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Ask a Journalist: What happened after that "inappropriate" J.C. Roe social media post?

Ben Schachtman

In February, a New Hanover County Schools district employee posted an image of a mock crime scene with fake blood from the Facebook account of the J.C. Roe Center to celebrate ‘SRO appreciation day.’ It was quickly taken down, and denounced by the district — but readers and listeners had a lot of follow-up questions, like ‘how did this even happen?’ and 'was anyone held accountable?’

Ask a Journalist: Have a question for the WHQR news team? Drop us a line at staffnews@whqr.org.

The short answer is that a school employee came up with the idea and the principal greenlit it. In response, the NHCS noted it was “not in line with the district’s values,” and put “additional training” and other measures in place to prevent a similar event — but doesn’t seem to have fired or demoted anyone.

What happened?

The message and images were posted on the Facebook account of the J.C. Roe Center, which serves as the New Hanover County Schools district's disciplinary facility for students serving short-term and long-term suspensions, as well as those students the district has decided are in need of a "transitional period" before returning to traditional school.

The post featured a Wilmington Police Department officer and a door 'decorated' with police tape and the word "help" written in a red substance, apparently some type of fake blood. The post read in part, "This is how we started our SRO Appreciation day. A lil interior decorating [...] Well take a look at all the pics."

According to email records from New Hanover County Schools, the social media post was the idea of a social worker employed at the school and supported by the school’s principal.

The plan included not only the “crime scene” but, according to email records provided by NHCS, tricking law enforcement officers working in the school into believing that a fight had broken out.

In an email to J.C. Roe Principal Kim Morrisey, social worker Sylvia Bellamy-Simpson described her “vision” for SRO appreciation day:

“Decorate office like a crime scene on the outside, a million balloons on the inside.

Get the staff to take random pics of them and I put together a slide show.

Have Williams' superv. come and meet with them, while we get everyone in the cafeteria, then holler over the radio for them that there is a fight.

In the cafeteria we have Mrs. Scott and Williams' fiancee'.

We have a couple of the students say what they mean to them.

You & [Assistant Principal] Mr. [Kevin] Mininni present the plaques. If we don't have money, maybe we could ask for donations?

Whatcha think?”

Morrisey responded, “I think that’s a great idea!”

Ben Schachtman

WHQR contacted Morrisey and Bellamy-Simpson for comment. Morrisey declined, directing questions to NHCS’ communication office; Bellamy-Simpson did not respond.

Internal investigation

An NHCS spokesperson said the district only became aware of the post after it was deleted and is currently investigating the matter.

"We are working to determine how this post was made and what actions need to be taken to prevent something like this from happening in the future," the spokesperson said at the time. "We want to make it clear that the content of the post is not in line with our values as a district."

Several days later, Chief Communication Officer Josh Smith sent an email to Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust, updating him on the investigation. The email did not name specific employees, but described the “inappropriate post,” and what happened after it was posted on Facebook.

Smith noted that his division did not become aware of the post until WHQR contacted him.

The investigation noted that students were not involved and the SRO featured in the image did not know ahead of time about the event (which was, after all, planned as a surprise). It also noted that the post was put up and removed before school officials were aware of it – suggesting that while the principal had okayed the event she had not approved the social media post.

“After the decorations were removed, the employee posted pictures of the decorations on the school's Facebook page, which they manage. The post was made without the involvement of students and was taken down by the employee before school officials were aware of it and before students had the opportunity to see it. The SRO involved had no prior knowledge of the event,” Smith wrote.

NHCS response

Smith wrote his investigation did “not include specific disciplinary action taken for the employee,” and that “any disciplinary action taken shall align with existing New Hanover County Board of Education Policy.”

Details of disciplinary action are often protected by state laws covering government employees. Personnel records provided by NHCS show no position or employment status changes for Bellamy-Simpson.

Smith listed several actions taken by the district to “prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.”

● All NHCS staff members authorized to post content on official pages will receive additional training on the district's communication policies and guidelines, including social media use.

● Posting access for the J.C. Roe Center’s social media accounts will be placed on probationary status for 30 days, and all social media posts during the probationary period will be reviewed and approved by the Communications and Outreach Division before publication to ensure they align with the district's communication policies and guidelines.

● A review of the J.C. Roe Center’s social media procedures, posting frequency, and content will be conducted to ensure they align with the district's communication guidelines.

● The district's Communications and Outreach Division will conduct additional mandatory training for school administrators and teachers on the appropriate use of social media in a professional setting.

● The district will review all applicable board policies related to social media use and recommend any necessary revisions to the Board of Education via the Policy Committee. Additionally, it is recommended that all staff members be reminded of the district's Policy Code: 7335 Employee Use of Social Media, which outlines expectations for the use of social media by school employees, including the prohibition of confidential information, inappropriate content, and the use of personal social media to communicate with students without parental permission. The creation of the simulated crime scene was not in line with the district's values, regardless of whether it was posted on social media or not. The district will take steps to ensure that staff members understand the importance of upholding these values, including but not limited to additional training and policy review.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.