Secrecy clouds removal of Clark Academy leader

HaLevi

Longtime Charleston County School District employee Andrew HaLevi will not be returning as head of Septima P. Clark Corporate Academy after the district investigated allegations that he had made a student sit on a bus with no pants on.

“The district determined that Dr. HaLevi’s talents could be used elsewhere, and not at Clark Academy,” district spokeswoman Erica Taylor wrote in an email last week.

When asked for the results of an internal investigation of the incident, Taylor wrote, “It is a personnel matter.”

But Jay Bender, a Columbia attorney specializing in Freedom of Information law, said public agencies often allude to “personnel matters” as a way of dodging public records requests. The S.C. Freedom of Information Act does not allow such records to be kept from the public.

“It’s another example of a school district making up an exemption that the district wished existed in the law but doesn’t,” Bender said.

HaLevi said the investigation followed a pattern set by the school district’s investigation of previous high-profile cases, including a School of the Arts teacher accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a student and a controversial postgame watermelon-smashing ritual by the Academic Magnet High football team. Both cases were at times shrouded in secrecy and marred by public retractions.

“There doesn’t seem to be a process,” HaLevi said. “It’s utterly opaque, and there doesn’t seem to be any opportunity to respond to whatever the investigators find.”

HaLevi, who remains employed by the district but has not been reassigned to another school, said the district’s investigative process “doesn’t resemble an investigation by any definition that I understand.” He said he was never interviewed by his supervisor or by the district official who made the decision to remove him from Clark Academy.

According to a Charleston County Sheriff’s Office report filed by Clark Academy’s school resource officer, HaLevi confronted a 16-year-old student on April 22 about her dress being too short, and the student agreed to wear a pair of sweatpants provided by the school.

At the end of the school day, the officer wrote, HaLevi boarded a bus and departed it with the sweatpants, at which point the student stuck her head out of the window screaming that he was making her ride the bus without pants on. Other students told the officer that the girl had given her dress to another student during the day.

The Sheriff’s Office decided not to pursue criminal charges, but the school district placed HaLevi on paid leave while it conducted an internal investigation. HaLevi’s attorney and a district spokesman said there was no surveillance camera footage available from the bus.

HaLevi said a neighbor told him on April 29 that the district was removing him as Clark Academy’s program director, a position he had held for eight years. He said he did not hear the news officially from the district until May 4, when he was given a letter that said he would remain on leave until his “work assignments are determined.”

When The Post and Courier asked former district spokesman Daniel Head on May 16 for an update on the investigation and HaLevi’s employment status, he wrote, “There has been no change in his employment status. He is still on administrative leave.”

When asked later, Taylor wrote on June 28, “Dr. HaLevi is currently working on special projects in the Office of Student Services.”

But HaLevi said he has not been called in to work, at the district office or elsewhere, since he was placed on leave. He said the letter he received May 4 instructed him to be ready to work.

“I have followed this letter and gotten up every day prepared to go to work for this district,” HaLevi said.

HaLevi previously taught at Burke High and was named the district’s teacher of the year in 2000. He founded the Charleston Teacher Alliance in 2003 and became a vocal advocate on district policies that affected teachers’ livelihood. Previous Superintendent Nancy McGinley assigned him in 2008 to lead Clark Academy, an alternative high school for students who have fallen behind academically.

Recent internal investigations by the district have drawn criticism for a lack of transparency. In the case of a controversial postgame ritual performed by the Academic Magnet High football team in 2014, the district initially removed the team’s popular coach and then offered him his job back two days later. Some parents also called foul after learning that their children had been interviewed about the incident without parental consent.

In the case of a School of the Arts math teacher who was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a student, the district’s in-house attorney initially said the school’s principal had failed to report her concerns to her superiors — but the attorney later had to backpedal on the claim after an email surfaced showing the principal had told her boss about the matter.

In the HaLevi case, the student’s family members have worked to keep the matter in the public eye. Marvin Bowens, the student’s uncle and a member of the Constituent District 23 School Board, held a news conference in front of the school in April calling for HaLevi’s firing.

Reached by phone last week, Bowens said he felt the district was trying to sweep the matter under the rug. If HaLevi is reassigned to another school, he said he and other community members will protest in front of the school once a week starting on the first day of class.

“Wherever they transfer him to, he’s not going to have any peace,” Bowens said. “I promise you it is not going to go away.”

The Post and Courier has filed a request for files relating to the HaLevi investigation under the provisions of the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.