Detroit principal fights to have his name cleared in battle with Cornerstone charter schools

A Detroit principal found his name tied to student nudes after filing a whistleblower suit against his former charter school employer
Posted at 6:30 PM, Sep 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-04 19:25:46-04

When Jared Davis’ new employer asked him to sign off on an "unprofessional conduct disclosure" form the Detroit principal didn’t think twice.

A standard in school hiring, the form allows a former employer to share someone’s personnel file with a new boss. And while Davis left Cornerstone Health and Technology High School on bad terms — he had been fired in December and subsequently filed a lawsuit — he never had doubts about the contents of his file.

This sense of security is what made the ultimate response all the more unnerving. In February, when Cornerstone Education Group, the charter management company Davis had recently sued, replied to the request they included a new tidbit with mind-boggling implications: Nude photos of a student had been found in Davis’s work email after he left.

The photos, as it would turn out, were from a student sexting investigation four-years prior. The Detroit Police Department, who Cornerstone also reported the photos to, cleared Davis of any wrongdoing in July. And last month the new school — who terminated Davis’s after hearing from Cornerstone — gave him his job back.

But the fight, according to Davis’s attorney Anthony Adams, is still on.

"We want Mr. Davis to be cleared," said Adams who filed a defamation suit in March. "We want a declaration that this man did absolutely nothing wrong, that he’s a valued member of the community, that he rendered valuable service for thousands of kids in the city of Detroit and he needs to be vindicated."

Davis — via Adams — declined to be interviewed citing the request of his new employer.

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At the center of the suit is the question of intent.

Cornerstone Education Group maintains they had an obligation as mandatory reporters to share the findings of the photos with the new school and the police.

In a statement to WXYZ Cornerstone stated that they never accused Davis of any wrongdoing, and were merely pointing out facts as they are legally obligated to do.

"We thank the Detroit Police Department for its investigation as our system of justice requires. Cornerstone never accused Mr. Davis of any crimes. Cornerstone only reported facts and discovery that is was required by state law to turn over to the police," Tom Costello, legal counsel representing Cornerstone said in a statement, later adding: "Cornerstone wishes Mr. Davis future success, but it cannot ignore its legal and mandatory reporting obligations under Michigan law."

Adams, however, sees it differently alleging Cornerstone purposely shared vague findings in an attempt to retaliate against Davis for filing a lawsuit a month and a half earlier.

"When you try to confirm whether or not there was a sexting investigation you have three separate points of reference that you could have used, but they had no intent on verifying anything," said Adams. "Their intent was to punish Mr. Davis for filing a lawsuit."

The saga between Davis and Cornerstone began in December when two students were caught on videotape assaulting a security guard after school. Three days later, on Dec. 6, Davis was terminated with Cornerstone Education Group asserting the principal should have done more to stop the fight from occurring.

On Dec. 17, Davis filed a lawsuit against Cornerstone Education Group, the New Common School Foundation (an associated non-profit, that also serves as the school's landlord), Mindy Barry (the then CEO of Cornerstone Education Group), and Clark Durant (the school's founder). In it, he asserted that he was fired not because of the fight but rather for raising questions about suspicious contracts and ethics within the district.

Cornerstone denies the allegations in Davis's suit.

Weeks later, Davis was hired by Old Redford Academy — a nearby charter school — to serve as the new principal.

On Jan. 10 the new school sent Cornerstone a "Request for Unprofessional Conduct Disclosure." Davis signed a letter authorizing Cornerstone to release his record on Jan. 17. Four days later on Jan. 21 Cornerstone Chief Academic Officer Lisa Key filed a report with DPD stating she had found nude photos of a student on the former employee's computer.

On Feb. 6, Cornerstone responded to Old Redford Academy's request explaining that following Davis's termination the school had reviewed his work computer and email and found nude photos of a student in his email account.

While an internal Cornerstone email presented in the discovery phase of the defamation case shows Cornerstone knew Davis forwarded the photos to two people — the school's then-Dean of Academics, asking who the student was, and a few days later an email associated with a Cornerstone parent/guardian — they left the letter to Old Redford Academy vague.

"CEG was unable to confirm if the pictures were part of a previous student investigation," the letter said, adding that because Davis had "maintained possession of the photos for several years" they had reported the findings to DPD and Child Protective Services in order to "comply with the mandated reporting statute."

Emails within court documents indicate Key went thru Davis's computer and found the photos in December. WXYZ asked Cornerstone why, as mandatory reporters, they waited nearly a month before reporting the photos. They did not respond.

Kava Email by Allie Gross on Scribd

According to Davis, the situation around the nudes was quite simple. In January 2016 a security guard at the school intercepted the nudes some students were sharing. She proceeded to send them to Davis. On the day Davis received them he sent them to Staci Russell the then-Dean of Academics.

"What’s this little girl’s name? Lots going on while you were away," Davis wrote to Russell. Two days later Davis forwarded the photos to the student's guardian. "Per your request," the email stated.

"There are at least three separate instances where Cornerstone could have verified that this was part of a sexting investigation," Adams repeated, contending Russell was never interviewed about the photos and if they were part of an investigation.

In an internal email Cornerstone attorney John Kava wrote to Durant and Barry on Feb. 5 — the day before responding to Old Redford Academy — Kava noted that photos could have been part of a previous student investigation but rationalized that they had an obligation to share their finding with the new school because they had been on Davis's computer for so long.

"... even if the pictures were part of a previous investigation, Mr. Davis did retain possession of the photographs," Kava wrote explaining that "the act of maintaining nude photographs of a student" met the state's definition of unprofessional conduct which "include an act of moral turpitude, inappropriate behavior involving a minor, and commission of a crime involving a minor."

Adams contends the case was one of many Davis dealt with during his tenure as principal and the photos — along with the email chains they were attached to — remained on his computer because he hadn't thought about them.

"He didn't even remember that student investigation as it was from four years prior," said Adams. Principals deal with dozens of student matters a day. No way could he have remembered that."

Both the original suit and the defamation suit are currently pending.

"There have been hundreds of documented cases where black men have been accused of things that they’ve ultimately been found innocent of," said Adams. "This is a continuation of a pattern of activity that we really need to begin to break."