A Cheektowaga Central teacher who told a former student awaiting a murder trial that another student had “snitched” on him will return to the classroom in the fall after a hearing officer found her explanation for the jailhouse phone call credible.
A June 9 decision ordered the school district to reinstate math and computer science teacher Sharon Campbell after a hearing officer found she was an “outstanding teacher” of more than 15 years who did not understand the consequences of revealing the name of a witness on the eve of a murder trial.
“In this case we have a teacher with an excellent record, without a single blemish, without not so much as a negative comment about her character or her work, a teacher who genuinely loved her students and would not conceivably want to harm any of them,” hearing officer Robert J. Rabin wrote. “I am convinced this was a spur of the moment remark, ‘blurted out,’ as Ms. Campbell said, in a pressure-filled call, without thinking about the possible consequences.”
Campbell was one of three teachers placed on paid administrative leave after police revealed the teachers had a series of conversations with murder defendant Dontre Jones while he was in jail awaiting trial on charges that he shot a teenager in a Cheektowaga town park in May 2011. Jones, then 19, was later convicted of killing Ira Watkins, who police said was an innocent bystander caught in a gang dispute. Jones is serving a 25-year sentence.
Jones contacted Campbell and the other teachers from jail through phone calls that were placed to student cellphones. The students then handed the phones to the teachers, who were in school at the time.
In a written decision obtained by The Buffalo News, Rabin describes most of the conversations between Campbell and Jones as a concerned teacher who sought to help a former troubled student with words of “support and encouragement” but who found herself in trouble after a third jailhouse phone call in which she identified the potential informant.
“I believe she found herself in an unusual situation, she was nervous, and she simply blurted out a comment that she did not realize could jeopardize the life of another students,” Rabin wrote. “I accept her testimony that she never would have made the snitch remark had she realized the potential consequences.”
The written decision provides new details about what actions the school district took after administrators learned that the teachers had phone conversations with Jones during the school day. The document, most of which is public under state law, paints a picture of a changing suburban school district in which administrators and teachers were struggling with how to deal with the fact that one of their students was jailed on murder charges.
“This is not your typical teacher tenure case,” Rabin wrote.
Rabin said Campbell testified during a disciplinary hearing that the remarks were a mistake and that she thought the information was common knowledge because several of the “gang girls” in the school were talking about the identity of the student witness. At the time, she testified, she did not understand that identifying the informer could put his life at risk, according to the decision.
“I was mortified to think that I would’ve said something that would’ve endangered someone else’s life,” Campbell later told the district superintendent, according to the written decision.
That student did not end up appearing as a witness at the trial.
Campbell also told the superintendent that she was nervous during the phone conversation, wanted to end it quickly and that she just blurted out the fact that another student might testify.
The school district initially issued a “counseling memo” to Campbell notifying her that her conduct could have interfered with the police investigation, but it later sought additional discipline against Campbell after police provided transcripts of the recorded jailhouse calls.
Campbell’s attorney had argued that the district bowed to public pressure and sought to fire Campbell only after the town’s Police Department publicized the recorded jailhouse conversations – an allegation the district disputed, according to the written tenure decision. At that time, in November, Police Chief David Zack said that the fact that a teacher had referred to a student as a “snitch” was a “super-red flag” for investigators, who sent a representative from the Erie County District Attorney’s Office to the school to tell the teachers to stop talking to the murder defendant.
The school district has previously resolved its case against the other two teachers, who have not been identified by the district. Tuesday, the district’s Board of Education voted to implement the hearing officer’s decision in Campbell’s case, but it provided no details about the findings.
The hearing officer’s written decision overturns some of the district’s disciplinary action against Campbell. Portions of the 20-page report – which at times make references to “West Side Story” and the “Sopranos” in describing the disconnect between student gang members and educators – are redacted to hide the identity of students and descriptions of unsupported disciplinary measures.
The Cheektowaga Board of Education issued a brief statement Tuesday night, stating that it was “disappointed with the hearing officer’s determination as to the appropriate consequences for the conduct at issue.”
Rabin noted that, although Campbell was on paid administrative leave, she did suffer financial consequences, as she lost several stipends that added to her pay during the period.