District: Sexual harassment claim against interim superintendent Joris Ray ‘without merit’

An investigation into a sexual harassment complaint lodged against Joris Ray several months before he was named interim superintendent concluded there was “no evidence” of wrongdoing.

Although the inquiry was prompted by an anonymous accuser in September and investigators released their findings later that month and issued a follow-up report in October, the district’s legal council released a memo to school board members Thursday evening clearing Ray of the charges.

“This office has determined that the employment-related allegations made against Dr. Ray… could not be verified and are, thus, without merit,” said Jennifer Ervin, the district’s general counsel.

Ray told Chalkbeat on Friday he was in support of releasing the findings of the investigation and said the claims were “distracting from the mission of serving and educating children.”

“Personally, I’m disappointed that these claims are being made. They are false and have no validity. An independent, outside organization has looked into these claims and determined they are not true,” Ray said in a statement. “For 22 years, I have dedicated my life ensuring our community is the best that it can be, and going forward that will not change.”

The memo comes less than two weeks before board members are set to vote on whether to end a national search for Shelby County Schools’ next superintendent and hire Ray in the permanent role. The response also comes after Chalkbeat requested information regarding the investigation and why it was not included in Ray’s personnel file with the district.

Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman, confirmed the district also received a second letter accusing Ray of sexual harassment from an individual identified as “FT” who said Ray had abused other women, but the letter writer did not claim to be victim.

According to the district, someone identified as “M. Jones” mailed a letter Sept. 20 to the district’s legal office addressing school board members and then-superintendent Dorsey Hopson claiming “inappropriate sexual harassment and misconduct” by Ray, who had been recently promoted to chief of academic operations.

The district hired Memphis law firm Glanker Brown five days later to investigate the claims and attempt to identify the letter writer. The firm filed two reports: one dated Sept. 28 and another dated Oct. 12.

The first report details the firm’s interview with Ray, who denied the allegations. Investigators showed him a list of 25 district employees with a first initial and last name that matched the letter writer. He recognized one person who was a teacher at the adolescent parenting center, a program Ray used to oversee as director of alternative schools. That woman denied Ray had sexually harassed her.

The second report identified 19 people working for the district with matching first initial and last name, but was only able to contact 11 of them, including the woman investigators had already interviewed. The other eight said they did not know him. The report did not explain why the other six people identified in the first report with matching initials were not contacted.

Neither of the law firm’s reports were included in Ray’s “labor file,” which would normally include any complaints. The district’s legal department told Chalkbeat this week that Ray “does not have a labor file.”

Powers said the reason the district delayed the report’s release was because they wanted to give time for all employees with the same initials to come forward.

“It had been enough time and no contact was able to be made,” she said.

The firm’s first report also mentioned a 2007 investigation into allegations accusing Ray of “improper and unethical hiring practices and misuse of school funds,” that was later found to be unsubstantiated. That investigation was also not in Ray’s labor file.

School districts with unions often keep a labor file separate from other personnel information, said Darcey McAllister, a human resources consultant based in Oregon who has also worked for school districts. Even if complaints turn out to be unsubstantiated, there should still be a record of them, she said.

“You don’t want to be in a position where you investigated six times and we couldn’t find anything so we threw the papers away because that looks really bad,” she said.

In addition, investigators said they also interviewed three other women who directly reported to Ray at the time. Each said they were unfamiliar with sexual harassment claims against Ray.

“In fact, [one woman] suggested that Dr. Ray could be overly cautious in his communications and interactions with employees to ensure that there is not even the appearance that he is saying or acting inappropriately,” the report summarized.

You can read the full investigation and the anonymous letter below: