Will JCS Blunder Lead To Legal Troubles?

Confidential Personnel Files Of Dr. Bennett Jones Released Without His Consent

In Aug. 2019 Email, Dr. Bennett Jones Alleges Corruption And Ineptitude

Johnston County Schools are once again in the news for another incident, this one involving Clayton High School Principal Bennett Jones.  Jones is seeking legal counsel after Central Office administrators mistakenly released confidential personnel information to the media.

Earlier this month, JoCoReport submitted a Public Records Request for copies of school board members emails.  Last week, the Communications Office responded with a number of emails unrelated to our request.  Two of the emails marked “Confidential” were detailed correspondence between Dr. Bennett Jones and Chief of Human Capital Brian Vetrano regarding a grievance Jones had filed following his controversial removal from Clayton High School on August 12, 2019.

In an email dated August 16, 2019 from Dr. Jones to Vetrano he said, “corruption and ineptitude … has tainted this entire investigation.”   Jones also questioned how Vetrano could be appointed by then Superintendent Dr. Ross Renfrow to oversee the Clayton High investigation.  “How can you be unbiased in rendering any type of grievance decision when you have been so involved in gathering details including sending an email to the entire CHS staff requesting anonymous tips and information?”

JoCoReport notified Johnston County Schools on Jan. 16th they had released Dr. Bennett’s confidential emails and personnel records.  On Jan. 17th, Chief of Staff and Communications Dolores Gill said steps were being taken immediately to rectify the incident.  “Please know that our office takes the confidentiality of our students and staff seriously, and while safeguards are in place to protect confidential electronic documents, an error occurred within this specific records request.”   Gill then requested we delete the confidential documents.

School board member Terri Sessoms declined to comment citing a new school board ‘Unity Policy’ where the chairman speaks for the entire board.  Board Chairman Todd Sutton released a written statement stating, “We believe this to be an isolated incident, and do not believe there is reason for concern regarding district wide confidential information. In conversation with our interim superintendent we know that a review of the standard operating procedures for records requests has been done, and appropriate additional measures have been taken.”

The confidential emails include specific details about the personnel grievance filed by Dr. Jones, details about a July 17, 2019 meeting with Ross Renfrow, concerns by Dr. Jones over a “hostile” work environment, and a “proposed one-sided agreement” JCS requested Jones sign before he could be reinstated. The emails also indicate Dr. Jones wasn’t notified of his August 2019 transfer from Clayton High until well-after it had been publicized by Dr. Renfrow.

In one confidential record, Jones indicated the mishandling of his grievance had not only adversely impacted him, but it was having a negative effect on “students, staff, and community of Clayton High School.”

On Monday, JoCoReport reached out to Dr. Bennett Jones alerting him that some of his confidential emails and personnel documents had been released to the media.  Dr. Jones said in an email, “I appreciate you making me aware of this unconsented release of my confidential information. I was contacted by the interim superintendent about this release on Thursday evening and I appreciate him taking those steps to notify and apologize to me of this mistake made by JCPS officials.”

“However, it is concerning to have this happen, especially in light of my documented and ongoing concerns regarding the sharing of inaccurate and incomplete information and other actions by various JCPS personnel. I would refer any other questions to JCPS officials. Any further comments from me about this matter will be disseminated from my legal counsel,” Mr. Jones added.

Under North Carolina law, it is a Class 3 misdemeanor for a public official or employee to release information from an employee’s personnel file designated as confidential unless the employee has authorized the release. In this case, Dr. Jones did not authorize the release.

Dr. Jones told JoCoReport,  “The timing of this release is also concerning…as such, I have sought the advice of my legal counsel.”

In his November 2019 editorial and December 2019 on camera interview, Board Member Ronald Johnson alleged Johnston County Public Schools used unethical investigation tactics against Dr. Bennett Jones. Johnson also alleged Dr. Jones was bribed with promises of a promotion and keeping his job.  In Dr. Jones confidential personnel information released last week, he made some of the same claims in August 2019, three months prior to board member Johnson’s first op-ed exposing the allegations.