JPS Dismisses Defamation Lawsuit Against BOTEC, Alleged 'Cruelly False Assertions' | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

JPS Dismisses Defamation Lawsuit Against BOTEC, Alleged 'Cruelly False Assertions'

Dr. Cedrick Gray, superintendent of Jackson Public Schools, alleged that researchers did not take the time to interview high-level officials during a study funded by the state attorney general on the "school to prison pipeline."

Dr. Cedrick Gray, superintendent of Jackson Public Schools, alleged that researchers did not take the time to interview high-level officials during a study funded by the state attorney general on the "school to prison pipeline." Photo by Imani Khayyam.

Jackson Public Schools ended its legal wrangling with Los Angeles-based research firm BOTEC Analysis over results it published in a Mississippi attorney general-funded study about the relationship between school discipline and youth violence in the capital city.

The school district dismissed its claims against the company Friday.

"Defendants' conduct purposely serves to mislead the public and school community about JPS and severely damages the District and its scholars with their so-called 'study' by making embarrassing and cruelly false assertions with no basis in fact," the second, amended complaint filed by JPS states.

The report referred to in the lawsuit, "Capitol City Crime Prevention Study: School Discipline and Youth Violence Reduction in Jackson," is just one of several studies the Legislature funded as part of a larger effort to study and address crime in Jackson.

The complaint, filed May 31, listed three separate counts against BOTEC in a civil suit. The first count asked for a restraining order to be placed on the studies, reining in the information released on May 11 to Jackson's Criminal Task Force. The reports were also introduced, earlier that day, in a meeting in the state capitol.

At both meetings, Jackson Free Press reporters were informed that they could not obtain copies of the reports, both times from Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, himself, due to an "embargo" he said the attorney general's office had placed on the reports. At one point that morning, the senator grabbed a copy of the study from a reporter's hand.

Calls made to the attorney general's office that day did not return a definite answer about the supposed "embargo." However, a press representative from the AG's office did send links to the BOTEC website, where the studies were posted. The "embargo" was never confirmed.

The Jackson Free Press was able to obtain other copies that day to verify authenticity of the reports posted online, and now has full copies of the reports.

At the task force meeting, BOTEC representatives, including President Brad Rowe, told the reporter that while they sympathized with the need to make public documents generated with public funds, that they would have to leave that decision with the client, in this case the attorney general's office.

The other two counts alleged by JPS's amended complaint are for defamation and false light. These allegations focus on what JPS states are "defamatory, false and misleading statements."

"Defendants' report accuses JPS of poor conduct, poor discipline," the complaint stated, "regularly calling the police department to solve problems with school life, labeling scholars as 'bad kids' with 'bad parents,' having a security system in the schools that resembles that of jails, providing little options to scholars who present the most challenging disciplinary cases, finger point by JPS to school officials, community services, police, juvenile justice officials, and churches, and gender and race discrimination."

On top of that, JPS accused BOTEC of not informing the school district's leadership of the study as well as not interviewing the superintendent or other key administrators to "ascertain true information about JPS."

"Instead, Defendants' response was to blame the JPS legal department for roadblocks despite the fact that the legal department crafted an agreement by which scholar information could be provided to Defendants and protected," the JPS stated in the complaint.

JPS attached to its complaint emails between Superintendent Cedrick Gray and BOTEC President Brad Rowe in which the two discuss the report. Gray, from the outset makes it clear that he is upset with the results.

"When we met today," Gray said in the email dated May 11, "I had a good impression of you. As I read the study, however, those impressions changed."

The emails were sent in the early morning, before either one of two meetings about the reports had even taken place.

"You conducted months of research and interviews right under our noses with not so much as a call or email to the Board Members or Superintendent," Gray wrote to Rowe.

Minutes from the Jackson Public School District Board of Trustees, at which Dr. Cedrick Gray was in attendance, the records show, lists as an item for consideration a memorandum of understanding between Mississippi State University, BOTEC and Jackson Public Schools.

The minutes show that the superintendent, who was present, recommended the MOU, but it was tabled, and the board never brought it back up.

BOTEC President Rowe responded to the superintendent's email, explaining that because of the subject of the study, the school-to-prison pipeline, "there is no way to put a happy face on the precursors of crime."

"The OAG (Office of Attorney General) did not ask BOTEC to assess the performance of the JPS," Rowe wrote. "Our mandate was quite different from any state or federal inquiry into school performance."

"Through this lens we tried to identify the factors not only at work in the JPSD but also out in the community and beyond the schools' control, which contribute to criminogenic outcomes," Rowe wrote. "By definition, therefore, the report could not be balanced. Simply put, there is a lot of crime in Jackson, much of it committed by local residents who attended the local schools."

"We were asked to look at the experiences of students that might correlate to later involvement in the criminal justice system," Rowe said, adding "on a personal note" that BOTEC had not made any money on the report.

Gray did not respond to these points but did request certain additions to the introduction of the report to highlight efforts his administration has taken to improve the performance of the school district.

"I believe if you 'mention with appreciation the huge undertaking your (Gray's) office has taken on in working to improve the schools' at least several times, especially as an introduction, in future presentations, the report would not deflate that work," Gray wrote, referencing "work" his administration has undertaken. "Even with that, the report is an unfair representation of current conditions."

As of press time, Jackson Public Schools had not responded to media inquiries.

The last actions taken in the case were two separate stipulations for dismissal, the last on June 24, stating that the school district "stipulates and agrees" that the matter be "dismissed without prejudice against BOTEC Analysis Corporation, with each party to bear their own attorney fees and court costs."

BOTEC attorney John P. Sneed from Jackson firm Wise Carter Child and Caraway sent a comment today about the dismissal.

"BOTEC stands behind its report to the Mississippi Attorney General, and it is pleased that the School District has dismissed the lawsuit that was filed last month," Sneed wrote in an email to the Jackson Free Press.

He attached a copy of a letter between BOTEC attorney Lowry Heussler on June 3 to JPS board counsel Dorian Turner.

"This is not the proper forum to contest factual allegations made in the complaint," the letter states, "but you may wish to review them with your client and provide information about the elements of defamation and false light publicity, as well as legal defenses to such claims, which do not appear to have been researched before commencing litigation."

Email city reporter Tim Summers Jr. at tim@jacksonfreepress.com. Read the JFP's ongoing "Preventing Violence" series, which quotes the BOTEC reports, at jfp.ms/preventingviolence.

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