Judge dismisses defamation suit against East Wake Academy

aspecht@newsobserver.comNovember 15, 2012 

Brandon Smith


— A judge has thrown out a lawsuit filed by former East Wake Academy headmaster Brandon Smith against the school and two of its teachers.

Smith was fired by the Zebulon charter school in March after two teachers accused him of sexual harassment. Smith denied the charges, and in April sued the school and the teachers for defamation of character. He sought more than $30,000 in damages.

Last Friday, Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. dismissed the lawsuit on grounds that East Wake Academy and the teachers are entitled to governmental immunity.

“We are very pleased, and relieved, by the result,” Edward Schenk, legal counsel for the two teachers, said this week.

Katie Hartzog, an attorney representing East Wake Academy, declined to comment. James Hairston, Smith’s attorney, who previously claimed the teachers and the school did “irreparable damage” to Smith’s name, said Smith may consider other legal action.

While the teachers are vindicated for now, Smith and East Wake Academy still have issues to settle. A countersuit the teachers filed against Smith is pending. Smith also faces criminal harassment charges, and will be tried by a jury. No trial date as been set.

Smith could not be reached for comment.

Charges filed

In May, Zebulon police charged Smith with two counts of misdemeanor sexual battery based on the teachers’ claims. Details of the allegations aren’t available to the public through the police report. However, in the lawsuits, one teacher claims that in August 2011, Smith “pulled the back of her pants down” when asking to look at her tattoo, and the other teacher claims Smith in January 2011 admitted to having sexual thoughts about her.

The teachers’ identities are included in lawsuits filed by Smith and the teachers. The News and Observer generally does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted.

East Wake Academy still faces accusations as well: The teachers in September filed a complaint against it with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In court documents, the teachers say the school fostered a hostile work environment by allowing Smith to continue working after the teachers brought their allegations to the school’s Board of Directors. The teachers also claim East Wake Academy’s policy prohibiting harassment was insufficient, and that Mike Lester, chairman of the school’s board, tried to protect Smith amid the controversy.

They say Lester, despite allegedly promising the teachers that Smith would not learn their identities, “took steps instead to protect Brandon Smith. … (and) showed the (teachers’) written complaints to Smith,” according to a statement by the teachers’ attorneys in court documents. As a result, the teachers allege, Smith on March 9 tampered with the school’s computer server to block access to the teachers’ email accounts.

Lester could not be reached for comment.

If the EEOC finds fault with the school, it could write a letter endorsing a lawsuit on behalf of the teachers. It also could take up the actions and litigate on their behalf, according to Katie Hartzog, an attorney representing East Wake Academy. The teachers, one of whom resigned over the summer, are seeking more than $10,000 in damages.

Meanwhile, the school has yet to find a replacement for Smith.

Specht: 919-829-4826

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