Student abandons secular club at Pisgah, citing threatsSchool investigation suggests issue was a publicity stunt
Despite an internal investigation concluding no student's constitutional rights were violated at Pisgah High School and a decision by freshman Kalei Wilson to abandon her quest to form a student secular club, the issue may not be over.
Kalei's father, Cash, recently said he is no longer commenting on the issue upon the advice of his attorney, and the school attorney claims false accusations have been made against the school system and its employees.
Immediately after the Hawyood County Schools received letters threatening legal action unless a student secular club was authorized, Superintendent Anne Garrett directed Pat Smathers, the school board's attorney, to get to the bottom of the matter. Smathers released his 56-page report this week, which concluded there was no reasonable or credible basis for allegations that Pisgah High School and the school system violated any student's constitutional rights.
"It is my opinion your allegations ... are without merit and baseless," Smathers wrote, stating he thought they arose from a "manufactured controversy" caused by a parent's influence on his children and a desire for publicity and potential financial gain.
The investigation report was sent to Chris Brook, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Patrick Elliott of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, organizations that had threatened legal action against the school.
Pisgah’s secular club was scheduled to hold its first meeting on Feb. 28, but according to a Feb. 25 post on Kalei’s GoFundMe donation page, the club will no longer continue “due to the numerous threats and the verbal attacks on Kalei, along with the vindictive witch-hunt to hurt the reputations of affiliated local groups and our own family.”
Kalei originally stated she was unable to find club sponsors, but the effort was advanced on Feb. 17 when Pisgah Principal Greg Bailey found two faculty sponsors to oversee the group, though one later changed her mind.
Smathers’ investigation referenced a past criminal offense that could potentially harm the Wilson family, a turn that caught the Cash Wilson off guard when he was asked about it by The Mountaineer. He said the issue was one that occurred decades ago and had absolutely no bearing on the efforts by his daughter to form a club at Pisgah High School.
Closing the club
In a previous interview, Kalei said she had been receiving dirty looks and harassing messages online and was even worried she would be beaten up.
PHS Principal Greg Bailey said in an email he had only received one report of potential bullying from Kalei, which he investigated.
“Working with the reporting student, no PHS students were identified thus no discipline was assigned,” Bailey noted. “ … No further incidences have been reported to our administration.”
As of Thursday, Bailey had not been notified Kalei was abandoning efforts to form a club.
“As of this time, there has been no communication from the student to our administration or to the club's advisor regarding a desire to discontinue the club,” Bailey noted.
Associate Superintendent Bill Nolte said he wasn’t sure if the club was ever really formed, while describing the situation with the club as “bizarre.”
“The club was not actually approved and we’re not sure it ever got approved,” Nolte said. “The standard procedures were never carried through.”
An update on Kalei’s fundraising page reported that all the funds that had been raised to support her club would have to be returned. Though the GoFundMe page had only been active for about a week, donors had sent in more than $500.
“We have contacted GoFundMe and requested they return your generous donations,” the page states. “Your love and support are priceless, and we apologize in letting you down.”
Haywood County School officials were taken aback two weeks ago when they were blindsided by the threat of potential lawsuit, as well as by the national publicity that accompanied the issue.
The immediate reaction was confusion as the student first requesting to form a club had dropped out of school and his sister's efforts to pick up the ball hadn't reached the point to where a club could be considered.
According to Smathers' investigation and previous interviews with the Wilson family, Kalei reached out for help from the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) last fall after her brother, Ben, had been unsuccessful in finding a faculty sponsor for the club. The SSA then sent a letter to Principal Bailey and contends they never received a response — which is what prompted the lawsuit.
Smathers said the procedures that were carried out by the SSA, ACLU and FFRF seemed suspicious, which is what prompted the investigation.
“It just seemed to be odd in how it transpired,” Smathers said. “We investigated for several reasons — to see if it’s valid, to see if something did happen that needs to be remedied, or to see if we need to advise the people that it’s not so.”
The investigation raised many questions and concerns, which Smathers listed in a heavily redacted report where student and parent names were omitted to comply with school laws. Because of earlier interviews with those involved, The Mountaineer has filled in the names.
Smathers' concerns included the following:
• Kalei and Ben Wilson did not follow the schools’ procedure to follow a club or make themselves available to resolve the issue;
• the SSA, FFRF and the ACLU publicly identified Bailey and Pisgah’s assistant principal Connie Weeks with statements that were misleading;
• the absence of any records that Ben Wilson, Kalei's older brother who began the secular club effort in November 2013, but dropped out of school in January, was involved with the formation or the club or that he contacted any faculty members for sponsorship
• the allegations were shared with third parties and newspapers before the school system was notified;
• that a website began soliciting donations that was labeled to be for a “legal battle,” and the name was later changed to raise “Camp Quest Funds,” which would send Kalei to summer camp;
• the FFRF awarding both Kalei and Ben Wilson $1,000 activist scholarships;
“The investigation just consisted of a Google check,” Smathers said. “We wanted to know about who was involved and why they were making allegations. The allegations being made were very suspect.”
During a previous interview on Feb. 19, Cash Wilson declined to comment about his offense, but said he thought Smathers was wasting time and money on the investigation.
“What he’s investigating has nothing to do with anything,” Cash said. “It would be interesting to me to find out exactly what his motivations are in doing it. … why is he spending taxpayer dollars to investigate something irrelevant?”
Smathers said compiling his report took more than 10 hours to complete, which cost the school board $175 per hour because he was on retainer during the investigation.
“But that (fee) is normally reduced down,” Smathers said.
Now that the investigation has been released and the club has been discontinued, Smathers is hoping to follow up with the ACLU and FFRF to discuss his protocol concerns.
“What was odd about this was everything was being released to the press," Smathers said. "We’ve got an obligation to protect students when their privacy and safety is thrown to the wind.”
When Brook was asked about the investigation, he noted in an email that the ACLU would "continue to support the right of all students to form extracirrucular clubs at their schools. We further call on county officials to respond to such student requests equitably, promptly, and without resorting to tactics that serve to dissuade student free expression.”
Cash Wilson said during a Feb. 19 interview that he was planning to question the school board and and get to the bottom of the issue.