HILTON HEAD

Missing letter, reported stolen, triggers new security measures at Hilton Head High

rheaton@beaufortgazette.comAugust 14, 2012 

SPECIAL TO THE PACKET AND GAZETTE

New security measures are in place at Hilton Head Island High School after a controversial letter was reported stolen from a personnel file and financial records that later became part of a criminal inquiry disappeared from the bookkeeper's office.

Schools officials are providing few details about the security changes. However, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said the school resource officer assigned to Hilton Head High has been reprimanded because of a months-long delay in reporting one of the incidents.

"There's definitely a heightened awareness" about document security, said principal Amanda O'Nan. She declined to describe the school's new procedures, saying she doesn't want to tip anyone to locks, cameras or other measures intended to keep papers away from prying eyes and sticky fingers.

Chris Barrow, the Beaufort County School District's protective services coordinator, said he worked with the school last week to make documents more secure, but also declined to provide details.

Among the missing documents were receipts and purchase orders for the school's football team. O'Nan said they disappeared from the bookkeeper's office sometime between March and April. They reappeared in June -- in time to be reviewed by the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division as part of its examination of a nonprofit mentoring organization run by the Seahawks' former football coach.

The missing letter, written by former Seahawks athletics director Mark Karen to O'Nan, criticized the school district and superintendent Valerie Truesdale. It was sent as an email attachment this past May, and O'Nan said she instructed her secretary to print out a copy and put it in Karen's file. The principal reported the hard copy stolen July 31, after copies were leaked to The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.

COMMON DENOMINATOR?

O'Nan said in an interview July 31 that she suspects the disappearances are connected: "I heard y'all had this letter, I thought that person has got to be connected, and if I can find out who did this, I can find out who took the football file."

Both sets of papers involve documents related to controversies that arose last school year around Tim Singleton, the former Seahawks football coach and head of the Strive to Excel mentoring program that operated out of the school.

Last August, Singleton was suspended and the school penalized for S.C. High School League rules violations. Shortly thereafter, Strive's financial and governance problems began to surface.

Strive board members -- and even Singleton himself -- have admitted the coach and nonprofit president was not a careful bookkeeper, and former school and booster club officials have complained he improperly mingled the finances of Strive and the football program.

Strive ceased operations in December and folded altogether in January, about the time the state Attorney General's Office began an inquiry into the nonprofit group.

By that time, Singleton also was out as Hilton Head High's football coach, fired in November after a 4-7 season.

However, Karen says he lobbied for Singleton's dismissal as early as last August. His letter accused Truesdale of concealing his recommendation and misleading the media about how decisions regarding Singleton's continued employment were made.

THE RECEIPTS

According to a Beaufort County Sheriff's Office report, the school bookkeeper was completing routine file maintenance in mid-April when she discovered the football team's file was missing from her office. It was last seen March 20, according to the report.

Attempts to reach the bookkeeper for comment were unsuccessful.

In an interview last week, Karen said the bookkeeper came to him to see if he had the file folder. He didn't, so the two went to O'Nan to tell her the documents were missing. Karen said he didn't find the file's disappearance alarming.

"There's no tax documents or personnel things in those (files)," Karen said. "There's nothing in there that if we didn't need another copy we couldn't get it from someone."

The bookkeeper and school resource officer, Sgt. Kangaroo Jansons, searched the bookkeeper's office April 19. They didn't find the folder, and Jansons prepared an incident report, in which the bookkeeper explained that she locks her office but not her filing cabinet.

The report did not say who might have been able to open the bookkeeper's locked office, but O'Nan said in an interview that only a handful of administrators and custodians would have had a master key. She said she did not think Karen had a master key, and Singleton had not worked in the building for months at that point.

Karen said that sometime in May or June, the file reappeared in his mailbox in the teachers' workroom. Nothing was missing, as far as he could tell.

O'Nan declined to say whether anything was missing from the file.

The file was returned in time for a SLED investigator to see it when he came to the school the second week of June, said Karen, who has since left Hilton Head High to become the athletics director at a Georgia high school.

SLED handles investigations for the S.C. Attorney General's Office, according to Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner.

Both the Attorney General's Office and S.C. Secretary of State's Office said last week their investigations of Strive continue but offered no further details.

SLOW TO REPORT

Although Jansons filled out an incident report about the missing football file April 19 -- the day he and the bookkeeper searched the office for it -- it was not filed until Aug. 9, after the Packet and Gazette requested it from the Sheriff's Office.

After an administrative inquiry into the delay, Jansons was reprimanded for not filing the report immediately, Tanner said.

The report says O'Nan did not want it filed; Jansons completed it, nonetheless, and gave it to the principal, hoping she would change her mind, Tanner said.

Several attempts to contact O'Nan for a follow-up interview were unsuccessful.

Beyond Jansons' search of the bookkeeper's office, the disappearance was not investigated, Tanner said.

THE EMAIL

A hard copy of Karen's email criticizing Truesdale was stolen from the main office, O'Nan states in a separate Sheriff's Office incident report filed July 31, about four days after the school district learned the newspapers had obtained two copies.

The email had been withheld by the school district from a public-records request by the newspapers. Truesdale and district spokesman Jim Foster said the document was omitted from the request because disclosing it would violate Karen's privacy. However, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association, who examined the newspapers' request and Karen's email, said the district violated the state's Freedom of Information Act by withholding it.

The newspapers' copies of the email thread include correspondence from Karen to O'Nan, two attached letters and a message O'Nan forwarded to her secretary, instructing her to "file under Mark."

In the incident report, O'Nan said the school's hard copy was taken from her secretary's desk drawer and that several staff members and students might have had access to the desk, which is in the main office.

Attempts to reach the secretary were unsuccessful.

In an interview, O'Nan said she never saw a hard copy of the email and that there would have been no reason for it to leave the school building. She referred further questions to the Sheriff's Office, which did not investigate the missing email, according to a spokeswoman.

Related content

  1. Former AD's letter accuses Truesdale of double-dealing; Aug. 4, 2012
  2. District concealed email critical of superintendent; Aug. 4, 2012

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