The FBI is looking into the possibility that the “handwriting expert” Buffalo school officials cited in accusing a parent of faking her own signature on key documents may not have been an expert at all.
Instead, it appears the person the district used to clear itself was a retired police officer and private investigator with no expertise in handwriting analysis.
The controversy began last fall, when Timekia Jones, a parent at Harvey Austin School, accused school officials of forging her signature on key documents the district had to submit to the state to prove parental involvement. Parents asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the state Education Department to investigate.
The district countered with its own probe, citing the unidentified “handwriting expert,” who said Jones faked her own signature using a method called disguised writing, which district leaders said is a “deliberate attempt to alter one’s handwriting to prevent recognition.”
Now, parent leader Samuel Radford III said the U.S. attorney has told him that the “expert” the district employed in its investigation was not a handwriting expert, but rather a retired police officer/private investigator it has used before and who has no background in handwriting analysis.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office said there was no handwriting expert and ‘disguised writing’ is not a legal term,” said Radford, president of District Parent Coordinating Council.
After a two-hour meeting Monday afternoon with FBI officials, Jones said: “If they did this now, they will do it again. ... Where is the protection for parents?”
A spokesman for U.S. Attorney William Hochul Jr.’s office said the agency does not confirm or deny an investigation.
Monday, FBI investigators met with Jones and Radford to look further into the forgery case and the district’s internal investigation that cleared school officials, Radford said.
The district said its probe in March “totally removed” any doubt cast on Harvey Austin Principal Brigette Gillespie, who submitted the documents. Gillespie still is principal of record for Harvey Austin, though the school’s website lists Carlos Villarroel as acting principal.
Asked to comment Monday, district officials gave a one-sentence statement: “At no time did the district intend to discuss this matter publicly.”
The legal drama began last October, when Jones submitted an affidavit to Hochul’s office asking him to investigate the matter.
The affidavit alleged that school administrators had forged her signature in an attempt to say she had participated in the development of the school comprehensive education plan, a road map to improving student learning. The signature of a parent representative is required to prove to the state that the school involved all stakeholders, including parents.
Jones said she was in Buffalo General Medical Center at the time she supposedly signed the papers. She later discovered what she said was her forged signature on other papers.
The controversy heated up when Jones alleged that Gillespie wanted her to sign a document later saying she had forgotten that she gave the principal permission to sign her name on the improvement plans, as well as on other documents, including signatures validating cash disbursements and other expenditures.
After Jones – a Harvey Austin teacher’s aide – refused, she said, the principal warned that she might be transferred to another school.
Jones said she felt compelled to pursue the formal complaint after Gillespie took retaliatory action against her by changing her work schedule because she refused to retract her allegations. The schedule change made it impossible for Jones to participate in scheduled parent-teacher meetings, school management team discussions and other meetings that required parent participation.
Jones’ original schedule was restored, she said, but it seemed the campaign of retaliation was not over.
In January of this year, Jones learned that her sixth-grader at Harvey Austin was doing poorly in several subjects. When she requested a meeting with the teachers to talk about ways to help her child do better, Jones said, she was told there would be no such meeting unless a Buffalo Teachers Federation representative was present to monitor the conversation.
Jones said she was told by an assistant principal and a union representative that the teachers didn’t want to talk with her alone because she had spoken to the media in October about the forgery case.
It took a human resources administrator to go to the school to look into the matter before Jones was able to meet with her daughter’s teachers.
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