Some DeKalb teachers retroactively punished in state ethics probe

Several DeKalb County School District teachers have had their teaching certifications revoked as part of an investigation into allegations the district failed to report educators for ethics violations, the state's teacher accreditation agency said.

Some still have their certifications, including a former Toney Elementary School teacher charged in the gang-related murders of 11- and 15-year-old Clayton County siblings. Georgia Professional Standards Commission officials said not all teacher investigations have been completed.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported in May that the PSC was investigating former DeKalb County School District Superintendent Steve Green. Green's attorneys filed paperwork in October that elaborated on the nature of the investigation, saying then that PSC officials were investigating failures to report 15 current and former employees for various ethics violations, some of which were previously reported by The AJC.

The case could result in warnings and certification suspensions and revocations for the educators involved, including Green.

“I am confident that the investigation, whenever it is concluded, will reveal that I did not engage in any unethical behavior or conduct,” Green said Tuesday.

When an educator appears to have violated the ethics code, being reported to the state could trigger an investigation and sanctions up to decertification, losing one’s state license to teach. Districts are expected to report any violation for state review within 90 days of becoming aware of the potential breach.

Not reporting violations highlights a pitfall of the state’s voluntary notification system, where districts can report a teacher if they feel the violation does damage to student learning. It could allow teachers who are building bad reputations to continue finding employment in the field.

Officials said the investigation is unique in metro Atlanta, home to several of the nation’s largest school districts — including DeKalb, which currently has about 98,000 students. No similar PSC investigations currently exist.

“It’s rare we get a school district that doesn’t comply with the law,” said Paul Shaw, director of educator ethics for the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, adding that it is more likely for larger districts to miss deadlines — or skip them altogether — because of bureaucracy and red tape that exist there.

Some of the 15 educators were identified in the investigative files through initials and summaries of the accusations against them. Of the nine identified with initials, three who were said to have resigned from the district in lieu of termination do not appear on the district’s online staffing reports that include resignations.

Several of the educators listed in the complaint have had their certifications revoked, including Kalif Jones, a paraprofessional who stole a student's violin as students ate lunch in November 2018. Jones said he took the instrument, valued at $750, to use to pay off a $700 ticket. He was later charged with theft by taking. Also revoked was special education paraprofessional James Womack, who was fired by the district in 2018 after he broke an autistic student's arm, and Carlas Smith, a teacher's aide arrested in late 2018 after allegedly pushing a 10-year-old student to the ground. She also had been arrested the previous spring after allegedly firing warning shots at a group of teenage boys.

The district did not report Jones, Womack or Smith for violations.

It also did not report Michael De'Sean White, the former Toney Elementary teacher who was taken from his schoolhouse in handcuffs in 2018 and charged with killing 15-year-old Daveon Coates and his 11-year-old sister, Tatiyana, who were shot to death while sleeping in a Clayton County rental home. Officials have said the deaths were a case of mistaken identity.

White, still awaiting trial, did not have a teaching certification, suggesting he was one of several DeKalb County teachers employed through a certification waiver. According to the Georgia Professional Standards Commission website, White only has a clearance certificate, showing he passed a background check.

According to school district records, White resigned on April 13, 2018, for personal reasons.

DeKalb County School District officials filed complaints against some teachers on the investigation list after the 90-day reporting period.

Those include James O'Donnell, a Henderson Mill Elementary School physical education teacher nearly fired last fall after a student said O'Donnell left him outside in the rain after the student was unruly in class. O'Donnell was able to keep his job after an investigation and a groundswell of community support. PSC officials said in documents that O'Donnell had previously been documented by the district on several occasions for "unprofessional conduct toward students."

O’Donnell, who has taught at the district for 40 years, is currently certified and still teaching.

Efforts to reach O’Donnell were not successful.

Shunterria Smith, a pre-K teacher terminated after being accused of tying up students with pipe cleaners as a form of punishment and later charged with cruelty to children and false imprisonment also was not reported by the district within the 90-day window. Officials initially said Smith and paraprofessional Brittany Ellison were allowed to resign in lieu of termination.

A voicemail message left at a number for Shunterria Smith was not returned.

According to PSC records, Smith had only an early childhood education certification that expired in 2014.