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School system ends mentoring contract after allegations of inappropriate relationship between mentor, student in Winston-Salem/Forsyth district

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Our Opportunity to Love rally

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Tricia McManus listens to Action4Equity executive director Kellie Easton and community activist Effrainguan Muhammad with 10,00 Fearless of Winston-Salem during the Our Opportunity to Love event on Oct. 17, 2021 at Blum Park. The nonprofit group had a $1.4 million contract for a program to use community members as mentors in schools that have had issues with student behavior.

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school district has terminated a $1.4 million contract with Action4Equity for a pilot program that put mentors in four schools after school officials found out that one of the mentors is accused of engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a student.

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

In December, the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education unanimously approved spending $1.4 million in federal COVID relief money to start the program. Superintendent Tricia McManus had recommended the program, which put community members in schools to work with students as mentors. Action4Equity, a local nonprofit organization focused on equity in the school system, was to oversee the program and contract with two grassroots community groups committed to helping at-risk youth. The program came on the heels of a school year rocked by violence and other issues with student behavior, including a fatal shooting at Mount Tabor High School in September.

On June 30, the school system terminated the contract. And on Wednesday, school officials notified the parents of the estimated 200 students who were involved in the program at four schools — Paisley and Philo-Hill middle schools and Parkland and Reynolds high schools — of the school system’s decision and that there is a police investigation.

Action4Equity officials issued a news release late Tuesday that defended the mentoring program but refused to say if the contract had been terminated. In an email, the Rev. Paul Robeson Ford declined to answer questions about the status of the contract, and Action4Equity had no comment on the reasons why the contract was terminated.

“I would direct any questions about the status of our contract to WSFCS,” Ford said in the email. “We are not at liberty to discuss any details regarding alleged incidents, as an investigation is pending.”

In a June 30 letter to Kellie Easton, president and chief executive officer for Action4Equity, Dionne Jenkins, general counsel for the school system, said that Superintendent Tricia McManus had been a “staunch advocate” for Action4Equity’s programs but that the nonprofit was in breach of its agreement with the school system.

“Information submitted to WS/FCS demonstrates that Action4Equity terminated a mentor on Monday, June 20th for reportedly engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a student at the school the mentor served,” Jenkins wrote. “Unfortunately, the termination of the mentor and the reasons therefore were not shared with WS/FCS in a timely or suitable manner.”

Jenkins said that violated the school board’s policies and “will not be tolerated by WSFCS.”

“We have reason to believe that the mentor also violated other WS/FCS’s policies and procedures, including those with respect to the transportation of students,” Jenkins said. “Additionally, public records show that the mentor has recently been charged with contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile. Upon information and belief, the child at issue in the criminal charge is in the mentorship program and is a different child from the one that led to Action4Equity’s termination of the policy.”

At 6:21 p.m. Tuesday, Action4Equity officials issued its news release on the group’s Facebook page. The nonprofit’s website was down with a message saying that it would be launching a new website soon.

“Nothing is of greater importance to us than the safety of our students and the safety of our children who we fight for daily and who we are so privileged to serve as part of the EMP (Embedded Mentoring Program),” Action4Equity said in its news release.

The Journal asked Ford why he couldn’t say whether the contract had been terminated and why he was referring that specific question to the school system. Ford did not respond to that question or to requests for additional comment about the school system’s allegations. Action4Equity declined to comment through a Facebook message.

The Journal was able to confirm through two different sources the name of the mentor, who is accused of helping a 14-year-old gain access to a Vape on June 21, according to an arrest warrant. The mentor was arrested on that charge on June 24, the arrest warrant said. Brent Campbell, a spokesman for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system, said he could not confirm the name of the mentor and referred questions to Action4Equity. Action4Equity declined to comment when asked for the name of the mentor.

It appears the mentor was assigned to Philo-Hill Middle School. The Journal asked Christina Howell, spokeswoman for the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, whether the agency had investigated a report of a student at Philo-Hill being sexually abused. Howell said the Winston-Salem Police Department investigated the allegation. 

Kira Boyd, spokeswoman for the Winston-Salem Police Department, said in an email that she could not confirm whether the police department was investigating an allegation involving Action4Equity. She referred questions to the school system.

The news release from Action4Equity referenced rumors on social media and misrepresentations. When asked about what facts had been misrepresented, Ford said, “All of the staff who were hired to serve in the Embedded Mentoring Program had to clear two sets of professional background checks before beginning work with the students: one conducted by Action4Equity, and another conducted by the WSFCS.”

In a Facebook discussion group, Katie Sonnen-Lee, who is listed as vice-president for Action4Equity on its IRS 990 form for 2021, replied to someone else that “all the proper protocols were in place and all procedures and reporting were done properly and the appropriate entities are investigating. It is awful, but there’s no corruption.”

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@mhewlettWSJ

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