After one of Loudoun County’s most high-profile and contentious personnel cases came to a close this week, school leaders and community members are asking what lessons can be learned.
It is unusual for personnel cases in Virginia to play out in the public eye. State law directs public bodies to handle employee matters behind closed doors.
The case involving former Dominion High School band director Brian Damron was made public only because of a news article in Duval County, FL. The article detailed an investigation of the school district there about allegations that Damron had made sexual advances toward a 15-year-old student.
The teacher was not found guilty of a crime, but the district’s report stated that he showed “extremely poor judgment,” using abusive, sexual and inappropriate language with or in front of students. Florida has more open freedom of information laws than Virginia, so the findings of that report are public record.
It was three days after that Florida Times-Union article, on Dec. 2, that Dominion Principal John Brewer was suspended. Brewer had written a letter of recommendation for Damron, that the band teacher submitted as part of his application to Duval County. Superintendent Eric Williams recommended the principal be fired. Following months of protests and demonstrations both on the Dominion campus and at board meetings, the School Board on Monday voted to reinstate Brewer on a probationary status.
The intense community debate shined a light on how Loudoun County Public Schools handles touchy personnel situations. Loudoun Now looked into the 11 Loudoun County school employees whose teaching licenses have been revoked or canceled since 2000. For each of them, they are reported in school district records as resignations, not terminations.
Eight of the individuals were found to have abused a student, had inappropriate relations with students, or possessed child pornography, according to Virginia Department of Education records.
One of the recent cases includes Ralph Watts Conrad III, a former Algonkian Elementary art teacher who is serving 13 years in prison on 50 counts of possession of child pornography. Conrad was arrested on Sept. 12, 2013, was immediately suspended from the job, and his resignation was effective April 11, 2014, according to school system records.
Loudoun school system’s Chief of Staff Michael Richards said emphatically that there is not an effort by LCPS administration to quietly let bad apples go unreprimanded to land jobs in other jurisdictions.
Richards explained that a “resignation” does not mean that the employee was not involuntarily let go from the job. “At that point, there’s been a thorough investigation done, we say ‘here you go’ and they resign” before they can be fired, he said.
“Very often, they take the path of least resistance and that’s to resign,” school system Public Information Officer Wayde Byard added. “There’s not a crooked practice of backdoor deals or anything like that.”
Personnel decisions are generally up to the superintendent; he provides a long list of recommendations every two weeks to the School Board, which almost always unanimously approves them without public discussion or debate.
Richards, who Williams hired in January 2015 to improve communication between senior staff and the board, said board members are told when there is a potentially controversial personnel decision on their consent agenda.
But board members say they were not informed about the complaint that led to Damron’s resignation in January 2015. Reports show the first complaint about Damron was made in November 2014, three months after Williams stepped in as superintendent and before Richards was hired.
School Board member Tom Marshall (Leesburg), who chairs the board’s Human Resources and Talent Development Committee, said the past three months have highlighted the need for more accountability into the superintendent’s employment decisions. He acknowledged that the board needs to be able to trust the superintendent with most of his recommendations—particularly in a 10,000-employee school system.
“But situations like this, we need to be apprised of,” Marshall said, adding that his committee would look at how to improve the process. “We are concerned about that and it’s something we should look at going forward.”
Billy K. Cannaday Jr., president of the Virginia Board of Education, recently called for school systems to do more to let the Virginia Department of Education know when there are concerns of teacher misconduct. That will ensure that educators who may be a danger to students have their license revoked.
A VDOE spokesperson said the department only recently learned through news reports that there were concerns about Damron while he taught in Loudoun County.
“We want to make certain that school divisions, school superintendents and board members, that they understand their role and responsibility in being prompt and investigating any allegation of misconduct,” Cannaday said, “…that the state superintendent is notified regarding that, so that we can track that down and make certain that there’s a timely response to ensure that every child is kept safe.”