The Athens County Prosecutor, along with several parents and teachers in the Alexander Local School District, are raising concerns about accountability at the district – and about the county Sheriff’s Office’s investigation of potential criminal cases there.
According to public records obtained from the Prosecutor’s Office, an Alexander teacher sent a letter to that agency in mid-March about issues she saw in the school district and specifically about Athens County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jimmy Childs’ handling of a “sexting incident.” (Childs is the school resource officer for most of Athens County’s school districts.)
The teacher (whom The NEWS is not naming to protect her from potential retaliation as a whistle-blower) reported that after she heard about this incident, she reported it to the Sheriff’s Office. However, she said she asked not to speak to Childs because she preferred speaking to someone who’s not so “involved” in the school district.
“The (sheriff’s) officer put me on hold, and when he came back he asked for my room number so that the officer with Mr. Child (sic) could help me,” the teacher reported. “Within minutes, Lee Raines, our assistant principal, came in my room and asked what I was reporting and if it was the same incident that they were investigating. I replied honestly, a sexting incident, and I didn’t know what they were investigating. I followed Mr. Raines out of the room and found Jimmy Child (sic) and (Superintendent) Lindy Douglas were standing outside my door…
“Here is the concerning part,” the teacher recalled. “Jimmy, very cordially, told me not to worry, that Alexander Schools and the Athens County Sheriff’s Department have an ‘agreement’ on how to ‘handle things’ so that children would not be hurt in these circumstances.”
The teacher said she was troubled by this because she and other teachers had raised concerns about safety at the school before. She claimed that at a public-safety meeting last year, Childs said that the school is the “first line of defense in these situations.”
She added that unidentified students have made “many threats” against Alexander schools, teachers and other students, yet these students “continue to be a presence on campus.”
“I realize that the school handles the initial investigation and contacts you if warranted, but this situation causes me to wonder how many other incidents were ‘buried,’” she said.
Following this letter, the Prosecutor’s Office held a meeting with Sgt. Childs (who had been promoted from his former status as deputy), according to public records obtained from both offices on May 1. Blackburn penned a letter after that meeting highlighting several issues that were revealed before and after the meeting.
Prior to the meeting, Blackburn wrote, his office was concerned that no incident report was created by Childs or any other officer with regard to an incident that occurred at Alexander Schools between the time of the initial reporting of the incident in January 2019 and May 1, 2019 (which is when the meeting with Blackburn’s office occurred).
Blackburn said he was also concerned:
• “That there was no follow-through in the investigation of the (redacted) case.
• “That the investigation by the school in the case involving victim (redacted) had not been obtained by investigators.
• “The community’s concern over the relationship of the superintendent and Deputy Childs.”
• “The general lack of documentation of information Deputy Childs gathers during investigations.”
During the meeting, Blackburn wrote that he and other attendees learned that Childs “does not record interviews.” The following resolutions came out of that meeting after Sheriff’s Capt. Bryan Cooper joined the meeting toward the end:
• Childs “will immediately create” incident reports documenting everything that occurred in regards to one of the cases mentioned above (it’s redacted). The Prosecutor’s Office would complete that investigation.
• Childs will obtain for himself and another school resource officers recording devices.
• “Deputy Childs will provide incident report for all phones in evidence to Investigator Eskey. Our office will assist in preparing search warrants for the phones. Deputy Childs will obtain judge’s signature, and our office will search the phones.”
• “Deputy Childs will seek legal advice from the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office
and will not rely on school officials’ statements related to legal advice.”
• “Deputy Childs will contact Elizabeth Pepper on any issues related to sexting or sexual assaults; myself regarding any threat or safety to schools; Timothy Warren regarding any other juvenile-related issues.”
• “Deputy Childs will not discuss the (redacted) or the (redacted) matters with any person at Alexander Local Schools, including but not limited to the superintendent.”
UNDER OHIO LAW, SEXTING IS AN illegal act under the age of 18, even if both participants were minors.
Athens County Sheriff Rodney Smith and Sgt. Childs both defended Childs and the Sheriff’s Office’s response to the issues outlined above in interviews last Friday and this Monday.
Meanwhile, Supt. Douglas said in an email response Tuesday morning that the school district takes every incident or complaint concerning its students “very seriously, and the district’s administration investigates each instance brought to its attention.”
“In accordance with District policy and practices, initial investigations are handled at the building level through our administration,” she wrote. “Matters that fall under our Title IX/non-discrimination policy are addressed under those processes. We have Athens County Sheriff Deputies on premises each day to make sure our schools are safe and to support students and staff. These deputies have been a positive asset to have in our buildings.”
Smith said that Childs is “very well-trained” as a school resource officer and “we support what he does.”
Still, the sheriff said that his office has implemented the changes outlined above, and now every criminal case that originates from (county) school districts “is going to be looked at, and is going to be reviewed… by the Prosecutor’s Office.” Smith added that Childs has daily conversations with students, parents, teachers and school administrators, often with people simply seeking advice on a situation rather than wanting to report a crime.
“He speaks to so many people that it’s hard to distinguish whether or not they want to file a complaint or not,” the sheriff said. “We’ve already set another standard where if somebody wants to file an official complaint, Childs will just ask that question, ‘do you want to file a criminal complaint?’”
Childs told The NEWS Monday said that he’s been a school resource officer for 21 years, and defended his professionalism in that role. He also argued that he’s not biased in favor of the administration at Alexander Local Schools, noting that he has a friendly relationship with Supt. Douglas and most of the other school superintendents in Athens County.
“After 20-some years you’re going to have a relationship with all kinds of people,” he said.
Childs noted that one of the biggest things that has changed during his career is the prevalence of social-media use among K-12 students. He’s had to learn more about that technology, he said, noting that it can be difficult to collect evidence after it appears on social media if he’s not alerted immediately to concerns surrounding particular posts.
“My thing is that at some point, where do parents become accountable? I feel like a lot of parents want to dump it back on us and the schools, but you allowed your kid to have social media at 9 to… 12 years old,” Childs said, adding that many parents don’t regulate or restrict their children’s time on applications such as Snapchat and Instagram.
Childs noted as well that when he’s notified of relatively minor issues at local school districts, he tries to resolve issues between students, parents and others through mediation between the parties.
He and other Sheriff’s Offices school resource officers plan to meet before school starts this year, he said, to implement a “whole new plan” with regard to their jobs, especially when it comes to investigating social-media issues.
Asked if any previous cases might be revisited now that these policy changes have come about, Sheriff Smith answered, “We can always go back and revisit any cases. All I can tell you is we changed the way that we do it; I can’t speculate on what we didn’t know… We started having a blurred line between Title IX investigations and criminal investigations, and Keller and I cleared that up as quickly as we could.”
ANOTHER CONCERNING part about the Alexander teacher’s letter to the Prosecutor’s Office was that she did not seem clear on Ohio’s mandated reporting requirements with regard to the sexting case she had been made aware of. She said in her letter the Prosecutor’s Office that she learned about the incident after speaking with a teacher of one of the involved students.
“I listened and was, frankly, astounded by the incident but not surprised by how it was handled,” the teacher who wrote to the prosecutor said. “By Friday night I became concerned that if by knowing of the incident that I was now considered a mandated reporter. On Saturday morning, I called a friend who works at ACCS (Athens County Children Services), and after I described the situation and how I came to know about it, she confirmed that, indeed, I am now a mandated reporter.”
It’s also important to note that while school district employees are required to report suspected crime to law enforcement, school districts also have an obligation under federal Title IX law to fairly investigate cases of gender- and sex-based discrimination, harassment and violence. Alexander’s own school policy explains that its Title IX coordinator is responsible for conducting Title IX investigations. Through that federal law, all school district employees are required to report any complaints of sex discrimination or sexual harassment to the Title IX coordinator.
Prior to the Alexander teacher sending her letter of concern to the Prosecutor’s Office, Blackburn and Sheriff Smith sent an email to all local school district administrators and principals on March 7 reminding the school districts of their obligations.
“Should you become aware of any alleged illegal conduct, you must report that conduct to law enforcement,” they wrote. “While you may also be required to conduct your own investigation, your first step should be to contact law enforcement. If you have allegations of sexual or physical abuse, do not conduct your own investigation first.”
Douglas said that the Alexander Local School District takes staff training seriously.
“We hold two to four training days and professional development each year for our teaching staff,” she said. “All staff is trained every year on mandated reporting through Athens County Children Services, and they know the protocols to follow when they have reason to suspect that a student is being subjected to abuse or neglect.
THE PARENT OF AN Alexander student is also raising concerns about Alexander’s Title IX investigation process.
Emily Houpt, the mother of a student at Alexander High School, said in an interview Saturday that her daughter endured months of retaliation from students and even some employees at that school after she reported being sexually harassed by a male student (who was the member of a sport team there) last summer while he was in a vehicle and she was running in a parking lot outside the school. Houpt said her daughter reported that incident to several employees, but nothing was done about the situation until Houpt reported the incident to the School Board.
Despite the School District having a Title IX coordinator who is responsible for conducting these investigations, Houpt maintained that Supt. Douglas was involved with much of the initial investigation process, including interviewing her daughter directly. She said that in the end the school district had to conduct an entirely new investigation because of issues with the first one. Houpt said the finding was the same after each investigation, however, with the determination that the questioned conduct did not meet the definition of “sexual harassment.”
While those investigations did take place, Houpt charged that the Alexander district failed to take adequate measures to keep her daughter separate from the boy who allegedly harassed her, or to otherwise protect her from retaliation, including the boy showing up at most of her volleyball games, and her daughter being harassed in the hallways by friends of the boy and others. At one point during a pep rally during the investigations, she recalled her daughter saying that school administrators stood by as students cheered “free (alleged sexual harasser’s name)” repeatedly.
“It bothered me so much because it broke my strong daughter down to the point to where she gave up on herself, and that was pretty awful,” Houpt said.
Houpt said she doesn’t believe her daughter’s experience was an isolated incident. She said that she’s heard from other parents who have reported their children being bullied, sexually harassed or worse to the school district, but never seen any result from those investigations.
“So some of them have pulled their kids out of school… Some are afraid to even report it,” Houpt said.