Jury convicts former East Wake Academy leader on 2 charges

mhankerson@newsobserver.comSeptember 30, 2013 

WAKE COUNTY

— After about seven hours of deliberation, a Wake County jury found former East Wake Academy headmaster Brandon Smith guilty on one charge of sexual battery and one charge of assault on a female.

Smith faced another sexual battery and assault charge but the jury was hung on those charges. The court declared a mistrial and it will be up to the district attorney to bring those back to court.

For the charges he was convicted of, Smith will serve 120 days in county jail and will have to registers as a sex offender for 30 years.

On the sixth and final day of the trial, Smith, who never took the stand, addressed the court.

He spoke to the requirement of registering as a sex offender.

“I’ve certainly lost my career in terms of this label,” he told Superior Court Judge Carl Fox.

Fox also addressed the courtroom during the sentencing hearing.

“It’s clear to this court you exploited a lot of aspects of your power,” he said to Smith.

He said he was familiar with East Wake Academy’s reputation as a successful and sought-after school, but he said Smith’s trial made him see the dark side and made him think of the school as “a little school of horrors.”

One of the women claimed Smith pulled her pants down to reveal a tattoo on her lower back after years of sexually explicit comments and other inappropriate behavior. The other woman claimed she experienced similar behavior, culminating in a hug in which she could feel that Smith was physically aroused.

The jury began deliberating after four days of testimony, including claims from three other female employees who testified that, at times, Smith’s behavior at work was inappropriate. Evidence presented also showed that the board of East Wake Academy was hesitant to take action beyond encouraging the women to write formal complaint letters.

East Wake Academy’s admissions coordinator Linette Sherwood testified that in 2002 she felt uncomfortable when she witnessed Smith touch another coworker on her shoulders. Sherwood wrote a letter to EWA board chairman Mike Lester and asked to have her office moved away from Smith.

The board obliged and moved Sherwood’s office.

The two complainants in Smith’s criminal case both said they felt intimidated by Smith, a sentiment echoed by other witnesses called to the stand by the prosecution.

“(I had heard) people had been fired and board members had been sanctioned (for taking action),” one of the women said in her testimony.

During the trial, East Wake Academy administrators Darrell Johnson and Kevin Murray said the school’s sexual assault policy in the employee handbook has been revised. Murray, who is the principal at East Wake Academy’s middle school, told the court the school’s employee policies are revised on a regular basis.

The two women in Smith’s criminal case filed complaints with the board, but also took their complaints to Zebulon police. They also have a pending civil case against East Wake Academy and filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC ruled the school was in violation of certain statutes regarding employment discrimination.

“An examination of the evidence establishes that Charging Party and a class of similarly situated female employees were subjected to unwelcome sexual comments, inappropriate touching and derogatory gender-based comments by (East Wake Academy’s) Headmaster,” the determination reads.

The determination also called the harassment “severe or pervasive.”

Hankerson: 919-829-4823; Twitter @easternwakenews

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