Agency faults East Wake Academy for sexually hostile environment

aspecht@newsobserver.comJuly 28, 2013 

— In letters to two former teachers at East Wake Academy, a federal labor rights agency says the teachers “and a class of similarly situated female employees” were subjected to a sexually hostile work environment while working for the charter school.

East Wake Academy, founded in 1998, is a charter school in Zebulon known for its high test scores and graduation rates. About 1,000 students attend its elementary, middle and high schools.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began investigating the school in September 2012 after complaints from two former teachers who said East Wake Academy headmaster Brandon Smith sexually harassed them. Court documents show one teacher claims that Smith in August 2011 “pulled the back of her pants down” when asking to look at her tattoo, while the other teacher claims Smith admitted to her in January 2011 that he had sexual thoughts about her.

Smith, who has repeatedly denied the claims against him, couldn’t be reached for comment. He no longer works at the school.

After the EEOC found that East Wake Academy violated the two teachers’ rights, the letters show, federal investigators invited the school to participate in discussions which might result in a settlement for the teachers. However, settlement negotiations failed, so the EEOC referred the case to the U.S. Department of Justice.

There is no timetable for the DOJ to take action, said Kelly Ensslin, an attorney for one of the former teachers.

Smith’s personal attorney, James Hairston, cast doubt on the EEOC’s findings Friday: “As far as I’m concerned, (the EEOC findings are) pretty much a one-sided story since we weren’t contacted ... or consulted.”

According to the EEOC letters, the agency found sufficient evidence that Smith subjected the teachers and other employees to “unwelcome sexual comments, inappropriate touching and derogatory gender-based comments.”

The News & Observer generally does not identify people who say they’ve been sexually assaulted. The letters did not say how many other female employees were interviewed.

Ensslin said the EEOC’s finding is “significant” because it adds credence to the teachers’ claims against Smith and the school.

East Wake Academy fired Smith in March 2012 after the two teachers filed criminal complaints against him with the Zebulon Police Department, which later charged Smith with two counts of misdemeanor sexual battery.

The criminal case is ongoing. The teachers are suing Smith for his actions personally and as headmaster of East Wake Academy.

“We believe that the EEOC finding is appropriate and supports the facts as we understand them,” Ensslin said.

Katie Hartzog, an attorney representing East Wake Academy and Smith, declined to comment. Mike Lester, chairman of the school’s board of directors, did not return calls seeking comment.

The EEOC also investigated whether East Wake Academy leaders intimidated or retaliated against the two teachers, but the letters show the agency didn’t find sufficient evidence to make a ruling.

In a civil lawsuit against Smith, the teachers allege that Lester, the board chairman, tried to protect Smith. The teachers claim in court documents that Lester showed Smith the teachers’ written complaints about him after promising the teachers he would protect their identities.

As a result, Smith then tampered with the school’s computer server to block access to the teachers’ email accounts, the teachers claim in court documents.

Specht: 919-829-4826

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service