Like several other teachers and staff at West Mecklenburg, Hamm was outraged last Monday to find out that a registered sex offender they've battled to remove since March was back in school. What's so outrageous to these teachers is that the kid committed the crime for which he earned his sex offender status at school.
Rewind to April 4, 2003, the day police were called to North Mecklenburg High School. There had been a sexual assault in a bathroom, and they arrested an 18-year-old freshman, one of two students who took part in the assault. The victim was a girl with mild mental disabilities.
After bargaining with prosecutors, he was convicted of felony kidnapping, and forced by law to register on North Carolina's sex offender registry, a list that helps authorities keep track of offenders who commit serious sex crimes. Amazingly, this had little effect on his career at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He turned up as a 19-year-old freshman at West Mecklenburg last year, his third known high school in two years.
Since then he's been punished at least once for sexually harassing a school employee. Last year, he threatened to violate one teacher with a baseball bat. Another quit because she was terrified of him. Despite all of this, he's back for another year at CMS, where he's no doubt hard at work achieving educational excellence.
"This is a slap in the face," said Hamm, a second-career teacher who teaches at West because he wanted to help the system's most disadvantaged kids.
But CMS administrators weren't interested in learning more about the situation from Hamm when they dragged him downtown last week. No, their mission was more of a fishing expedition to find out how I know so much about this kid's record, including what happened in that bathroom at North Meck, and whether Hamm might have violated this kid's rights by disclosing student records to me. I can assure them that they're wasting their time, since I didn't get this information from Mr. Hamm.
But that's beside the point. What's fascinating is school administrators' sudden interest in a situation they've been informed about multiple times since March. That's when West Mecklenburg teacher Gwen McGowens began writing letters to administrators, begging for something to be done about this kid in particular and others who have been charged with, or convicted of, violent crimes, yet continue to show up at school. McGowens wrote to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education Chairperson Joe White, school board member George Dunlap, Dr. Ralph Taylor, Director of Alternative Education and Safe Schools, CMS Superintendent Jim Pughsley and Ann Clark, Regional Superintendent of High Schools.
Only White, the school board chairperson, bothered to respond to the letters.
"Please keep in mind that our students, just like our teachers, have rights as well," White wrote in a letter that reminded McGowens that there is a "process and procedure" in place for such concerns.
In July, I wrote a column about this situation, challenging the school board and school administrators to do something about it. The silence was deafening.
So why do they care now? Because Larry Gauvreau, the only school board member who has shown any interest in the situation so far, finally came unglued when he learned the kid had returned to school.
Last week, Gauvreau emailed CMS Superintendent Jim Pughsley an ultimatum. "Send security into West Meck and have him escorted out under exclusion policy," Gauvreau demanded. "There's no reason for this."
Gauvreau is also demanding that the school board take up the matter, and that Pughsley provide information about how many students who have committed sex offenses or violent crimes on or off campus are roaming around the halls of our schools -- all of which is likely to result in publicity. Translation: Now that school leaders can't ignore me or the teachers at West Mecklenburg anymore, they're finally going to take action -- against me and the teachers at West Meck.
The most outrageous part of this whole situation is the gaping hole in the student code that allows sex offenders who commit their crimes on campus to return. The minimum punishment for sexual assault is "suspension that lasts beyond the school year." The maximum is exclusion or expulsion. The student code doesn't address kidnapping. At the rate we're going here, maybe it should.
There comes a point, folks, when one student's "right to learn" gets trumped by other students' rights to enter a school bathroom without fear of being assaulted. This is that point. The sooner the school board and school administrators figure that out, the sooner they'll stop reading about it here.
Contact Tara Servatius at firstname.lastname@example.org