Victim-witness walk planned in wake of Norton coach retention

Mike Still • Jun 25, 2019 at 9:04 AM

NORTON — A victim advocacy group is organizing a victim and witness walk two weeks after the Norton School Board voted to retain its high school football coach.

Family Crisis Support Services sexual assault victims advocate Angel Mefford on Monday said the Candlelight Believe Walk will start at 7 p.m. on July 8 at Norton City Park and move along Park Avenue in downtown Norton.

Mefford said the walk stems from events at the school board’s June 10 meeting, when former John I. Burton High School students Taylor Collins and McKenna Kennedy accused coach Jim Adams of making inappropriate comments about their appearance when they were students in his class at Burton.

Despite a recommendation from division Superintendent Gina Wohlford not to renew his contract, Adams was kept as coach on a 5-0 board vote.

Adams was also transferred from his teaching post at Burton to Norton Elementary and Middle School.

“This is for all the students, all the victims, all the witnesses of this account,” Mefford said of the walk.

FCSS Director Marybeth Adkins criticized the board in a social media statement after the June 10 meeting, claiming that the board allowed Collins and Kennedy to be heckled by audience members while they were stating their accusations during the meeting’s public comment segment.

Since the June 10 meeting, Mefford and Adkins said they have had 14 students and former students contact them regarding harassment or inappropriate behavior directed at them while attending Burton.

“A lot of them are contacting us via Facebook,” Adkins said of posts she has received. Some of those posts have been long and detailed, she said.

Mefford and Adkins said that part of the walk’s purpose will be to inform people what services and recourse are available to them as victims of harassment or assault.

“We have a regular support group, but we feel this will warrant its own support group,” Adkins said of the two-week controversy.

Since June 10, the school board has met in two special meetings, each called with less than a day’s notice. On June 13, Board Chairman Cody McElroy called an emergency school board meeting to authorize the board chairman and superintendent to seek legal advice from board attorney G. Rodney Young if the school board is not meeting. All five board members voted for the resolution.

When asked who requested the resolution, McElroy said he did as a housekeeping measure.

On Friday, the board called a second special meeting on less than six hours’ notice to hire the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police as an “independent contractor for investigative functions.”

McElroy on Monday declined to say why VACP was hired except on advice of legal counsel. He referred questions to the board’s attorney.

Young, in an email later Monday to the Kingsport Times News, said that VACP was hired at a $125 hourly rate plus “reasonable travel expenses” paid under Commonwealth of Virginia government travel guidelines.

Young also declined to say specifically who or what VACP would be investigating. When asked why the board did not request the Virginia State Police for an investigation, Young said the board was not requesting a criminal investigation.

“The School Board does not conduct criminal investigations and it did not retain VACP to conduct criminal investigations but to conduct personnel-related investigations to assist the school division in meeting its obligations as an employer and as a public-school division in connection with complaints of misconduct against its employees,” Young wrote.

VACP Executive Director Dana Schrad on Monday said the organization provides non-criminal investigations, assessments and reviews for local government bodies across the state. Many of the consultants VACP provides for those investigations are retired police chiefs.

Schrad said that, if a VACP investigator were to encounter some kind of criminal issue, they would “suspend” involvement and refer the matter to the Virginia State Police.

“Because they understand a criminal investigation, they’re quick to send up a red flag when they encounter a potentially criminal matter,” Schrad said.

“I think bringing in someone from outside was a good idea,” Adkins said.

Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle earlier in June said that department officials had been monitoring the Norton situation via print and television media reports after the June 10 meeting.

“When the department becomes aware of an allegation of misconduct, it is not uncommon for the department to contact the employing school division to offer assistance in the form of information and guidance regarding the division’s responsibilities under relevant state laws and Board of Education regulations,” Pyle said.

The school system in 2018 called on the Norton Police Department and city Social Services Department to investigate allegations against Adams of throwing a stapler in class at a football player, making inappropriate comments to a female student and hitting another female student on the rear with a rolled-up piece of paper.

After police referred results of the investigation to the Wise County and Norton Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, they were told that the stapler incident could not be prosecuted because that student declined to file charges.

As for the incidents involving the females, police were told that the statute of limitations for prosecution on the hitting incident had expired and that both incidents may have been inappropriate but did not rise to the level of criminal charges.

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