BERKELEY COUNTY, S.C. (WCBD) – The Berkeley County School Board addressed for the first time Wednesday the abrupt termination of former Superintendent Deon Jackson and in-house attorney Dr. Tiffany Richardson.
Board chairman Mac McQuillin described in a November 23 multi-page explanation a number of issues that led to the decision, including what he essentially called a lack of leadership by Jackson and the district’s response to a law enforcement investigation into alleged sexual abuse by a School Resource Officer and a so-called frayed relationship with the South Carolina Department of Social Services.
Jackson and Dr. Richardson were both terminated following a 6-3 vote by the newly elected school board during a regularly scheduled board meeting that was largely billed as a swearing-in on November 15. A vote on the superintendent’s continued employment was not on the meeting’s agenda.
A reason for the termination was not provided despite mounting questions from fellow board members, teachers, and the community. But McQuillin had previously said the board hoped to share its rationale in the future and he maintained confidence that “we [the school board] made a decision that is in the best interest of the district and its students.”
In his Nov. 23 statement, McQuillin acknowledged that the board demonstrated a failure to offer reasons for Jackson’s termination and said the move “created the perception that we were not being fully transparent with the public.”
The board chairman said the district did not have anything to hide when it came to its decision to terminate Jackson and Dr. Richardson.
“The rationale of our action was not fully explained during open session of the meeting because the public discussion of personnel matters is fraught with legal risks that potentially expose the District to liability that is ultimately borne by taxpayers,” he said. “In fact, not long ago, a significant amount of money was spent to settle claims threatened by two District employees that arose from a Board member making public statements about those employees during a Board meeting. Because of these legal risks, we wanted to handle the discussion of Mr. Jackson’s termination cautiously to limit the District’s legal exposure.”
McQuillin said the limited discussion also came out of a “desire to avoid embarrassment to Mr. Jackson and minimize disruption” for the Berkeley County School District. He also said that Jackson was told about the possible action days before the meeting occurred and that McQuillin called on Jackson to resign. But he said Jackson never responded to that request.
“Unfortunately, it appears that he coordinated with others to ensure that his termination would play out in public regardless of how it would affect the District, its employees, parents, and students,” he said.
McQuillin went on to say that he and the new board members simply lacked confidence and trust in Jackson’s ability to lead the district and noted that academic performance was on the decline, referencing a recent school report card that revealed BCSD was performing below the state average.
“While the cause of this academic decline can be debated, there can be no debate that deliberate action is necessary to reverse this trend. And ultimately it is the Board’s responsibility to take action immediately. We simply cannot risk our children’s academic future in the hope that things will get better by adhering to the status quo,” he said.
McQuillin also addressed the district’s “relationship with agencies entrusted with protecting children from abuse and neglect” which he said have deteriorated during Jackson’s time as superintendent.
One example he provided was the district’s response to a recent investigation by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division into sexual crimes allegedly committed by a School Resource Officer at Stratford High School, which McQuillin said has likely “damaged our relationship with SLED and raised questions about the professional judgment of former leadership, including the former superintendent and former legal counsel.”
He called cooperation offered by the district during that investigation “lacking.”
McQuillin provided myriad examples among which included that at least one high-ranking district employee was instructed by district leadership not to talk with SLED and then refused to provide requested documentation to the state’s top law enforcement agency.
He said the district’s former legal council also sent an email to SLED Chief Mark Keel accusing the agency of causing the district to violate federal law, “browbeating and intimidation,” and trying to “take down the district” based on “rumors.”
“The District’s response to SLED’s investigation prompted Chief Keel to defend his agents’ actions. In his response, Chief Keel identified factual inaccuracies in the District’s letter and called the allegations unfounded and having no validity,” said McQuillin.
McQuillin also noted that the district’s relationship with the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS) has become “frayed” and said the agency was on the verge of filing a lawsuit against the district to allow DSS investigators to have access to interview students who are alleged to be victims of child abuse and neglect.
“The District, under Mr. Jackson’s leadership, had become so stubborn on this issue that DSS was contemplating legal action and was prepared to seek investigative warrants from the family court to get access to students in District schools,” McQuillin said.
Furthermore, McQuillin said the district also refused to release information that should have been legally released under the freedom of information act. The district’s contracted lawyer, Brandon Gaskins, decided to end his relationship with the district over the issue.
“The district also attempted to charge a media member between $40,000-$50,000 to conduct a FOIA search for them,” he noted.
McQuillin said Jackson failed to inform many board members about the issues.
“Members who recently voted to terminate Mr. Jackson had to learn of these issues from other sources. While it is unknown if and to what extent former Board leadership was informed of these issues, all Board members should have been apprised of these developments before legal action from DSS became imminent and before the chief law enforcement agency of this state was accused by District leadership of causing violations of federal law, intimidation, and trying to take down the District.”
McQuillin denied that any meeting about the decision to terminate Jackson’s employment took place in person, by phone, or virtually, prior to the November 15 school board meeting.
Jackson was named superintendent in July 2021. He is replaced by interim superintendent Dr. Anthony Dixon, who was originally a finalist for the job when Jackson was picked.
McQuillin said Dr. Dixon, who was the first pick for superintendent by several board members when Jackson was hired, made the most sense to be hired as the new superintendent.