By Richard Sullins |

While last week’s meeting of the Lee County Board of Education was notable due to the departure of longtime Superintendent Dr. Andy Bryan, it also contained an update about the circumstances surrounding the charges of sexual abuse of students against a former SanLee Middle School teacher.

During the meeting, Republican Board Chair Sherry Womack read a prepared statement summarizing the findings of an external investigation into the situation board members said was intended to inform the public about the findings and “a review of the school system’s policies, training, and safety plans to seek improvements that would help prevent something like that from ever happening again.”

The investigation found no evidence that any teacher or staff member at SanLee had knowledge that Andrew Braxton Allen of Siler City, who was hired as a sixth-grade teacher in 2012, was allegedly abusing students. It also found no complaints or reports from students or parents regarding any abuse before the report received last November that led to the arrest.

Allen was suspended with pay on November 2 after authorities received a report that day of “an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and a student” at the middle school. Two days later, he was suspended without pay after an investigation by Lee County Schools. He resigned his position on November 6.

A Lee County grand jury was empaneled to investigate the charges and returned an indictment against Allen on November 14 on three charges: statutory sex offense with a child by an adult, indecent liberties with a child, and sexual activity with a student. Allen was taken into custody on November 17 and held initially on $250,000 bond. That amount was increased to $2 million the following day and he is now being held in Raleigh’s Central Prison awaiting trial.

The process that resulted in last week’s statement began in December when Republicans took control of the school board. At the new board’s first meeting on December 13, it adopted a measure offered by new member and Republican Alan Rummel to have Bryan bring a list of qualified candidates to its January meeting to perform an external investigation.

At the time, Rummel justified the need for an outside legal firm to conduct an independent investigation by saying that the school board needed to ensure that nothing had been missed in the criminal case being assembled by the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. The board voted to authorize $15,000 for the inquiry, and added an additional $15,000 weeks later.

The board held two specially called closed meetings on April 20 and 24 with their outside counsel, Elizabeth Troutman of the Raleigh firm Brooks Pierce, before making a summary of their findings public.

Womack also sought to make clear that the board’s review was a limited one and not a criminal investigation that might have competed with the ongoing case being assembled by the District Attorney’s Office and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. The inquiry was limited to what was known about Allen’s alleged activities over the years and whether policies and processes needed to be tightened up, although the wording of the statement could lend support to the belief that more than one student was assaulted by the former teacher.

“The review did not include interviews with Andrew Allen or any of his victims. We only have access to our own documents and may not have other information shared with the police from other sources, including private communication outside of our school system,” she said.

The five-month study points to several areas where improvements could be made to reduce the chances of a similar crime in the future.

“We plan to conduct more detailed anti-grooming training for both staff and students. We will review the changes to board policies and school level procedures to clarify boundaries that staff must adhere to in their interactions with students,” Womack said. “Finally, we will clarify staff roles and improve our Title IX complaint and review process to create clear lines of communication for any future concerns. Because of the confidential nature of the information involved in this matter, and because of the ongoing criminal investigation against Andrew Allen, the board will not be providing further comments on the matter at this time.”