Possible harassment being investigated at ACE, officer says

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comOctober 15, 2013 

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Three computer hard drives were seized Oct. 3 from Beaufort-Jasper Academy for Career Excellence, part of an investigation of alleged harassing letters sent to school employees, Chief Deputy Roy Hughes of the Jasper County Sheriff's Office said Monday.

Several employees have received letters that accuse them of "marital misconduct" and are "just slanderous and cruel in nature, defaming character," Hughes said. He would not release the names of the employees who received the letters or whose hard drives were taken, because the investigation continues, he said.

Hughes also said the agency does not have any suspects, but is looking at several people in an "investigative nature."

ACE school board member Jim Beckert said it was his understanding that the three hard drives seized belong to school administrators.

THE RESIGNATION

Former ACE director Deonia Simmons resigned Oct. 4, the day after the hard drives were seized. He had been at the school since July 1, 2012.

In his resignation letter, Simmons said he had a job opportunity in another state. Board chairman Earl Campbell said Simmons has not told the board what or where the job is.

Attempts Monday to reach Simmons were unsuccessful.

Campbell has said he doesn't know whether the investigation and Simmons' resignation are related.

"All I can say is what (Simmons) said to me in the letter," Campbell has said.

However, Beckert said he thinks the timing is unusual.

The timing "gives me great concern," he said. "I have not seen nor heard anything about Dr. Simmons since the information we received during the special board meeting last week."

The academy's governing board -- which includes three members from the Beaufort County Board of Education and three members from the Jasper County board -- called a special meeting Thursday to discuss personnel matters.

After a closed session that lasted more than two hours, the board voted 5-1 to accept Simmons' resignation. Beckert dissented because he said Simmons shouldn't be let out of his contract so easily.

The board also voted unanimously to appoint two interim co-directors to serve until the end of the school year or until a new director is appointed, whichever comes first.

The board appointed assistant director Dandi Daniels as one of the interim directors. The other interim director has not yet been named.

Campbell said the board is gathering candidates -- some from within the Beaufort County and Jasper County school districts, as well as suggestions from the school's attorneys at the Childs & Halligan law firm. The board will then select someone to fill the position as soon as possible, Campbell said.

THE INVESTIGATION

The investigation began in early September, Hughes said, soon after the academy's school resource officer, who works for the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office, filed a report Aug. 22 concerning suspicious activity at the school.

Hughes said Daniels went to the officer, Cpl. Aaron Bilcze, to report a letter that was sent to someone about an affair between school employees. Attempts Monday to reach Daniels were unsuccessful.

The Jasper County Sheriff's Office soon became involved, and Hughes said the investigation revealed that the letters possibly were coming from a computer at the school.

"The investigation put us in the direction to seize those specific hard drives," Hughes said.

The agency is looking for evidence that would link someone to the letters, he said. He could not give an exact number, but Hughes said there were fewer than five letters the agency is investigating. He said he was not aware of any threats being made in the letters.

The Sheriff's Office is starting its forensic analysis of the hard drives. Hughes said outside computer experts are being brought in to help, but that the work could take awhile.

The agency is working to finish the investigation to determine what, if any, charges would be filed, Hughes said.

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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