CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. (WIVB) – A Cheektowaga School District teacher who was suspended for her jailhouse conversations with a convicted killer is being restored to her position in the the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, with no loss of benefits.
Sharon Campbell has been on administrative suspension after phone calls she had with student Dontre Jones, who at the time was in jail awaiting trial on second-degree murder charges in the shooting death of Ira Watkins, Jr. in Cheektowaga Town Park in May 2011. Jones has since been convicted and is serving 25 years to life.
Campbell was placed on administrative suspension in August 2013, and did not teach in the 2013-2014 school year. She was one of three teachers suspended with pay in connection to the jailhouse phone calls. The other teachers were allowed to return to their classrooms earlier.
A hearing officer determined Campbell should be allowed to return to teaching. In response, the Cheektowaga School District issued a statement saying, “Although the Board of Education is disappointed with the hearing officer’s determination, the board will implement that decision as required by law.”
Cheektowaga Police Chief David Zack is reviewing the hearing officer’s finding, but talked with News 4 about his initial reaction. He said, “I’m surprised at this point at what appears to be little more than a slap on the wrist.”
A hearing officer released his decision to News 4 on Thursday, which details how the decision was made to reinstate Campbell to her position at the school. He said Campbell testified about the extraordinary emotional and psychological suffering she went through to deal with the situation. The officer decided no additional discipline is necessary more than a counseling memo that is in Campbell’s file.
According to the decision, Campbell testified that the student had no other adult guidance besides her. The decision details the phone calls between Campbell and Jones during his time in the Erie County Holding Center. The decision says the student, “generally initiated these calls through a friend of his, a fellow gang member,” who was a student in Campbell’s building.
The hearing officer’s decision says two of the phone calls happened during free periods for Campbell. The third happened while Campbell was in the back of a classroom while another teacher was conducting the class.
Calls made from the Holding Center are routinely taped, and the hearing officer listened to the calls. They were referred to as “poignant and touching.” However, one statement in the third call included Campbell “blurting out” the name of the student who was believed to have “snitched” on Jones.
“It wasn’t just the fact that she endangered a student’s life. That was the most severe issue that we had, endangering the life of a witness. Clearly that was what was our greatest concern,” Chief Zack said. “But there was a secondary concern as to the glorification of Dontre Jones in the classroom, with his ID picture on her desk, her leaving the classroom to talk to him, the use of the students to carry messages back and forth, and her admitted desire to deceive the police with her contact with him.”
“Clearly the largest concern was when she identified a witness by name. That was clearly the most egregious act, and we felt at that point something needed to be done, and that’s when we brought the District Attorney’s Office in to tell him what was going on,” Chief Zack said.
The decision refers to a conversation Campbell had with Cheektowaga Superintendent Dennis Kane. She said blurted out the statement without thinking, and that she thought the identity of “the snitch” was common knowledge. The superintendent said he accepted Campbell’s assurances that the remarks were a mistake and would never happen again.
In the fall, after more information was gathered about the phone calls, Kane decided to seek the employee’s termination. The hearing officer says the decision was not made because of public opinion.
During their phone calls, Campbell reportedly encouraged the student to continue his education from jail, and they told one another they missed each other. In the third call they said they loved each other.