Fulton school finalist bows out; handling of rape case drew fire

Timeline, Fulton County school superintendent changes

April 16 - Superintendent Robert Avossa is chosen by Palm Beach County Schools in Florida as its new leader. A search to replace him begins.

Jan. 7 - Three Cedar Shoals High School (Clarke County, Ga.) students allegedly rape a 15-year-old girl student. Police investigate. The three suspects remain in class for three weeks.

Jan. 30 and Feb. 2 - The three suspects are arrested.

Feb. 5 - Fulton County names Philip Lanoue, the Clarke County superintendent, as its sole finalist.

Feb. 4 - The Athens Banner-Herald reports the alleged rape and arrests, which creates an angry response from the community.

Feb. 24 - Lanoue withdraws as the sole candidate for Fulton County schools.

The educator Fulton County chose to be its next school superintendent has withdrawn as a candidate amid criticism over how his administration handled the alleged rape of a Clarke County high school student.

Philip Lanoue, who has been school superintendent in Athens since 2009, is no longer in the running to lead Fulton, Georgia’s fourth-largest school system with close to 95,000 students.

When reached by phone by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Wednesday, Lanoue declined to comment or say if he was withdrawing because of the fallout from the reported rape at a high school.

He announced his decision Wednesday morning in an email to Clarke County parents, teachers and other district stakeholders: “After much reflection, and in consult with my family and the CCSD administrative team, I have come to a decision that home — here in Clarke County — is where I need to be.

“These past few weeks have been incredibly difficult, and it’s clear to me that while we have made incredible strides, there is still much to be done. This community is one that rallies behind its schools, in good times and in bad. Again, this is where I want and need to be.”

A statement Fulton schools released said, “We thank Dr. Lanoue for his interest and wish him well. Our school board is moving forward. We have a number of highly qualified candidates.”

Lanoue was named Fulton's sole finalist Feb. 5. He was to start the job May 1. He would have succeeded Robert Avossa, who left last June to become superintendent in Florida's Palm Beach County.

Fulton school officials previously said there were three finalists for the job. In accordance with Georgia law, the two unsuccessful candidates were allowed to withdraw rather than have their names released.

Fulton’s school board is now expected to take another look at top candidates in renewing the search for a superintendent. Board members have said they hope to have a new superintendent named by June.

Lanoue's withdrawal follows reports that three Athens high school students, one of them 17 years old, the other two 18, face charges after a 15-year-old girl said she was raped in a school stairwell in January. Parents didn't learn about the alleged crime until nearly a month later. News reports say the three male students remained in school for weeks, and parents have been upset over the school's handling of the case.

Lanoue said in an email to parents Tuesday that "unfortunately, no student suspensions occurred" after the rape was reported at Cedar Shoals High School Jan. 7. The three accused students were arrested more than three weeks later, on Jan. 30 and Feb. 2.

With nearly 38 years of education experience, Lanoue has emerged as a leading voice in Georgia schools, widely credited with turning around the heavily-impoverished Clarke County system by boosting test scores, decreasing the high school dropout rate and expanding the use of technology in classrooms.

He was named 2015 National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators. He's used his national position to speak out against the reliance on standardized tests to evaluate schools and teachers, and he has publicly opposed Gov. Nathan Deal's controversial Opportunity School District. The proposal for a state takeover of schools classified as failing will require a constitutional amendment, up for vote on the November ballot.

Darris Rollins, who has a son who attends Westlake High School in Fulton County, said be believes timing of the withdrawal indicates it’s connected to the rape allegation.

“I don’t think that … a school superintendent should come into the job with that type of baggage,” Rollins said. “It may only make it harder for him to be approved. And then going down the road, if something like this happened in Fulton County, then you’ll always be able to go back and say, ‘Well he never took care of what happened in Athens-Clarke.’ ”

Just before a Fulton school board meeting Tuesday morning, board president Linda McCain told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Lanoue was still the sole finalist, and the board planned to vote to offer him the job at an upcoming meeting.

A spokeswoman for the Fulton district said Wednesday that Lanoue informed board members Tuesday he was withdrawing, though she did not say exactly when he told them.

Interim Fulton school superintendent Kenneth Zeff has led the district since Avossa’s departure and will remain in that position until board members pick a permanent superintendent.

Bertis Downs, who has a daughter at Clarke Middle School and serves on the board of the advocacy group Network for Public Education, said Lanoue has been a great leader for the school system. He didn’t speculate as to whether Lanoue’s job at Athens may now be at risk.

“Dr. Lanoue has a deep sense of personal and professional responsibility to do his job in leading CCSD and to help the community get through and learn from this difficult situation— that would explain his decision to stay in Athens rather to leave for Fulton County,” Downs said.