Former Beaufort Co. principal sues district for claims he caused ‘fear’ in employees

A former principal says the Beaufort County School District defamed him last year when administrators had him abruptly barred from the school’s building and demoted him after accusing him of having “inappropriate relationships” with staff and causing fear among employees, according to a newly filed lawsuit.

In the suit, Jerry Henderson, formerly of H.E. McCracken Middle School in Bluffton, says he arrived at work one morning in November and was met by a school resource officer who told him he was not allowed on school grounds. Henderson then was asked to meet with district human resources director Alice Walton and was escorted to her office by security, the lawsuit says.

Walton informed him he would be demoted to an assistant principal position in response to the accusations, according to the lawsuit.

Henderson was accused by the district of engaging in an inappropriate relationship with a teacher in the summer of 2018, and of other inappropriate relationships with multiple staff members later in the year, the lawsuit states. The district told him they had interviewed his peers and subordinates about the accusations.

The lawsuit said that Henderson refused the assistant principal position “because he did not engage in any misconduct,” and was then demoted to a STEM coordinator position at the district office.

Henderson says he was falsely accused of all accusations, including a claim he had treated employees unequally.

In November 2018, Henderson made $94,169 as principal of McCracken, a position he held for two years before being transferred to the district’s main office in Beaufort.

As principal, he was in charge of 79 employees, including 46 teachers, as well as support staff and administrators in the building, according to school spokesman Jim Foster and South Carolina’s school report cards.

As STEM coordinator, Henderson worked out of the district office in Beaufort, and advised teachers at nine district schools to research best practices and create lesson plans. Henderson kept his principal salary in the position, which had paid $30,000 less to the previous person who held the job, according to a district database. It is unclear whether Henderson managed any employees as STEM coordinator, but the position posted by the district this month did not include managerial duties.

In the lawsuit, Henderson says he performed his job as principal “in a competent, if not more than competent, manner during his employment, as reflected by his various promotions” in the district.

Henderson joined the district as an assistant principal at Beaufort Middle School in 2011, and served as an interim director at the Beaufort-Jasper Academy of Career Excellence from 2015 to 2016 before landing the principal position at McCracken. He resigned from the district when his contract expired on June 30, according to Foster.

The school district came under fire in January about the differences in its treatment of Henderson and former Hilton Head Island principal Amanda O’Nan, who was placed on paid administrative leave during a district investigation into renewed accusations that she had conducted an on-campus extramarital affair with an on-duty Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office deputy.

At the time, the district would not comment on the different treatment of the two principals, whether or not Henderson had been investigated, or the nature of the “inappropriate relationship” he allegedly had. After The Island Packet published a story about Henderson’s removal, the district issued a statement saying that Henderson was not transferred due to a sexual relationship.

Foster declined to comment on the lawsuit Thursday, citing pending litigation.

Henderson is seeking damages, but the lawsuit does not specify an amount.

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Rachel Jones covers education for the Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked for the Daily Tar Heel and Charlotte Observer. Rachel grew up in Ayden, NC, surrounded by teachers.