The Scarlet Letter

Someone penned an anonymous letter making damning allegations about Normandy High School principal Alvin Smith. He blames it on a disgruntled ex-employee out to take him down. Trouble is, some of the letter is true.

The letter arrived in late October or early November at Bartman's Jefferson City office. As the state's education commissioner, Bartman serves as chief executive officer of the state Board of Education. It grabbed his attention.

The rambling unsigned letter asked Bartman to investigate a series of allegations involving the Normandy principal. It contained names and dates and case numbers of court files -- such as the 1995 paternity action involving a child Smith fathered by a student in 1979. The letter claimed Smith was "released" from an assistant-principal job at Jennings High School in the early 1990s as a result of a drug problem and underwent a lengthy drug rehab. It described two complaints against Smith by female students from 1997-99. One girl, the letter claimed, complained to a secretary that she felt uncomfortable when she walked by Alvin Smith's office and that he would call her in and "go on about how she should wear her hair, dress, and stop by to see him." It claimed another girl accused Smith of attempting to fondle her breast, that her complaint was the subject of a meeting involving higher-ups in the district and that her complaint was dismissed "because of her previous discipline record." The letter also claimed Smith was a "womanizer" who had an affair with an assistant principal on the staff.

The letter demanded that Bartman take some action. "This person has become a disruptive force not only among his staff but among some of the female students as well," the author wrote. "We expect that these facts will motivate you to eliminate this germ so that teachers and students can concentrate their efforts toward the learning and educational goals that should and can be met on this high school campus."

"Our judgment, after our lawyers looked at it, was there was no cause for independent action." -- Robert Bartman, state education commissioner
"Our judgment, after our lawyers looked at it, was there was no cause for independent action." -- Robert Bartman, state education commissioner

Bartman says that after reading the letter, he consulted with his department's legal staff to determine what, if anything, should be done. "We don't get a lot of those," he says. "It was a set of allegations by an anonymous person. It's fairly rare." What he was told was that even if the allegations were proved true, there was nothing his office could do at the state level -- without a formal request from the Normandy School Board. The state Board of Education can initiate the revocation of a teaching certificate only when a teacher or administrator is convicted of a felony or crime involving moral turpitude.

"Our responsibility is narrowly defined," Bartman says. "Our judgment, after our lawyers looked at it, was there was no cause for independent action. That doesn't keep a local board of education from bringing independent charges. Nothing bars the local board of education from reviewing the case and deciding that there is enough truth to the allegations and the allegations are of substantial negative impact on the program ... they could bring charges to the state Board of Education and prosecute their claim."

Bartman forwarded the letter to Normandy's superintendent and Board of Education. Armstrong says that when he was notified of the letter, he contacted the school district's law firm, Crotzer & Ford.

"These are some serious charges, and they are some serious allegations, and we did refer them to our legal counsel," Armstrong says, although he declines to discuss the letter in detail. "They are allegations. We are dealing with people's careers."

Attorney Darold Crotzer says he was asked to conduct an investigation in early November. He assigned it to a paralegal, saying she was "trained to do it" and had served as a school-board member in the Ferguson-Florissant School District. "The point of the investigation was whether or not one of our employees had violated the rules," Crotzer says, and having his firm conduct the investigation was "a normal thing to do.

"If you have a principal accused of something, you usually don't investigate it in-house," Crotzer says. Missouri law also requires that any school employee report any abuse or neglect if he or she has a "reasonable suspicion" that it occurred. Failure to do so is a misdemeanor.

Cindy Reeds Ormsby, Crotzer's paralegal, says she began questioning those named in the letter, including Smith, an assistant principal, a secretary who supposedly had information and the former director of secondary education for the Normandy School District -- who, the letter writer claimed, had been present at a meeting to discuss the fondling allegation. Ormsby says she talked to "eight or 10 people" over the course of two weeks.

Her probe was limited, however. She was told not to delve into the older claims involving the student Smith was alleged to have impregnated in 1979, or his drug problem. "The school district was aware of Mr. Smith's drug abuse and his rehab when they hired him, and they hired him with the intent of giving him another chance, so that wasn't of any concern of theirs at all," Ormsby says. As for the student's pregnancy in 1979, she says, "They had already talked to Mr. Smith about that and got the facts around that, and they were satisfied with his response and he was forthright about the facts behind that."

Ormsby says she investigated the allegation that Smith had an affair with assistant principal Gina Bell-Moore by talking with both parties. Both denied the allegation. Ormsby also spoke with a secretary who, the letter writer claimed, had noticed that Bell-Moore was spending inordinately long periods of time in Smith's office. The secretary denied noticing anything of the kind.

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