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Teacher faces second hearing on firing

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County teacher, Antonio Mahone, is facing his second tribunal hearing in a year, with his job on the line for actions stemming from an alleged sexual assault on a former student.

A Clayton County Public Schools Employment Tribunal Panel heard testimony and arguments Friday about whether the panel members should recommend Mahone be fired from his job as an in-school suspension teacher at the county's alternative school.

The school system wants to fire Mahone because he pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges, which were reduced from more serious charges involving alleged misconduct with a female student at Kendrick Middle School in January 2009.

At the heart of the school district's claim is the argument that he did not notify the system's top human resources officer of his plea, and that he used a sick day to get off work so he could appear in court and enter the plea.

In March 2009, the Clayton County Board of Education rejected a previous tribunal panel's recommendation to fire Mahone for the alleged contact with the student, citing "loopholes" in the story about what happened. The school board decided to transfer him to the alternative school instead.

"We have a very high obligation to make sure teachers who teach in our schools do not pose a danger," said Clayton County Public Schools Attorney Winston Denmark. "Parents deliver their children into our hands every day when they send them to school. What's a parent's reasonable expectation? First, and foremost, that we're going to protect their child."

After five hours of testimony and legal arguments, the tribunal panel members spent several hours deliberating over Mahone's fate, but they did not reach a decision. The panel will reconvene on Feb. 26, at 10 a.m., at the Clayton County Public Schools Central Administration Complex in Jonesboro, to continue its deliberations.

Mahone testified that he has been on administrative leave, with pay, since late January, when the school system began investigating the plea deal.

His attorney, Borquaye Thomas, argued that the school system is trying to get back at Mahone because the school board rejected the previous tribunal panel's recommendation to fire him.

"The school system is still upset that the local board did not accept the first recommendation for termination," Thomas said.

Denmark argued the district is not trying to re-try Mahone for the alleged misconduct. "The difference [between the hearings] is the first time there was a hearing, there hadn't been a guilty plea entered," Denmark said. "He pled guilty, and didn't tell anyone. We're talking about several months later, and we finally find out there was a plea entered."

Denmark said the school system found out about Mahone's plea when District Investigator Andra Cherry was contacted by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission about the issue in January. Thomas said there is a case pending against his client with the PSC.

According to court documents, Mahone pleaded guilty to negotiated charges of disorderly conduct, simple battery, and simple assault on Sept. 9, 2009. He was sentenced to 36 months on probation; to pay $1,100 in fines and court costs; to submit to an HIV test, and to have no contact with the female student.

As part of the negotiated plea deal, the charges to which Mahone pleaded guilty were reduced from the original charges of enticing a child for indecent purposes, sexual battery, and sexual assault against a person in custody. An additional charge of child molestation was nolle prossed as part of the plea agreement.

"All the time, people are accused of doing things they didn't do," Mahone said during testimony on Friday. "I didn't want to risk going to jail, and being labeled a sex offender. When they came to me with that [the plea deal], I felt it was the right thing to do to get this over with. I was not guilty of anything."

Denmark argued Mahone committed "moral turpitude" by not reporting the plea, and using a sick day to appear in court. Denmark said Mahone's contract mandates that he report any crimes he pleaded guilty to, or was found guilty of, to school system chief Human Resources Officer Douglas Hendrix, or Clayton County Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley.

But Mahone said no one ever told him to report his plea deal, and he said he had nothing to gain by hiding it from anyone. "It was my first time in this situation. I wasn't aware of what I needed to do," he said.

Cherry testified that Mahone told him during a school system investigation into the plea that "he just assumed that we knew."

When Mahone was asked about a school board policy that said sick leave could not be used to appear in court, the teacher said he did not know what the policy said.

"I never read it, to be honest with you," Mahone said during cross-examination by Denmark. The teacher also testified that he told administrators at the alternative school, when he started teaching there, that he would need to take multiple days off to make court appearances.

Cherry testified that Mahone had already used his allowed three days of personal leave in August.