Rock Hill schools won’t change policies after child pornography allegations

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comApril 20, 2013 

Court documents released last week alleging that 13 images of child pornography were sent to the private cell phone of a former Rock Hill middle school assistant principal won’t result in an overhaul of school policies, officials say.

The documents also allege that photos of students were sent from Darin Pearson’s cell phone to the homeless man in Nashville. Those photos included a mug shot and pictures of students in a library. Pearson was assistant principal at Sullivan Middle School.

The records also say messages were sent from the phone that claimed the user was a principal who sexually assaulted a seventh-grade girl in his office. Rock Hill police found no evidence that a Sullivan Middle School student was assaulted.

“When you have many, many employees, you cannot be fully responsible for judgments they make,” said schools spokeswoman Elaine Baker. “Everybody knows the same procedures. When you have a large number of employees, or even a small number of employees, you cannot be held responsible for the poor judgment an employee makes.”

“I never saw anything out of order in Mr. Pearson in terms of his conduct,” she said.

Several school officials said the district conducts extensive background checks on prospective employees.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police and the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation arrested Pearson at his Charlotte apartment last month, charging him with three counts of sexual exploitation of a minor. They seized his electronics and found several movies of children performing sexual acts in his apartment, according to CMPD arrest warrants.

Their investigation started after police received a tip from the Metro Nashville Police Department, whose investigators said they found a series of iMessages between a homeless man and the operator of a Charlotte mobile phone number.

The man, Earl W. Arnold, 34, had been charged after police say he recorded pictures of high school students on his iPhone in downtown Nashville, court documents show. While looking through his phone, they found that Arnold had sent at least 13 images of child pornography to the Charlotte phone number. The phone user had also sent pictures of himself performing sexual acts.

The user claimed to be a principal at a school, according to court documents, and said he sexually assaulted a seventh-grade girl while disciplining her inside his office. He also suggested that Arnold kidnap, “groom” and forcefully marry a girl, according to the search warrants.

Authorities tracked the Charlotte phone number to a mobile phone registered to Pearson.

Rock Hill Police last month confiscated two computers and an iPod from Pearson’s office at Sullivan Middle School. Last week, police reported that they found no evidence of child pornography on Pearson’s district-issued devices.

After interviewing three students named in messages between Arnold and the user of Pearson’s phone, police said there was no evidence he had been sexually involved with students in Rock Hill.

When Pearson was charged, the school district placed him on paid administrative leave. He later resigned. He worked in the school district for more than a decade. He became a Sullivan assistant principal after first working in the district as a substitute teacher.

“All of this with him shocked all of us in the school system,” Baker said. But, “once that happened at Sullivan, we didn’t go, ‘oh gosh, what did we miss?’ We have been doing the right things all along; we have been following the right procedures all along.”

Those procedures include running State Law Enforcement Division background checks and cross-referencing information with the National Sex Offender Registry on prospective employees, according to the school district’s employee policy manual.

“There isn’t anything we would have done differently in this situation,” said Superintendent Lynn Moody. “We work diligently to just pay attention to signs that may cause red flags for us.”

“(Pearson) had a clean background...strong work ethic...he was a teacher of the year; there were no signs or indications for us,” she said.

“Every appropriate background check that we can possibly make is run on every employee coming into this district,” said school board member Walter Brown. “Can one slip through the cracks? It can happen.”

Records in North and South Carolina indicate that Pearson doesn’t have a prior criminal history in either state.

Pearson’s decision to resign, Brown said, was the right one.

Hiring decisions and background checks are left up to school administrators, said board member Terry Hutchinson.

“We have to have faith in them that they’ve done their due diligence to research prospective employees,” he said. “We have to have faith with our administration that they’re doing their part to make sure we’re hiring competent, trustful, upfront level-headed people.

“We can only do due diligence,” he said, “and hope and pray we don’t miss anything.”

“In the case of Mr. Pearson, he obviously made some very poor judgments, but thankfully for us, they did not involve any students at Sullivan,” he said. “He did that on his own time, not during time he was on the job.”

According to court documents, the user of Pearson’s Charlotte phone claimed he had sexually assaulted a student in his office while disciplining her.

School policies don’t include rules about teachers and students being alone in a classroom or office, but teachers are encouraged to leave their doors open when speaking with a student, Moody said.

“It is not uncommon for an administrator or teacher to be talking to a student in a classroom or office,” Moody said. “That’s what we do.”

The school district invested in offices with glass doors, Moody said, and trains new and beginning teachers on how to appropriately mentor and help students.

“It’s a precaution for the teacher and for the student,” she said.

At Sullivan, those same standards apply, said Mike Waiksnis, the school’s principal. Administrators and staff often discuss professional ethics and decorum, he said. The school also has a comprehensive school safety plan to address violence, weather and other emergencies.

Three full-time school counselors are available for Sullivan students if they have questions, he said, and the school has addressed any concerns posed by parents.

“We’re looking forward to the future and performing higher than before,” he said. “We’re saddened that it happened, but relieved it did not involve” students.

So is Paula Peters, mother to a seventh-grade female student and a bus driver for the district. Peters said Pearson’s allegations are “one incident” and she’d still recommend Sullivan to parents.

She commended the school district for its response, she said, adding, “I trust the teachers and principals” at Sullivan. “I trust the school with all my heart.”

As for Pearson, “as far as I’m concerned, he’s still innocent” until proven guilty, she said.

Until law enforcement comes forward with evidence to prove that Pearson, and not someone else, used his cell phone to receive child pornography and send messages to Earl Arnold, Peters said she will maintain his innocence.

“Anybody could’ve done anything,” she said, pointing out that anyone could grab her cell phone and send a message with her name attached. “What happened with Mr. Pearson, it can happen.”

Billy Bennett, whose nephew is an eighth-grade student at Sullivan, has a different opinion.

“I was kind of surprised,” he said. “It happens a lot...but I never thought it would happen here.”

When Pearson was arrested, the school sent letters to parents and have kept them informed, he said.

In the search warrants obtained by The Herald last week, police allege that Pearson took pictures of students in a school library and sent them to Arnold.

Teachers often take pictures throughout the school, Baker said, during award ceremonies or special events.

The school district’s policies for faculty and staff technology use don’t mention prohibitions for teachers or personnel who take pictures. They do prohibit employees from using electronic communications to “display, send or receive offensive messages or pictures.”

The policy, Baker said, only discusses what an employee can do with district-issued equipment.

“The district can not mandate what our employees do on their personal time,” she said.

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082