It’s nearly impossible to fathom that this really happened: At least three teachers at Cheektowaga Central High School kept up a clearly inappropriate personal relationship with a student who had been charged with murder.
Two of the teachers joined in cellphone calls that interrupted classes, and one told the incarcerated student that a student “snitch” – whom she named – might testify against him. The third worked part time at the Erie County Holding Center and kept the defendant informed of events at school and in the Holding Center, where one of his relatives was also jailed.
This was no minor incident. The jailed student, Dontre Jones, was eventually convicted of first-degree manslaughter for the fatal shooting of a teenager in Cheektowaga Town Park. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
What could possibly have come over these teachers to think that their contact with Jones was acceptable conduct? Jones was calling students while they were in class and the teachers would halt classroom activities and join in the conversation on speakerphone. Any phone call answered during class should be grounds for teachers to confiscate the phone, let alone a call from a student who is (A) in jail and (B) accused of murder.
Taking such telephone calls is bad enough, and merits discipline, but the teacher who identified a possible student witness to a suspected killer – and who also told Jones that she missed him and had his picture “right next to my desk” – crossed a bright red line from which there is no returning. Assuming the facts to be as they have been portrayed, she put the potential witness’s life at risk and, as a consequence, should be excused from ever teaching again.
Cheektowaga police said their investigation was hindered by a lack of cooperation from potential witnesses. That’s no wonder, considering that a teacher was identifying at least one of those witnesses, making the student vulnerable to possible retaliation. The student identified by the teacher did not testify at the trial.
It is intolerable to foist upon students a teacher, mentor and role model who tips off accused murderers that another teenager might testify against them. Whose side was she on? Certainly not the students who want to grow up into responsible, educated adults – the kind that know better than to put other children’s lives at risk.
School officials became aware of the problem when law enforcement played for them the conversations, which had been recorded at the jail. No one said you had to be smart to be a murderer. To be a teacher, though? That should require some intelligence.
None of the teachers went far enough in their support of Jones to be charged with a crime, according to Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III. Their interference didn’t rise to the level of tampering or intimidating a witness. For that, we suppose, we may be thankful.
But they went far enough that parents, administrators and even students have a right to doubt their fitness for the classroom. For two of the three teachers involved, that’s an open question. For the other, though, case closed.