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Posted: October 7, 2012 1:00 a.m.

The players in the defamation lawsuit

Meadors’ past, Carpenters’ futures tied together

Jeff Meadors' involvement in public education has taken an unusual turn over the past seven years.

Meadors started the 2004-2005 school year as an assistant principal at a Gwinnett County middle school, continuing what was then 16 years of employment with the Gwinnett system. He was working for a principal for whom he apparently had great affection, as evidenced by several greeting cards with personal messages presented to her by him and now included in his county personnel file.

Then suddenly, it all changed.

Records show that by March of 2005 he had abruptly resigned, having failed to return to work after taking sick leave and declining to return messages from his principal. Within just a matter of days, he was threatening legal action against his principal and accusing other school personnel of inappropriately leaking information about his employment status.

Documentation in his personnel file shows that by January of 2006 he had written the EEOC to complain that he had been discriminated against because of "emotional needs for which I was seeking medical help and gender and marital status."

The principal to whom he had once sent fawning personal messages was the target of his complaints of harassment and hostilities.

Now, seven years later, Meadors is again at odds with a principal, though now his position is much different. This time, he is a member of the board of education, the governing body for which the principal works. And this time, ironically, it is Meadors who has been accused of leaking confidential information.

As the defamation lawsuit filed against Meadors by Alcovy High School principal LaQuanda Carpenter works its way through the legal process, there's no denying that the spotlight of publicity is focused squarely on the first time school board member.

Carpenter has accused Meadors of libel and slander for what she says is his role in online commenting that has attacked her both professionally and personally. The contention is that Meadors has either posted comments himself, or provided information for others and encouraged them to do so.

The News reached out this past week to both Meadors and his attorney Jeffrey Foster. In a Friday email Foster said, "We will have no comment about this litigation nor will we participate in interviews while this case is pending."

Meadors and Foster have in the past denied any involvement in the online postings cited in the litigation.

According to the attorney for Carpenter, things didn't have to reach this point.

Attorney Stephanie Lindsey said that prior to naming Meadors as a defendant in the pending lawsuit in June, an attempt was made to reach an agreement with him that would have precluded the suit.

"We sent a letter to Meadors asking him to stop, asking him to sit down with us to come up with some sort of resolution. Throughout the process, Dr. Carpenter has been trying to bring about some sort of civil and peaceful resolution with Jeff Meadors," Lindsey said.

But that effort was unsuccessful, and the litigation that originally was filed listing anonymous "John Doe" bloggers as defendants was amended in June to add the school board member.

Lindsey said she is convinced that it can be proven that Meadors was behind the online postings that led to the lawsuit.

"When we filed, we assumed all those individuals were Jeff Meadors, or maybe one or two were people he was working with to blog as well. Information that was being blogged was information that likely only a board member or someone involved in executive session would know to post," Lindsey said.

The Alcovy principal and her husband, deputy school superintendent Dennis Carpenter, believe they ran afoul of Meadors after Dennis Carpenter called into question the job performance of a central office employee who was a friend of Meadors.

From that point on, they said Meadors' attitude toward them changed, and the hostile blogging began.

The online commenting on stories posted on the Newton Citizen website, however, was done anonymously through the use of screen names, and the courts refused an effort by the plaintiff in the case to force the Citizen to release information about those posting the comments.

Lindsey said that through the process of taking depositions, they have gathered evidence with which they can prove that Meadors was behind the postings. But whether that is the case, remains to be seen as the litigation may not actually move to trial for a year or more.

Dennis Carpenter has made no secret of the fact that he hopes to become a school superintendent at some point and has applied for that position in other communities with the knowledge of local school officials. He is convinced that the online comments about him and his wife have prevented him from advancing his career, in particular saying that he was a top candidate for a superintendent's job in Jackson, Miss., before someone provided the search committee there with copies of the online comments.

"Prior to the lawsuit being filed, there was no secret Dr. Dennis Carpenter was out looking for a position. As relates to his endeavors to move into another position, the bloggers were so intent on destroying these two people, they brought into play what was going on in Mississippi," Lindsey said.

The use of the online comments to stop Dennis Carpenter's career advance was a major catalyst in filing the lawsuit, the Carpenters and their attorney agree.

For LaQuanda Carpenter, who is the actual plaintiff in the case, the online criticism reached new lows when they moved from talking about her job performance to talking about her family and personal life. She notes that posters have talked about her family, her pregnancy, even the death of family members.

"To this day, the blogs continue to be vicious...invading our privacy," she said.

Both Carpenters are convinced Meadors is to blame for both the tone of the online attacks and for much of the information they contain.

Dennis Carpenter relates private conversations with Meadors that have shown up on anonymous blog postings.

Meadors' initial challenge of LaQuanda Carpenter's administration as principal came in the capacity of his position on the school board. There was accusation that Carpenter had purchased alcoholic beverages while on a band trip, a violation of system policy, and reports of money missing from extra-curricular programs at Alcovy High School.

The school system, under the guidance of Superintendent Gary Mathews, investigated both claims and found no cause to take action in either, but the accusations led to an intensifying of online commenting targeting the Alcovy principal.

"I do not believe our community - nor a sense of what is right, good and honorable - is well served by anonymous assertions that cast dispersion and derision toward school officials without an overt factual basis," Mathews said in a written statement in May. But his protest did little to quiet the online community, where attacks on the system and Carpenter continued and intensified.

Mathews said that he frequently visits Alcovy High, and, "At no time, during any of these visits, have I witnessed the out-of-control school environment that a number of bloggers have asserted."

But the online attacks continue.

School board members have tried to distance themselves from the litigation, noting that it involves Carpenter and Meadors, not the school system, nor the school board. Yet the allegation that information from executive sessions has been leaked to those posting online is difficult for other members to ignore.
Lindsey said she is disappointed the school board hasn't taken a more active approach in dealing with Meadors' alleged involvement in the online commenting.

"I have a problem with the school board saying they can't do anything. I think they can. I would love for the school board to determine whether or not there is anything they can do to address this issue. I just don't think they've done that yet. Until it starts affecting school board members the way it's affecting the Carpenters, they're not going to do anything. He needs to be investigated," Lindsey said.

But there would seem to be little the school board can do at this point. A state law generally referred to as Senate Bill 84 provides a method for school board members to hold a public hearing into the conduct of one of their own, but the only punitive measure it provides is for a vote of "censure," which is simply a public reprimand.

Meadors is a duly elected public official, and as such, has the same rights and authority as any other member of the board. In fact, he emailed the governor's office in June for information about how he could pursue action under SB 84, presumably against others on the board.

Meadors had earlier accused board members of holding an illegally closed meeting to discuss the appropriateness of his writing a column for a local newspaper, which he continues to do. Though there was speculation that he may have filed a complaint with the attorney general's office over the issue, Lauren Kane of that office said no such complaint has been filed under Meadors' name. Nor has any additional complaint been made to the governor's office.

The Covington News originally filed a complaint with the attorney general's office questioning the validity of that same meeting, but later withdrew the complaint after additional investigation of the situation.

Issues that cause problems within the administration of a school system can lead to an investigation by the Southern Association of College and Schools, the agency responsible for certifying local school systems. A loss of certification for a specific school or system can result in loss of HOPE scholarship dollars for students and difficulties for students in gaining admissions to some colleges.

Jennifer Oliver of SACS said no complaint related to school system's current situation has been filed, though anyone who feels they have evidence that a school or a system is not meeting standards can file a complaint.

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