Education

Wilkinson High basketball program is model of success, but does it play by the rules?

Ability to overcome adversity key to winning title, Wilkinson County head coach says

Wilkinson County defeats Calhoun County March 8, 2017, for the Warriors' ninth GHSA boys basketball title.
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Wilkinson County defeats Calhoun County March 8, 2017, for the Warriors' ninth GHSA boys basketball title.

Wilkinson County has been known for many things over the years, from kaolin mining to the home of reality TV star Honey Boo Boo.

These days, though, the Wilkinson County High School Warriors, who’ve won nine state basketball titles in the last 18 years, are the toast of the county’s 9,000 or so residents.

The team is coached by Aaron Geter. He’s a former Mercer University basketball standout who is also school superintendent of the county, located about a half-hour’s drive east of Macon.

The high school’s string of success has not been without controversy, however. As a new season approaches, there are clouds over the program, including allegations of recruiting irregularities and players being paid. The district itself has come under fire for the actions of some of its employees, including a former assistant basketball coach investigated for having an inappropriate relationship with a student.

Over the past seven months, The Telegraph filed Open Records Act requests, examined court documents and conducted interviews to try to separate fact from rumor.

In examining hundreds of pages of documents, The Telegraph reviewed complaints filed with the Georgia High School Association, Georgia’s Professional Standards Commission and the Wilkinson County Sheriff’s Office. The documents, in part, showed:

▪ The school district’s insurance company paid more than $240,000 in out-of-court legal settlements to two female students last year;

▪ A Wilkinson County player from the 2017 state championship team still awaits trial on a charge of statutory rape, stemming from allegations that he had sex with a middle school student in a school bathroom in 2016;

▪ Two teachers were prosecuted, one for participating in oral sex with a student and the other for kissing a student;

▪ Two other staffers were fired, but they didn’t face criminal charges;

▪ Several educators, including Geter, have been reprimanded by the PSC, Georgia’s educator watchdog agency.`

The Telegraph made numerous attempts to reach Geter for comment on its findings. He did not respond to phone messages or emails. Also, an email sent to the school board’s attorney was not returned.

Multiple messages left for school board chairman Roger Smith also were not returned.

Although the GHSA — the agency that regulates high school sports in Georgia — investigated some of the complaints, records don’t reflect any discipline or findings of wrongdoing relating to recruiting or players being paid.

Some of the allegations in the community are mere rumors that have never been officially reported to law enforcement, Wilkinson County Sheriff Richard Chatman said.

“We take allegations serious, but they have to be backed up by some evidence, and they have to be things we can prosecute based on what the law is,” he said. “We can’t make something out of nothing.”

NAACP complaint

Joseph Todd, a former president of the Wilkinson County NAACP chapter, said he started hearing different allegations several years ago.

Folks were coming into the now-disbanded chapter’s meetings and complaining about Wilkinson County High’s basketball recruiting tactics.

Those allegations prompted Todd to file a complaint with the state’s Professional Standards Commission in 2010 alleging that Geter had violated the GHSA’s recruiting rules, and that players were being temporarily housed in Wilkinson County.

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Aaron Geter Woody Marshall Macon Telegraph

“Conclusively, we are inclined to believe that due to Dr. Geter’s position as superintendent and as head boys basketball coach these creates (sic) a conflict of interest and are grounds for no accountability as an educator and as a coach of student athletes,” the complaint said.

Todd requested a “thorough investigation” and expressed concern that Wilkinson County’s own students could be at a disadvantage if students from outside the county were being recruited to play, according to the complaint.

Records show that the PSC initially remanded the allegation back to Geter, as superintendent, for review and to determine if there had been an ethics violation. After discovering its mistake, the PSC sent a letter to the school board chairman at the time for the board’s consideration.

Although PSC documents note that the matter was under GHSA investigation, a Feb. 8, 2011, email from then-GHSA Executive Director Ralph Swearngin says there was no “probable cause” to begin an investigation.

“While you have addressed important issues, the office of the Georgia High School Association is not set up to do wholesale investigations based on allegations that are not supported with some level of documentation,” Swearngin wrote.

In his complaint, Todd said he had asked to examine documents relating to the students’ moves, but the GHSA would not honor the request. Swearngin wrote that federal privacy laws prohibited him from talking about student eligibility to a third party, and he hadn’t received “solid information” that eligibility forms for the students in question were “erroneous or fraudulent.”

Reached by phone recently, current GHSA Executive Director Robin Hines said a person filing a complaint must provide evidence before his agency can investigate.

Although recruiting is allowed in college and professional sports, it’s not allowed for high school teams. If there’s a violation, the offending school can be fined, and a student could be declared ineligible to play.

Hines, a former Houston County school superintendent who took the helm of the GHSA this summer, said it’s not unheard of for a superintendent to also serve as a head coach of a school sports team.

Todd said he’s been criticized for filing the complaint and for pressing for further investigations not just into possible GHSA violations, but also allegations of inappropriate relationships between school employees and students.

He’s been asked, “Why are you so much against a black man?”

His reply? “The NAACP is for what’s right. I don’t care if you’re black, white, green or yellow.”

Children go to school for an education, not sports, Todd said.

“You can use sports to help you obtain a goal, to get a scholarship to go to college, but recruiting from other counties is wrong,” he said. “People have gotten the cart before the horse.”

Jones County weighs in

About two years later, Jones County school officials also filed a complaint with the GHSA, alleging that Wilkinson County was recruiting players from Jones County.

Months before the actual complaint was filed, on March 22, 2012, then-Jones County school Superintendent Billy Mathews emailed Geter. In the message, Mathews said that people claiming to represent the Wilkinson County boys basketball team had contacted Jones County players about transferring, and they discussed how to beat GHSA transfer rules, according to documents obtained through an Open Records Act request.

According to the documents:

▪ Geter responded by email hours later, asking Mathews to call him, saying he was insulted by the email.

▪ Mathews sent another email days later, on March 27, 2012, saying he had tried to call Geter “a couple of times,” but Geter’s mailbox was full.

In the email, Mathews said he had firsthand knowledge that players continued to live with their parents in Gray while attending school in Irwinton and playing on the Wilkinson team.

When Jones County school officials filed their complaint months later, they alleged that a boys basketball player and a girls basketball player had withdrawn from Jones County schools in June and July 2012.

barry veal
Barry Veal Woody Marshall wmarshall@macon.com

On Aug. 19, 2012, Barry Veal, then an assistant Jones County High School athletic director, called Geter and said Jones County wouldn’t be playing Wilkinson that year because the school didn’t want to be playing its own students.

Geter, according to the records, reportedly said: “This isn’t the only kid and won’t be the last to transfer.”

Days later, Jones County school officials met with a private investigator to watch a video of the players traveling to Wilkinson County High.

Documents provided to the GHSA by Wilkinson County in response to the allegations showed that the male player’s mother transferred his custody Oct. 23, 2012, to a guidance counselor who lived in Ivey, a Wilkinson County town nine miles from the high school. The counselor also had custody of another boys basketball player, the records showed.

The boy’s mother signed a statement in January 2013, saying her son had been living with the counselor since July 2012 for reasons that were “personally related,” and that her actions were taken in her son’s best interests.

Wilkinson County officials also provided documents showing that the female player’s family moved in October 2012 after their home in Gray was foreclosed on.

Although the documents revealed that the moves were finalized after Jones County contended the students began attending Wilkinson High, the GHSA declared the students eligible to play, saying the dates were before the beginning of the 2012-2013 basketball season.

Swearngin, then the GHSA executive director, wrote in a Feb. 1, 2013, letter that he still wanted to pursue other recruiting allegations.

Jones County school officials also contended that a player’s father was contacted multiple times by people who wanted his son to transfer to Wilkinson County.

They alleged that Geter called the father and said his son “would be taken care of and that he would not have to move, and that he would get him into a good college,” according to a Jan. 14, 2013, letter to the GHSA.

An assistant coach visited the father’s place of business, also trying to recruit his son, and said the boy could live in Wilkinson County or not, according to the letter.

Documents provided to The Telegraph don’t show any further action stemming from the complaint.

Contacted recently, Veal — now Jones County’s athletic director and a former longtime baseball coach — said, “We went through the proper protocol, and Georgia High School ruled. We went with their ruling and we’ve never looked back.”

Students on the payroll

In May 2016, the GHSA forwarded documents to the Professional Standards Commission for the agency’s review after the GHSA received another complaint that Wilkinson County basketball players were being paid and had been listed as “substitute teachers” on school salary reports.

The Telegraph compared player rosters from 2012 through last season with Wilkinson County school district salary data provided to the Open Georgia website from 2010 through 2016. (Open Georgia is a government website that shows how state money is spent.)

The data showed that 31 players have been paid more than $76,000. Of those players, 25 were paid $1,300 or more over multiple years. Three were paid $5,000 or more. One student was paid $6,677. The salary reports don’t specify what work the students performed.

Another nearly $20,000 was paid to an additional 14 students listed on GHSA basketball eligibility forms for 2012-2016.

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GHSA Executive Director Robin Hines Woody Marshall wmarshall@macon.com

The payments were made using a substitute teacher classification until 2016, when the payments were listed under a “miscellaneous activities” heading.

Hines said it’s against GHSA rules for players to be paid to play, but schools can pay student athletes to perform summer work such as maintenance, moving furniture, custodial duties or yard work.

The PSC didn’t take any action in the case.

Documents included in the GHSA’s file didn’t enumerate what the students were paid for. The Telegraph requested records from the PSC pertaining to the probe, but the agency said it was unable to provide them.

Although there’s no record that he was paid, a 2015 high school senior’s GHSA hardship application for eligibility was included in the GHSA’s pay probe records.

The student, Eric Jonathan Sidney Baehre, now plays forward for the University of North Carolina-Asheville Bulldogs.

A co-MVP during Wilkinson County’s 2016 tournament championship run, the 6-foot-9 player received an invitation to the German national team’s tryouts in 2013, according to his UNC-Asheville online biography.

According to Baehre’s hardship application and associated documents:

He attended school in Germany until September 2015, when he enrolled at Wilkinson County High. The school asked that his athletic eligibility be granted because he’d met requirements to be classified as an “unaccompanied homeless youth.”

A letter from Wilkinson County High School principal Jerome Miles said Baehre’s brother traveled out of state three to four days a week for work, and no one was available to supervise or provide for the student in his brother’s absence.

The student’s mother was still in Germany, and his brother didn’t have the money to send him back overseas.

James Baker, a Macon resident who works with Wilkinson County’s Phoenix Center alternative education program, wrote in a letter to the GHSA that Baehre’s mother, who spoke little English, didn’t have the means to come to America, and his father has had little contact.

Bibb County Superior Court documents show that Baker was granted custody of Baehre in October 2015. Baehre signed an affidavit that he consented to Baker’s obtaining custody, saying “it is in my best interest.”

GHSA regulations allow for students in the custody of school employees to attend school in the jurisdiction where the employee works, even if it’s somewhere different than where the staffer lives.

Interviewed at his home, Baker said, “I’ve known Jonathan forever. I’ve known his family forever. When he came to America, I took him under my wing.”

Attempts to reach Baehre and his brother were unsuccessful.

Coach viewed as ‘a king’

Geter was hired in Wilkinson County in 1998 as principal of the middle school. He’d previously worked as a teacher and coach at Wheeler County, Jones County and Harris County high schools after graduating from Mercer University in 1987 with a degree in health and physical education.

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Wilkinson County coach Aaron Geter shows fans the trophy as he walks off the court with his team. Wilkinson beat Wilcox, 53-49 to win the 2013 GHSA Class A boys state championship. Beau Cabell bcabell@macon.com

In his first year as the Wilkinson Warriors’ head coach, he led the team to the 1999 GHSA Class A boys state championship, the school’s first title since integration.

Then, in 2008, Geter applied to be the school system’s superintendent. A page and a half of his resume lists coaching awards, championships and college signees.

His personnel file shows that he completed master’s, specialist and doctorate degrees in education fields between 1991 and 1998.

GHSA records showed that Geter was reprimanded four times for unsportsmanlike conduct between 1999 and 2009. Wilkinson County High was fined $300 in 2004 for being late in filing an eligibility report on a basketball player.

In Wilkinson County, young people idolize Geter and see him as “a king,” said Todd, the former NAACP president.

He said he thinks a lot of pressure was placed on Geter to win.

“Some people, they want to win regardless,” he said.

Sexual misconduct allegations

On Jan. 30, 2013, the Georgia Department of Education forwarded to the PSC an email from a parent alleging that a cover-up of sorts was underway at Wilkinson County High School.

The email sparked a wide-ranging PSC investigation that resulted in punishment for several teachers and administrators, including Geter.

▪ Cornelius D. Jones resigned as a math teacher at Wilkinson County High two days before the email reached the PSC amid allegations that he had participated in oral sex with a 15-year-old female student in his classroom on Jan. 22, 2013.

Court records show that Jones, who was 29 at the time of the incident, pleaded guilty to sodomy and sexual assault by a person with supervisory or disciplinary authority in 2014. He was sentenced to 15 years, five of them in prison, and ordered to pay $4,000 in fines.

He surrendered his teaching credentials voluntarily in April 2013, according to PSC records.

State prison records showed that Jones was released on parole Sept. 27, 2016.

rodney hunter
Rodney Hunter, a Wilkinson County High teacher in the school’s Junior ROTC program is led into a courtroom at the Wilkinson County Law Enforcement Center for a first appearance hearing Jan. 30, 2013. Jason Vorhees jvorhees@macon.com

▪ Rodney J. Hunter Jr., a high school JROTC instructor, resigned March 13, 2013, while under investigation for kissing a female student three times in 2013. He also voluntarily surrendered his teaching credentials, according to PSC records.

Court records showed that Hunter pleaded guilty to three counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor charge, in 2013 and was sentenced as a first offender to three years on probation. On the day of his sentencing, he was 43 years old.

The student victim (and her mother) in the two cases against Jones and Hunter reached an out-of-court settlement with the school system, Geter, former principal Wayne Gasaway, Jones, Hunter and another staffer, Dexter Walker, for $200,000 last year, settlement documents show.

Jeb Butler, the girl’s attorney, contended that evidence showed Wilkinson County High administrators knew about previous teacher misconduct and didn’t take appropriate action, according to a demand letter stating the case for restitution.

Butler declined comment for this story.

▪ Gasaway retired at the end of the 2011-2012 school year, but he lost his teaching credentials for a year beginning in 2014 after being found` to have known about staff misconduct with students and not making required reports or taking action against the staff members, PSC records showed. He also was found to have known of ethical violations and failed to report them to the PSC, according to the records.

Attempts to reach Gasaway were unsuccessful.

▪ The PSC retroactively suspended the teaching certificate of former Wilkinson County Middle School teacher Ahmad Thorpe in 2011. He was investigated after allegations that he sent inappropriate sexual text messages to male students.

The PSC probe began after Geter reported the allegations to the agency.

Thorpe also was investigated by the sheriff’s office and GBI, but no criminal charges were filed.

About seven years after he resigned from Wilkinson County schools, Thorpe filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March, claiming that he had been discriminated against due to his sexual orientation. Reached for comment recently, Thorpe said the agency had declined his complaint.

He spoke at an April 2017 school board meeting, contending that there’s a “double standard” for how ethics violations are handled within the school system. PSC records showed that his was a “fast-track case” because of information submitted by Geter.

▪ The PSC investigated Geter over two main issues. One led to a consent order and a 2015 reprimand. The other, an allegation that he’d had an improper sexual relationship with a student who graduated in 2007, couldn’t be substantiated, according to records. The student backed out of a scheduled interview with a PSC investigator.

An attorney who represented Geter in the investigation has said that Geter denied that a relationship existed.

Geter was issued a written reprimand for failing to report an alleged sexual relationship between a student and Dexter Walker, a volunteer basketball coach who also worked in the school cafeteria, according to the consent order.

Walker was alleged to have met a student in the cafeteria during school hours for sex and fathered a child as a result of the relationship, according to PSC records.

Without facts to substantiate the claim, Geter didn’t think the rumor constituted enough to report the case to the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, according to the order.

Geter told a PSC investigator that Walker denied to him that there was a relationship, but Geter conceded that he didn’t talk with the student or her parents.

A teacher was reprimanded in late 2013 for failing to confirm the girl’s medical excuse for why she needed to make frequent trips to the restroom. Instead of going to the restroom, she was gone for much of the class period and meeting with Walker in the cafeteria, according to the PSC’s “investigative findings.” PSC investigators also found “electronic communication” between the two while the student was in class, according to the findings.

In a separate case, Walker was also accused of kissing a 17-year-old female student and touching her leg while driving her home from basketball games in 2012 and 2013.

Settlement documents showed the student received $42,500 from the school board’s insurance company last year after filing a claim against Walker, Geter, Gasaway and the school district.

Butler, the Atlanta attorney who also represented the 15-year-old student in a claim related to her encounters with Hunter and Jones, maintained that the 17-year-old’s encounter with Walker happened in Geter’s Jeep, which the superintendent had loaned to Walker, according to a May 3, 2016, demand letter in the case.

Butler alleged that while Walker was driving her back from a game, he drove to a secluded park and forcibly kissed the girl.

After the girl stopped him, Walker said, “I came all the way out here for nothing” and drove her home. The girl later told authorities, according to a sheriff’s office report.

On another occasion, the girl contended that Walker rubbed her legs after making comments about her “supposed ability to perform oral sex,” according to the demand letter.

When interviewed by a school resource officer, Walker, then 42, initially denied any misconduct, but he later admitted touching the girl on her thigh and kissing her on another occasion.

Attempts to reach Walker for comment for this story were unsuccessful.

‘We’re not the moral police’

The 17-year-old girl’s mother said she doesn’t understand why Walker wasn’t prosecuted or why a school administrator didn’t notify her after her daughter told a teacher what had happened.

“Justice was not served,” the mother said. “He should have been prosecuted.”

But as was the case with the allegations against Thorpe, Geter and others, there’s no evidence of a crime, said Stephen Bradley, district attorney for the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit.

“Cases are propelled by evidence. Everything that had sufficient evidence, we have and will prosecute,” Bradley said during a recent interview.

In each case, prosecutors performed a two-step analysis, he said: determining if a crime had happened and if it could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

In Georgia, the age of consent for sex is 16. To be illegal, the sex would have to have been forced or with a teacher or administrator in a position of supervision or disciplinary authority, he said.

“Anything that involved a child, certainly anything that happened at school got looked at really thoroughly,” Bradley said. “We do not prosecute morals or ethics. It’s whether somebody violated a statute.”

The alleged episode in the Jeep doesn’t meet the criteria for a sexual battery case because Walker wasn’t the girl’s teacher, and the girl said Walker touched her on the top of her thigh, not in the groin area, Bradley said.

Walker was “immediately suspended” and then fired within two days after the incident was reported, according to settlement documents.

Leslie Steele, a school resource officer, said no one filed a complaint with the sheriff’s office regarding allegations that Walker had sex with a student in the cafeteria — or that a child was born from the relationship.

The girl gave birth when she was 17 and would have been 16 at the time of the sex, the sheriff said.

“Even if true, it’s not a crime,” Bradley said. “He did not have the legal relationship that would have prohibited it, and she is of the age to have consented.”

Richard Chatman
Wilkinson County Sheriff Richard Chatman Woody Marshall wmarshall@macon.com

Investigating talk he’d heard about the allegations, Chatman said he checked the child’s birth certificate and found that the father’s name was not listed. To his knowledge, the girl denies that Walker is the child’s father.

He said no one reported the sex allegations against Geter to the sheriff’s office. Again, even if a report had been made, Geter wouldn’t have been in a supervisory relationship to the student, Bradley said.

The sheriff’s office did receive a complaint regarding Thorpe’s texting one of the students, and it investigated.

Although the PSC investigator noted in a report that the student forwarded the messages to another student and then back to him, Steele said the text messages were not available for her to view them.

The student was in high school, and Thorpe was a middle school teacher without supervisory authority over him. There was no sex, Bradley said.

The student also claimed that Thorpe paid him $500 — which Thorpe told authorities was a graduation gift — but the student said the money was fake and he burned it, he said.

Chatman said he’s heard the rumors in the community, and his office has done its best to investigate them.

“We interviewed everyone we could interview,” he said. “Whatever crumbs we get, we follow. … We follow it as far as we can go.”

But with some of the allegations, there wasn’t a case to make.

“I can’t prosecute people for something that’s not against the law,” Chatman said. “We’re not the moral police.”

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