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Being fair and maintaining high standards

A troubling situation has been brewing in Monroe County, where two Swiss Hills Career Center teachers have been accused of wrongdoing.

Initially, the situation was investigated as a crime; however, law enforcement and the county prosecutor determined that criminal charges were not warranted. Superintendent Robert Caldwell had filed a criminal complaint with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office against heavy equipment operation instructors at the school for allegedly using equipment outside the designated zone of operation and taking firewood without permission.

Detectives met with Swiss Hills Director Matt Unger and inspected the area in question. Investigators also interviewed the accused instructors. Both denied the allegations.

After the Monroe County Prosecutor’s Office reviewed the detectives’ report and found that no criminal intent could be proven, some district officials decided to hire a third party to investigate alleged safety issues. The board of education voted 4-1 to hire an outside investigator. Board President Ron Winkler opposed hiring a private investigator, while members Greg Schumacher, Sarah Smith, Bev Anderson and Jerry Gust voted in favor of the hiring.

“The reason I voted no is that the investigation was already done by the sheriff’s office, and I think they did a good job,” Winkler said, terming the additional effort a waste of taxpayer money. “I think it’s a witch hunt.”

It appears that many members of the public agree with Winkler. More than 30 district residents turned out for a subsequent board meeting on May 26, holding signs expressing support for the instructors and circulating a petition calling for the district to “immediately cease all investigations” of both teachers and return them to the positions they held prior to the investigation. Both remain employed at the school, but they no longer instruct the heavy equipment class.

Board members met only in executive session that evening. They did not respond to the attendees and did not allow time for any of them to speak during the special meeting.

Throughout this controversy, parents and other residents have taken to social media to express their dismay. In doing so, they have shared the names of the instructors who are involved. Those names also appeared on the signs meeting attendees held. And they were included in a police report obtained by our reporter.

Still, we at The Times Leader have chosen not to publish the names of the accused. Our readers may be wondering why, when everyone seems to know who they are, we would withhold that information.

It all boils down to this: We always strive to be fair.

The two men in question originally were accused of a crime. Experts in that field — law enforcement officers and lawyers working in the prosecutor’s office — determined that no crime had occurred and that no charges would be filed against them.

Typically, we do not publish the names of people who are the subject of allegations unless criminal charges are filed. We also do not publish the names of juveniles who are charged with crimes.

It also is true that most public entities — from school boards to county commissions, councils and boards of trustees — withhold the names of employees who are being investigated or disciplined. That is in keeping with Ohio’s Open Meetings Act, which allows closed-door meetings for discussion of “personnel matters.”

In this situation, we believe it would be unfair for us to publish the names of these teachers since no criminal charges have been filed.

If that changes, or if the third-party investigation leads to some sort of public discipline of these individuals by the district, we may need to reconsider our position on the matter.

The board next meets at 6 p.m. Thursday at the board office, located at 304 Mill St., Woodsfield. Members are expected to discuss the situation at that time.

In the meantime, we want our readers to know and understand that we do know the identity of these individuals. In fact, our reporter has spoken with them. If they would decide to come forward and share their side of the story, we would identify them in our reports.

For now, though, we will refrain from sharing their identities, in keeping with the high standards we try to hold ourselves to each and every day.

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