The Telegraph’s investigation of the Wilkinson County High School basketball program began this past spring after the newspaper learned that the team’s coach, Aaron Geter, had received a reprimand in 2015 from the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.
Geter, who’s also the county’s school superintendent, signed a consent order with the PSC, Georgia’s educator watchdog agency, after the agency found that he failed to report an alleged sexual relationship between a student and a school employee to the PSC.
After publishing an initial news article, The Telegraph filed a series of Open Records Act requests with the school district, the PSC, the Georgia High School Association, the Wilkinson County Sheriff’s Office, and the school district’s liability insurance carrier.
While some of the requests were filled without delay or negotiation, some records requested from the school district still haven’t been provided.
As part of records requests filed with the Wilkinson County school system, The Telegraph sought documents, emails and other written materials pertaining to out-of-court settlements of two legal claims stemming from school employees’ alleged sexual conduct with students.
The school district quoted an estimated cost of $43.18 to fulfill an April request, which asked only for settlement records. An earlier request sought settlement records, Geter’s personnel file, an email received by the school board in 2011, and documents pertaining to a basketball player charged with statutory rape in 2016.
Despite the Telegraph’s contacting the state Attorney General’s Office seeking help from the department’s mediation program in obtaining records, the school district’s attorney maintained that any records of the settlements in the school district’s possession were protected by attorney-client privilege.
Documents provided by the school district’s insurance company included emails sent between the insurance company’s lawyer and the attorney representing the students. No emails or letters sent to — or from — Wilkinson County school officials were released.
Among the records The Telegraph requested pertaining to the basketball player who was charged were emails or other written communications about his continuing to play on the team.
A Feb. 15, 2017, letter written by Wilkinson County High School’s principal to the Georgia High School Association was provided to The Telegraph as part of a records request to the association, but the school district provided neither the letter nor another letter from the GHSA to the school.
In the letter, the school’s principal wrote that the school’s administration had decided to allow the student to return to “main stream school.”
The letter said the player, Jadaveon Jones, skipped school on April 13, 2016, to meet a 13-year-old female student, and that he was suspended from school for five days for having been in an unauthorized school area with an underage student.
When released on bond, Jones was barred from having contact with the other student, and school administrators moved Jones to the Phoenix Center, a credit recovery program off campus, for the remainder of the 2015-2016 school year, the principal wrote.
The Phoenix Center isn’t an alternative school for discipline issues, and students there can participate in extracurricular activities. Jones continued at the Phoenix Center until January 2017, when he was allowed to return to Wilkinson County High, according to the letter.
Jones played in the GHSA Class 1-A championship basketball game less than a month after the date of the letter. The Wilkinson County Warriors won the game, securing their third championship in the last four years.
A former school board chairwoman confirmed the receipt of the 2011 email sent to the Board of Education when talking with a PSC investigator, according to a PSC report. But when The Telegraph requested a copy of the email, the school district maintained it didn’t have one.
The Telegraph made several attempts to reach Geter for comment, leaving several phone messages and sending multiple emails. None of the messages was returned. An email message sent to the school district’s attorney didn’t draw a response either.
David Hudson, an attorney representing The Telegraph and the Georgia Press Association, said the Founding Fathers recognized that people must have the means to gather information about the operation of their government in order for democracy to succeed.
“In today’s society, most of the efforts to understand and report the activities of government are carried out by newspapers and broadcasters. They do so on behalf of all of us,” he said.
In requesting documents about the Wilkinson County school system’s insurance settlements, The Telegraph wasn’t willing to accept the school district’s statement that the records were in the hands of its insurance company or attorneys — and that the district didn’t have to provide the documents, Hudson said.
“That was wrong as a legal matter, and settlement documents were eventually provided to The Telegraph,” he said.
The Georgia Supreme Court has declared that public employees are “servants” of the public, Hudson said.
“As servants of the citizens, it is not too much to expect that local governments and governmental agencies must honor document requests under the Georgia Open Records Act,” he said.