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Action4Equity mentors say they had built trust with kids, families in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools

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Shortly after word spread on Wednesday that Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools was ending a mentoring program that began in February, Shinika Austin’s phone began buzzing with text messages from worried parents of children the program served.

“Where do we go?” the messages read.

Austin said on Thursday that she and other mentors in the program remain committed to helping the 200 at-risk kids that mentors had been working with.

“We’re putting ourselves in harm’s way, going into homes, going into schools. We’re on the ground,” Austin said, wiping away tears. “The job we do, not everybody can do.”

Austin, several other mentors and officials with Action4Equity, the nonprofit organization that oversaw the embedded mentoring program, spoke at a news conference one day after the school district announced it had terminated its contract with Action4Equity and ended the program just a few months after it began.

The school district informed Action4Equity President Kellie Easton in a letter on June 30 that it violated district policy by failing to notify the school district in a “timely or suitable manner” that a mentor had been fired by the group on June 20 for “reportedly engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a student at the school the mentor served.”

The Winston-Salem Police Department is investigating but no criminal charges have been filed.

The Rev. Paul Robeson Ford, president of the board of directors for Action4Equity, declined to answer questions about when Action4Equity became aware of the alleged inappropriate activity, but he did say that some of the dates in the termination letter were not accurate.

“Unfortunately, some of the inaccuracies have been used against us to tarnish Action4Equity and paint us in a light that is simply not true,” Ford said.

The school district, he said, made a wrong decision.

“We will give details at the appropriate time, and it will become clear,” Ford said.

Schools spokesman Brent Campbell said he can’t give a timeline of when the school district learned of the allegations because it’s part of the police department’s investigation.

Campbell did say that all of the mentors went through a series of training seminars.

Those seminars included “a review of their reportable obligations. That includes multiple types of reportable items/situations like a reported inappropriate relationship,” Campbell said.

Twenty mentors worked with 200 at-risk kids at four schools — Philo-Hill and Paisley middle schools and Reynolds and Parkland high schools.

The program involved putting mentors in those schools to work with students who may be susceptible to such things as gang violence, criminal behavior or dropping out of school. The mentors worked with students in the schools and in their homes, building relationships with them and their families.

The mentors who spoke on Thursday said they were able to build bonds with the students because they, too, had gone through difficulties as youths and had made bad decisions. Many of them also grew up in the same communities as the kids in the program, giving them an extra layer of credibility among kids who may not trust authority figures.

One mentor, Terrence Hairston, said he had been in gangs and was in jail for 15 years.

“Speaking to these kids in a language they can understand, dealing with these kids, you got to put someone around them that can relate to them, someone who can understand hardship,” Hairston said.

In December, the school board unanimously approved spending $1.4 million for the mentoring program, using COVID relief money from the federal government. Recommended by Superintendent Tricia McManus, it was billed as a pilot program that could be expanded to other schools if proven successful. Action4Equity was charged with overseeing the program.

The decision to fund the program came near the end of what had been a difficult first semester in the school district that included a fatal shooting at Mount Tabor High School, fights and the confiscation of guns.

With the program now apparently ended, the school system told parents on Wednesday that their students can get involved with mentoring groups that the school district is contracting with in 2022-23. Those groups include Big Brother Big Sister and Lead Girls.

336-727-7420

@lisaodonnellWSJ

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