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GETTING RESULTS: Baltimore Charter School Operator Fires Freddie Dean Smith Following TOTS Investigation

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GETTING RESULTS: Baltimore Charter School Operator Fires Freddie Dean Smith Following TOTS Investigation

March 14, 2016 - 22:34
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Freddie Dean Smith (seated) at the ConneXions School

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BALTIMORE, MD -- The Baltimore Teachers Network, a charter school operator in the Baltimore City Public School district, fired former Assistant Superintendent of the City School District of New Rochelle Freddie Dean Smith on Thursday following an interview of BTN Executive Director Elijah Etheridge the previous day by Talk of the Sound. The interview was the culmination of a three month investigation by Talk of the Sounf into how Smith was hired at BTN. The investigation was based on information supplied by the Maryland State Department of Education, the Maryland Attorney General, the Virginia Department of Education, the University of Virginia and BCPS.

Smith made headlines in Westchester County in 2009 when he was abruptly terminated as Superintendent of the Pocantico Hills School District over charges of plagiarism. From 2003 to 2010 worked as a schools administrator in New York State in White Plains, New Rochelle, Pocanitco Hills, Troy and Yonkers and was listed as Principal for a proposed charter school in Harlem in 2011.

The Baltimore Teacher Network operates two BCPS charter schools, Independence School Local 1 and ConneXions.

During a phone interview, Etheridge was asked to respond to records showing that Smith has an extensive criminal record including convictions for crimes of violence and sex crimes and a felony conviction for endangering the life of a police officer.

"After careful review and consideration of the information [provided by Talk of the Sound]we have decided to terminate the employment of the individual in question," said Etheridge.

Etheridge said that prior to the interview he was unaware of Smith's criminal past.  Told Talk of the Sound has published numerous reports detailing Smith's criminal history, Etheridge said he was aware of reports about Smith published online but saw nothing in them that would disqualify him as a candidate. He admitted that Smith was passed over for a principalship to run a BTN school based on online information about Smith which largely consists of reporting by Talk of the Sound.

"We thought he was a formidable candidate," said Etheridge. "We were surprised by a number things we saw online."

"He came to us in response to an ad for a principal position," said Etheridge. "He had an impressive package of accomplishments".

"He made it to the second or third round when he met with the board. One of our board members came across stories about Smith online, but nothing about any criminal convictions."

Etheridge said, somewhat contradictorily. that he was both "taken aback" by what he saw about Smith online and saw no indications of mismanagement or that Smith was unsafe with children".

Etheridge, who does the hiring and firing at BTN, said he did not see any legal judgements against Smith online. Smith said  "no" when asked if there was anything that would put up a "stop sign" to working in a school. The BTN board decided it was best to pass on Smith as Principal in favor of other qualified candidates who did not have similar baggage.

When a job opened up to provide support to principals, Smith was reconsidered.

"We decided to submit his fingerprints and if BCPS gave him 'a badge' we'd hire him," said Etheridge who felt Smith deserved a second chance. Smith came back a few days later with his BCPS security badge, dated January 2015, and was hired in November 2015.

As far as BTN was concerned, Smith passed two BCPS criminal background checks and saw no reason not to hire Fred Smith as BTN's Deputy Director of Advocacy & School Administration, a job which paid Smith up to $45,000 a year.

Etheridge said that BCPS does not send any written confirmation that a job candidate has passed a criminal background. They issue a badge and nothing more. 

Etheridge would have good reason to avoid hiring Smith, a convicted criminal, to work directly in a BTN school.

Under Maryland State law, non-public schools may not hire or retain individuals who have been convicted of sexual crimes or crimes of violence and, under Maryland statute § 2-206.1 (1), the State Board is required to revoke the certificate of approval of a nonpublic school that does so. BTN is a non-profit which operates two charter schools in the Baltimore City school districts. By hiring Smith to work for the non-profit organization rather than one of the schools, BTN could skirt Maryland law that would prohibit Smith from working at a school while working directly with building leadership at those schools.

In a wide-ranging interview, Etheridge said Smith had checked "no" on his BTN job application when asked if he had ever been convicted of a crime. 

During the interview, Etheridge said he had received a call from investigators at the BCPS Staff Investigation Unit about Smith. Sally Robinson, an attorney for BCPS, likewise suggested contacting SIU, saying it might be worthwhile to talk to the Staff Investigation Unit. Reached for comment, BCPS SIU said it was against their policy to comment on active investigations, if there was one.

The Maryland State Department of Education confirmed that based on reporting by Talk of the Sound, Smith is currently the subject of a state investigation into whether he lied on his license renewal application. The Maryland Attorney General is involved as well. Based on records obtained under a Maryland Public Information Act request filed by Talk of the Sound in January, Smith claimed, in 2015, to have been awarded a doctorate. Smith's doctorate, awarded by the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia in 2003, was revoked in 2009 after a UVA committee determine Smith had plagiarized more than 30% of his dissertation. 

Based on previous reporting by Talk of the Sound's application for a renewal of his administrative license was denied in April 2015 by the Virginia Department of Education which reported Smith to the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, a non-profit clearinghouse for tracking teacher and administrator discipline.

If Maryland bans Smith, as appears likely, Smith will have been banned in New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and New York City.

Inexplicably, Smith remains licensed and in "good standing" with the New York State Education Department.

"He should never have been given approval in the first place, " said New York State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, a member of the Assembly Education Committee whose district includes two of the school districts which hired Smith, New Rochelle and White Plains, after NYSED licensed the convicted felon.

"Part of the problem is that we don't know how NY is "considering him", said Paulin. "They say they "flagged" him without explaining what that means."

Paulin is working to change New York State law so that all local school district are provided the results of criminal background checks, not just New York City.

Maryland SED renewed Smith's license -- he had previously worked for the Prince George's County School district -- largely based on Smith's active administrative license in New York.

"Smith had an active Advanced Professional Certificate in Maryland both in counseling and administration, said Bill Reinhard Public Information Officer for the Maryland State Department of Education. "He left Maryland.  Upon his return, he reapplied and our certification office would have checked with New York to see if his certificate was active."

Smith's certificate was active in New York despite claims by NYSED in 2014 that Smith was the subject of a Part 83 "moral fitness" investigation and that there was an audit into who approved Smith's license in 2003. NYSED had told Paulin a year ago that action on Smith's license was "imminent".

Reinhard explained that while the state is responsible for licensing in Maryland, local school districts handle criminal background checks.

"The Baltimore City Schools Human Capital office would have done the background check required prior to hiring Smith," said Reinhard.

Sally Robinson, Legal Counsel for BCPS, denied a freedom of information request for Smith's hiring records on the grounds that Smith was employed by BTN not BCPS. Etheridge said Smith's BTN employment records were sealed and could only be opened by a court order.

Over the course of the interview, Etheridge sounded surprised that much of what impressed BTN about Smith were lies.  He was asked about claims by Smith to have taught courses at the University of South Carolina, obtain a fellowship to study in South Korea, graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy and much more.

Asked if Smith had claimed, as he has in the past, that he was the grandson of George Edward Chalmers Hayes, one of the lawyers in the Brown v. Board of Education case, Etheridge said he had.

“He has a photo of George Hayes on the wall of his office,” said Etheridge.

Told that Hayes had no children and by extension no grandchildren, Etheridge was silent.

Smith claimed his doctorate was revoked over a simple mixup in citations. Etheridge said that sounded plausible but a moment later agreed a dissertation advisor would not allow a candidate with such citation issues to even summit the dissertation to the committee.

Told that Smith had a history which suggested he was a con man and a fraud in addition to possessing a lengthy record as a convicted criminal with over a dozen criminal convictions, Etheridge said if the information were accurate he would share the information with the BTN board at their next meeting on March 21st and that appropriate action would be taken. Information to this effect was provided to Etheridge who responded by terminating Smith.

Smith, who has served several stints in jail, was serving out his sentence, on probation, for a felony conviction in Virginia for Endangering the Life of a Police Officer at the time he was granted a school administrators license in New York. Several months later, after he was licensed in New York, Smith was convicted on two separate sex crimes charges in South Carolina, one from 2001 and another from 2003. In both cases, Smith followed women around stores in Spartanburg, pulled out his penis and masturbated while standing behind the women. Either conviction should have led to the revocation of his NYSED license. Other convictions included assault, check fraud, larceny, stalking and dozens of serious traffic violations.

Maryland has strict laws regarding the hiring of individuals who have been convicted of sexual crimes or crimes of violence to work for public and non-public schools. Schools can lose their state certification. An applicant for an education license who is found to have made a material misrepresentation or concealment in an application or filed a false report or record about a material matter in the application for certificate may have their license suspended or revoked.

The Freddie Dean Smith case in New York has been an ongoing travesty but Smith's experience in Maryland suggests loopholes that need to be closed in the Old Line State:

  • Smith was able to work in schools in the Baltimore City Public School district by working as a consultant and working for a non-profit which runs BCPS charter schools.
  • BCPS does not independently verify to a non-public school that a prospective job candidate has had a background check let alone whether the person passed or failed.
  • It appears impossible that BCPS ran a 50-state criminal background check on Smith because several of his convictions would automatically disqualify a candidate and yet he passed, twice.
  • MSDE failed to verify Smith's doctorate, relying instead on what may have been an altered UVA transcript. 
  • A BTN board member flagged Smith based on a Google search but there was no follow up by BTN.
  • No one at BTN, BCPS or MSED bothered to do even the most limited fact-checking of Smith's record.

Smith did not reply to requests for comment.

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