done to weed out longtime employees who advance without earning it.
In the Meeks-Speller case, she was still certified to teach in Ohio and DeKalb district officials said they trusted that. Toledo Public Schools officials have said they reported her to the Ohio Department of Education, which handles license issues, for misconduct that included being physically violent with students. Ohio Department of Education officials did not respond to calls for comment.
According to several DeKalb principals, the district’s human capital management division performs a routine check on teaching candidates, which could include checking references and verifying active certifications. But principals are given carte blanche in selecting who works at their school, so long as they are certified.
Personnel problems aren’t limited to teachers. Just in the past two weeks, two DeKalb principals have been taken out of their jobs.
On Oct. 20, Tamra Watts was removed as Tucker High School’s principal and reassigned after several parents and employees spoke out during the DeKalb Board of Education’s meeting in October about issues with her leadership and potential misconduct. District officials said an incident led to Watts’ removal, but would not elaborate.
District officials also acknowledged Tuesday that Myron Broome was removed as Mary McLeod Bethune Middle School’s principal on Oct. 19 They said it was related to an off-campus incident but would not elaborate.
A teacher was removed from an elementary school and reassigned twice after students said he inappropriately touched them shortly after the school year began in August. He was suspended for several days without pay during the 2016-2017 school year after similar reports from students. An investigation on the allegations this year started by DeKalb Schools’ public safety department was closed and referred to the district’s office of legal affairs.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is not naming the teacher because he has not been charged with a crime.
Although Green made human resources a priority when he became superintendent two years ago, DeKalb has continually dealt with personnel issues since then, mostly instances where employees have dragged a checkered history behind them as they are transferred or promoted within the district. In 2016, Lakeside High School’s former principal Jason Clyne resigned after telling custodial staffers, mostly workers of color, during a meeting that he, Clyne, was “master of that plantation.” An investigation after that found Clyne previously had been accused of changing grades and sexual harassment. None of the investigations was complete, though.
When Green arrived in 2015 he said that improving the district’s human resources department was vital to ensure the best candidates were hired. But three people have led the department since then.They include Leo Brown, who had previously worked with Green at his previous school district in Missouri. Brown was hired in January 2016, and school board members immediately began to question how hiring was taking place for teachers, nurses and other critical positions.
Brown disappeared from district offices nearly three months before the district addressed his absence, saying he’d been dealing with health issues. He returned shortly after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began writing about his disappearance, but was demoted to a position as a compliance officer in the operations division.
Lisa Harris, one of a group of parents who crafted a letter to the district about Meeks-Speller, said she was worried about the integrity of the district and the quality of its hires, since DeKalb officials let the teacher’s easily found history to slip past them.
“The level of care and concern of the DeKalb (human capital management) department seems to be seriously lacking, if they’re not doing things as simple as a Google search before they’ve extended an offer to hire someone,” Harris said. “The fact that they don’t look for that stuff on the front end puts the district in a place of liability”