Trial underway for the former headmaster of East Wake Academy

mhankerson@newsobserver.comSeptember 27, 2013 

— Testimony got underway this week in the trial of Brandon Smith, the former headmaster of East Wake Academy who faces two charges each of sexual battery and assault on a female involving two teachers at the school.

Prosecutors called five women to the stand who said they experienced some sort of uncomfortable behavior from Smith.

“There are women … who would say this was more than a hug, it was inappropriate and uncomfortable,” prosecutor Melanie Sheketa told the courtroom.

One of the women pressing charges claimed Smith pulled her pants down to reveal a tattoo on her lower back after years of sexually explicit comments and other inappropriate behavior. The other woman claimed she experienced similar behavior, culminating in a hug in which she could feel that Smith was physically aroused.

Shared experience

Both women said the incidents happened in 2011. The first woman testified that Smith pulled her pants down in August. The second incident in November of that year.

The second woman said she thought about leaving East Wake Academy after her experience.

“I was tired of it,” she testified in court Wednesday. “I have my degree (and) I have several awards for teaching.... I just wanted to go back” to another county.

Both women returned to East Wake Academy after the December track out. The second teacher said she was looking for other jobs, but as a single mom, she couldn’t be unemployed while she looked.

In early 2012, she confided in an office staff member. The two women did not know each other, but soon tracked each other down to share their experiences.

Not the first

On Feb. 25, 2012, the East Wake Academy Board of Education received complaints from the women.

It wasn’t the first complaint the board had received about Smith’s behavior.

Tuesday in court, East Wake Academy’s admissions coordinator Lynette Sherwood took the stand. She started working at the school in 2002 and used the office next to Smith’s.

Sherwood recalled comments Smith made. Sherwood testified that Smith said she was his property from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and that if she were 20 years younger, she’d be a “fine-looking high school student.”

In August 2005, Sherwood noticed Smith touching a coworker on her shoulders. She could tell it made her coworker uncomfortable and decided to take action.

On Aug. 19, 2005, Sherwood wrote a complaint letter to Mike Lester, the chairman of East Wake Academy’s Board of Directors. It was written anonymously, but Sherwood asked to be moved away from Smith.

She was moved to a different office.

The two women involved in the current case against Smith went to Zebulon police in March 2012.

“(I had heard) people had been fired and board members had been sanctioned (for taking action),” the second woman said in her testimony. Both women described Smith as intimidating and felt like the board wouldn’t be able to offer a resolution that made them feel comfortable working at East Wake Academy, prompting them to take their cases to the police.

Other cases involving Smith

In addition to criminal charges, both plaintiffs are also involved in a pending civil case against the school, which, according to Smith’s attorney, is why the case is in criminal court.

“(The prosecution) said to you what could be the motivation for these women other than the truth,” defense attorney Robert Lane said in his opening statement. “What could be the motivation? Several hundred-thousand things could be the motivation,” he said, alluding to the financial settlement that could come out of a civil case.

Smith’s attorneys asked the first woman if she could recall the amount of money she and her attorneys were asking for in the civil case. She couldn’t recall exactly, but did agree with the defense that it could be around $47,000.

“It’s never been about money,” the woman said. “I just wanted it over.”

Lane said the outcome of the criminal case could impact the outcome of the civil case.

The civil case has not been resolved and was delayed by a mediation attempt through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“I didn’t want this to happen to me any more and I didn’t want it to happen to anyone else,” the second woman testified.

In May, the EEOC issued a determination against the school.

The EEOC ruled the school was in violation of certain statutes regarding employment discrimination.

“An examination of the evidence establishes that Charging Party and a class of similarly situated female employees were subjected to unwelcome sexual comments, inappropriate touching and derogatory gender-based comments by (East Wake Academy’s) Headmaster,” the determination reads.

The determination also called the harassment “severe or pervasive.”


Hankerson: 919-829-4826 Twitter: @easternwakenews

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