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Buffalo School District accuses parent of faking her own signature as forgery case twists anew

In a plot twist that seems straight from a made-for-TV movie, the parent who accused Buffalo school officials of forging her signature on key documents has now been accused by the district of using “disguised writing” to fake her own forgery.

Given that, any doubt cast on Harvey Austin School Principal Brigette Gillespie, who submitted the documents, “was totally removed,” district officials said.

And with that, the district essentially is saying that the parent – who cites a list of awards and certificates from the school, the principal and the district – perjured herself.

That’s a ridiculous accusation, say the parent and parent leaders who support her.

“To accuse me of doing something like that, they’re contradicting themselves, and they’re looking stupid while they’re doing it,” said Timekia R. Jones, the teacher’s aide and parent leader at the Sycamore Street school that two of her three children attend.

“At this point, I think it establishes a pattern of parent disrespect that is now unquestioned,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council.

Last fall, Jones accused school officials of forging her signature on school planning documents to prove to the state that parents had been involved.

Jones said she couldn’t have signed because she was hospitalized on the date she supposedly put her name on Harvey Austin School’s comprehensive education plan. She filed a complaint with the state Education Department and with the U.S. Attorney’s Office alleging that her signature was forged on that and other documents.

Now the district has flipped the script.

In a March 17 letter to Jones’ attorney, district general counsel Rashondra M. Martin wrote, “Our handwritten expert concluded that the documents were authored by Ms. Jones utilizing a method known as disguised writing.”

“Disguised writing,” the letter continued, “is a deliberate attempt to alter one’s handwriting to prevent recognition.”

In a follow-up email statement after The Buffalo News asked to interview Martin, school officials said, “The district retained a well-known, well-qualified investigation firm with a view toward obtaining an objective review. In the process of conducting the investigation the investigator assigned sought the opinion of a forensically qualified question document examiner (handwriting expert) who concluded that all documents were authored by the same person utilizing a method known as disguised writing.”

“This means the doubt cast on the Principal of Harvey Austin School #97 was totally removed. The District takes any evidence of the forgery of school-related documents very seriously and has undertaken further appropriate action,” the statement concluded.

Asked again Monday whether Martin could be interviewed, a district spokeswoman said by email, “The statement will have to serve as the entirety of our comment at this time.”

Jones said this recent plot twist was insulting and disrespectful, particularly because she has spent so much time working with schools, children and the district. She called the district’s accusation “really ridiculous.”

“If I signed it, I signed it, but I didn’t,” she said. “They’re saying I’m disguising my handwriting when I was in the hospital having surgery.”

In addition to being a paid teacher’s aide for the last five years, Jones said, she is a very involved parent, citing training as a parent facilitator, training in “restorative justice” and parent advocacy training from EPIC, or Every Person Influences Children.

She also cites a long list of awards from the school and the district, including a certificate of appreciation last month for her efforts on the school’s site-based management team, and a December 2012 award from Superintendent Pamela C. Brown and the School Board for her participation on a parent-partner team.

Jones said that in 2011, she was named the best volunteer at Harvey Austin and that in 2009 and 2010, the district and the school gave her awards for outstanding parent leadership.

“I’ve been getting awards for years,” Jones said. “You’ve got to be out of your mind to think that a parent who is very involved would do something like” fake her own signature, she said. “You gotta be really, really ridiculous to say I did something like that.”

Jones submitted a signed affidavit to the office of U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. in October asking him to investigate the matter.

“For the superintendent now to say that this parent disguised her signature and then falsely accused the principal ... If they really believe that, she should bring charges up on the parent,” Radford said.

“If she did what they say, she would have exposed herself to serious perjury charges,” he added. “What would she get out of that? What’s her motive?”

The questions were directed to the district’s spokeswoman, who did not respond.

The legal part of the saga began when Jones submitted the affidavit to Hochul’s office alleging that school administrators had forged her signature in an attempt to say she had participated in the development of the school comprehensive education plan, a road map to improving student learning.

The signature of a parent representative is required to prove to the state that the school involved all stakeholders, including parents, in the development of school-improvement and spending plans.

Jones said she was having a biopsy done at Buffalo General Medical Center at the time she supposedly signed the papers. She later discovered what she said was her forged signatures on other papers.

The controversy heated up even more when Jones alleged that Gillespie wanted her to sign a document later saying she had forgotten that she gave the principal permission to sign her name on the improvement plans, as well as on other documents related to the spending of federal Title I money, including signatures validating cash disbursements and other expenditures.

After Jones refused, she said, the principal warned that she might be transferred to another school.

Jones said she felt compelled to pursue the formal complaint after Gillespie took retaliatory action against her by changing her work schedule because she refused to retract her allegations. The schedule change made it impossible for Jones to participate in scheduled parent-teacher meetings, school-based management team discussions and other meetings that required parent participation.

Her original schedule was restored, she said, but it seemed the campaign of retaliation was not over.

In January of this year, Jones learned that her sixth-grader at Harvey Austin was doing poorly in several subjects.

When she requested a meeting with the teachers to talk about ways to help her child do better, Jones said, she was told there would be no such meeting unless a Buffalo Teachers Federation representative was present to monitor the conversation.

Jones said she was told by an assistant principal and a union representative that the teachers didn’t want to talk with her alone because she had spoken to the media back in October about the forgery case.

It took a human resources administrator to go to the school to look into the matter before Jones was able to meet with her daughter’s teachers.

Radford, the parent council leader, said it is a shame that an issue that could have been resolved by reasonable adults has morphed into a major clash, adding that the district has become desperate.

“If the situation had been managed better, we wouldn’t be here,” he said. “Now it’s just gotten ridiculous, and we’re talking about everything but educating kids.”

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