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Ross D. Franklin  

Carolina Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen (7) throws against the Arizona Cardinals during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)


Z-no-digital
Sexton: Decisions loom for family of child with Down syndrome following judge's ruling against Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools

McNeil and Kelly Cronin didn’t set out to become crusaders. They just wanted to fight for their kid.

But as things turned out, pushing back against the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools for putting their then-6-year-old (now 7) into a segregated trailer behind South Fork Elementary — their little girl Quinn has Down syndrome — the Cronins found themselves in the uncomfortable position of speaking on behalf of other parents with disabled kids.

In late August, they won a lengthy legal battle over the treatment of their daughter. An administrative law judge determined, among other things, that school administrators had violated federal law, found a principal’s testimony “questionably credible” and that the school had made decisions about Quinn’s placement without bothering to collect actual data beforehand.

Put another way, a judge ruled that the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools broke the law, misled the parents of a disabled child and gave false information under oath.

“It was tough,” McNeil Cronin said. “We believe in public schools, but the teachers and students deserve better leadership.”

Now nearly a month later, the Cronins find themselves with decisions to make and facing a ticking clock.

Fighting back

Reading all 110 pages of the judge’s order is a tall task. It’s filled with jargon, acronyms and medical terms. It can alternately cure insomnia and make your eyeballs bleed.

Still, it’s an important ruling, a seeming thunderbolt out of nowhere that was actually months in the making. It has the potential, if broadly applied and other parents follow suit, to further roil an overtaxed system for helping children with disabilities.

“We thought we could fix things with phone calls and writing letters,” said Kelly Cronin. “We figured the whole thing was a mistake, that maybe (administrators) just didn’t understand the law. We didn’t have a choice.”

The best place to understand a complicated situation is, as always, in the beginning.

And in this instance, that would be in March 2018 when the Cronins started looking for a school for Quinn. Their first choice was Whitaker Elementary.

“We moved into the area to be at Whitaker,” McNeil Cronin said. “We imagined all our kids and their friends going to a neighborhood school together.”

They also wanted Quinn to be in a mainstream kindergarten classroom with other kids her age, which she’d grown accustomed to in preschool.

That’s where trouble started. She attended Whitaker for all of nine days that fall before administrators decided to transfer her to South Fork Elementary.

Quinn’s parents said that Whitaker staff began by removing Quinn from her classes for long periods without informing them.

“That’s not giving her a chance to succeed or fail,” McNeil Cronin said.

At one point, Sharon Creasy, the principal at Whitaker, blurted out in a meeting with the Cronins that Quinn would never have been placed at the school “had we known she had Down syndrome,” according to court documents.

Whoops.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but that sounds a lot like discrimination and a violation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a 1975 law that guarantees students with disabilities a free and appropriate public education.

Quinn’s transfer to South Fork, her parents say, resulted in her being separated from her classmates and shuffled off to a trailer with other kids with a range of disabilities.

“It was children with drastically different conditions and drastically different needs with teaching roles etc.,” Cronin McNeil said. “Some kids needed 1-on-1 aid all day. Others could have done just fine in a regular classroom.

“The idea that was what’s best for those kids is a joke.”

Because they felt that Quinn’s rights had been violated — and because they had the means to do so — the Cronins filed a petition in November 2018 for a case hearing. More or less, they filed a lawsuit.

“We realize we’re fortunate,” McNeil Cronin said. “And we know there are other parents out there who aren’t. We hoped it might help them, too.”

‘Minds made up’

A weeklong hearing was held in Raleigh in the spring. The Cronins commuted every day and then waited months for a ruling. When it was finalized in late August, they took it as a resounding win and vindication.

“It was a relief, but we knew we were right,” Kelly Cronin said.

In plain English, Stacey Bawtinhimer decided that Quinn belonged in a regular classroom and that school officials had made up their minds that she didn’t without gathering enough evidence. And worse, they weren’t truthful.

Indeed, parts of the ruling are pretty damning. And that’s even more remarkable when you consider that state law “provides the actions of local boards of education are presumed to be correct” in these matters.

An advocate for the Cronins present at one meeting said that the attitude of school officials was “unwelcoming and fairly hostile in a defensive way” and that it was “very clear from the beginning that their minds had already been made up as to what was going to happen.”

In another section, Bawtinhimer wrote that she “did not find Principal Creasy credible” and that her testimony “frequently did not align with the documentary evidence.” And at least one other school official, the judge took care to note, admitted that statements she gave in a sworn affidavit were false.

Ouch. It doesn’t take a law degree to realize that doesn’t sound good.

The judge ordered school administrators to come up with a new plan for Quinn and make sure she gets the services she needs to succeed in a regular class.

Oh, and the school system was ordered to reimburse the Cronins for expenses related to enrolling their daughter at Forsyth Country Day School, where they decided to send her following the decision to transfer to South Fork.

After the decision was made public, school officials responded by saying they were considering whether to appeal and used an old stand-by to decline comment and duck a public apology.

“While the Cronin family has the ability to tell their side of the story freely, federal student privacy laws prevent us from talking specifically about this student,” wrote Brent Campbell, a spokesman for the school system in August in a prepared statement.

Late last week, Campbell indicated that school officials had decided not to appeal. Based on the judge’s decision, that seems the wise (and less expensive) move.

So now the Cronins face a decision in the near future: whether to re-enroll Quinn in a public school after seeing what school officials come up with once the new court-ordered education plan is completed.

“We’ll stay open minded about what they can offer,” McNeil Cronin said. “How we feel now is hopeful … a 45-year-old law has been completely vindicated. But there is a loss of trust that needs to be repaired.”

Photos: Quinn Cronin

Local
N.C. House Minority leader plans event to address state budget veto override

The N.C. House Minority legislative leader plans to hold a press conference today to address the chamber’s controversial override vote of the state budget.

Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, said in a brief announcement he will make his presentation at noon.

Today would be Day 87 since House Bill 966, the Republican state budget compromise, was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper on June 28.

It also would be 11 days since the House voted 55-15 along party lines on Sept. 11 to override the veto with 40 Democrats not present, many in a redistricting caucus meeting.

There are 65 Republicans and 55 Democrats in the House. At full attendance, the GOP would have needed at least seven Democratic votes for a successful override.

The Senate, which has a 29-21 Republican majority, has not placed its attempt at a veto override on the floor agenda. It would take at least one Democratic senator to support the override at full attendance.

There are no floor votes scheduled for the House or Senate next week.

The tactics used by state House GOP leadership to override two high-profile Cooper vetoes may have been within legislative boundaries. The House also overrode the veto of House Bill 655, the Medicaid managed-care legislation.

However, holding a vote when the bulk of Democratic leaders were not present may have done lasting damage to the legislative process, according to ethics experts and political analysts.

Jackson spokesman Todd Barlow said Jackson does not have plans to discuss HB555 in his prepared remarks.

“I don’t know of any legal or parliamentary recourse the House Democrats have when it comes to the veto override,” said Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation.

Zagros Madjd-Sadjadi, an economics professor at Winston-State University, said he expects any legal pursuit by Jackson and Democratic legislators to not succeed.

“The courts will almost certainly defer to the legislature on this as it is considered to be a political question,” Madjd-Sadjadi said.

“The Republicans also control the chamber, so they can pass rules they like. This is to be expected and the Democrats would do the same if they were in power.

“What the Democrats need to do is stop relying on the ‘spirit’ of the rules and instead ‘work to rule’ if they want to ensure this does not happen again,” Madjd-Sadjadi said. “They can also try to make this a major issue on which they are running in order to get their base energized.”

Jackson submitted motions to recall the veto override votes during the Sept. 11 afternoon session when most members at the legislature were present.

“All we’re asking is that we do things a proper way so we don’t have probably the most toxic work environment that we’ve had, for the next two months we’re working together,” Rep. Robert Reives, D-Chatham, said.

The motions were voted down 61-54 along party lines.

“If Jackson has something new to add to the story of the budget veto override, he hasn’t tipped his hand yet,” Kokai said.

“It’s possible that the news conference is designed to help reinforce to Senate Democrats the message that they should stick with their House counterparts and the Democratic governor in the on-going budget fight.”

Jackson has said he had been informed by Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, that there would be no votes taken in the Sept. 11 morning session. Following the Sept. 10 House floor session, Lewis texted a WRAL reporter “no votes 8:30” when asked about the Sept. 11 morning session agenda.

“I know that (Rep Jackson’s) trust in me has been shaken, but I did not have the authority to conduct no votes,” Lewis said during Sept. 11 afternoon’s floor session.

House speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, has been unapologetic about how the override votes were conducted.

Moore said he did not manipulate the House floor calendar to mislead House Democrats.

“Most of the (GOP) caucus showed up thinking that we were going to be voting on bills,” Moore said Sept. 11.

“I’ve made it clear. I’ve said it from right here, on the floor, everywhere: If I see an opportunity to override this budget, this veto, I was gonna take that vote.

“If they didn’t want it to pass, all they have to do is show up for work,” Moore said.

House GOP leadership did not call for a veto override vote for 37 consecutive floor sessions when there were between 108 and 120 members present during voting sessions.

Jackson has questioned how House GOP leadership planned to hold such critical veto override votes at 8:30 a.m. if most Democrats were in attendance, particularly when a House Finance committee meeting was set for 9 a.m. to address two mini-budget bills that were GOP priorities.

“Republicans waged an assault on our Democracy,” Cooper said in response to the veto override vote. “They cheated the people of North Carolina.”

Cooper said that “we still have the opportunity to sustain this veto in the Senate, and I implore Democratic senators to remain steadfast.”

Sen. Paul Lowe Jr., D-Forsyth, said separately that “the veto override will come to the Senate at some point and we plan to have enough votes to sustain Governor Cooper’s veto.”


Crime
Peeping and trespassing incidents at Wake Forest University prompt suspension of law license for former Wilkes and Yadkin county prosecutor

The N.C. State Bar has suspended a former prosecutor in Wilkes and Yadkin counties who was convicted of using a handheld mirror under a desk to look at a female student at Wake Forest University.

But that suspension has been stayed for two years as long as the former prosecutor complies with certain conditions.

Brooke McKinley Webster, 45, of Surrey Path Court in Winston-Salem, was convicted of misdemeanor secret peeping and second-degree trespass in Forsyth District Court on Jan. 16 and was placed on unsupervised probation for a year.

Webster had admitted guilt to the misdemeanor secret peeping charge on Nov. 22, 2017, but he was not convicted at the time because he entered a deferred-prosecution program, which is for defendants who have no prior convictions for misdemeanor crimes and some felonies. As part of the program, Webster agreed to comply with a number of conditions, including staying off Wake Forest’s campus.

He didn’t stay off the university’s campus, and as a result, he violated the agreement. If he had complied, Forsyth County prosecutors would have voluntarily dismissed the charge in November 2018. Instead, prosecutors used his admission of guilt to obtain the conviction for misdemeanor secret peeping and then Webster pleaded guilty to second-degree trespassing.

The initial incident of secret peeping happened on April 20, 2017, at Z. Smith Reynolds Library on WFU’s campus. Wake Forest police escorted Webster off campus and issued him a trespass warning, meaning he would be arrested if he came back on campus.

WFU police increased campus patrols and monitoring of suspicious individuals after this incident happened.

On Sept. 20, 2018, Webster came back to campus. Webster told campus police that he was using the school as a cut-through, but Assistant District Attorney Lizmar Bosques said that the police investigation indicated that Webster was on campus for far longer than it would take to simply drive through the campus.

The N.C. State Bar issued a consent order of discipline against Webster on Sept. 5. Webster did not dispute anything in the consent order and admitted to the underlying findings of fact.

The order said that by “engaging in secret peeping and trespassing, Webster committed criminal offenses reflecting adversely on his trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer.”

The State Bar also noted Webster’s work as a prosecutor.

“Due to Defendant’s status as a criminal prosecutor at the time of his original criminal offense, there was considerable media coverage of his arrests, which caused a particularly significant risk of harm to public perception of attorneys and the judicial system,” the order said.

The State Bar determined that suspension was appropriate but also stayed the decision for two years, which means that Webster can still practice law. To keep his suspension stayed, Webster has to abide by a number of conditions, including getting a psychological evaluation and complying with whatever treatment is recommended.

He also cannot get into any more trouble with the law or violate any State Bar rules of professional conduct during the two years.

Webster worked as an assistant district attorney in Wilkes and Yadkin counties and handled Superior Court cases. He resigned April 24, 2017, according to a statement from Tom Horner, the district attorney for Wilkes, Alleghany, Ashe and Yadkin counties. He had worked in the office since 2006.