After serious consideration, Norton Police Chief James Lane said he has requested Virginia State Police to handle any investigations in reference to Burton High School head football Coach Jim Adams.
His department received a sexual harassment complaint against Adams after the school board renewed the coach's contract at an emotionally charged meeting June 10.
The department conducted two Adams investigations in 2018, Lane said, but it now has on staff two officers who are related to the Adams family, one a new son-in-law to the coach.
Lane said he is absolutely confident his department can and has conducted its investigations fairly, thoroughly and impartially. But he also is sensitive to perceptions, the chief said, and with all the ongoing turmoil, there are those in the community who are questioning fairness across the board.
Lane said he thought it would be best to simply remove any potential doubt, knowing that perceptions can become reality in people's minds, true or not.
He said state police have agreed to accept the case or cases.
The potential magnitude of the case was another influencing factor, the chief also said. Lane said they are seeing many, many more potential new complaints based on their social media review.
Adams denies any wrongdoing and supporters depict accusations as having already been investigated and deemed unfounded.
Lane and Commonwealth Attorney Chuck Slemp have responded to questions about the involvement of their offices in investigating the allegations against the coach.
Lane said Norton police knew nothing at the time of the complaints made against Adams in 2016. However, those were brought to the department's knowledge during its investigation in April 2018.
When asked, Lane produced public call-detail reports, with student names redacted, in which the investigator explains being alerted to two separate complaints against Adams — one involving throwing a stapler toward a student and a second alleging sexual abuse, which was made anonymously on the Norton Department of Social Services tip line.
In the two reports, the investigator outlines the steps taken at each point to pursue the complaints.
After talking to Norton DSS, he spoke to Superintendent Gina Wohlford, then Burton Principal Aaron Williams and Assistant Principal Elijah Helton. Wohlford and Williams asked if he knew the date of the incident, the investigator wrote, and he advised that he did not.
"They advised that the previous superintendent had spoken to DSS about a similar situation in 2016 with Mr. Adams but they were advised they could put him on a correction plan and there had not been any reported incidents since," according to the investigator's report.
After talking to about a half-dozen students, parents and others, city police took their evidence to the commonwealth attorney's office.
Slemp said he was first made aware of accusations against Adams in early 2018 and had reached out immediately to Norton police and social services.
Slemp said his office looked at various complaints that Adams made inappropriate comments toward female students, examining "to see if a victim has been harmed in a way that is criminal in nature."
Slemp noted that "inappropriate action does not always rise to the level of criminal activity. The conduct alleged in the police report is inappropriate, but not criminal."
He also stressed that his office does not set policy for schools or school districts. "We recognize that this conduct is clearly something that the school board or administration should address," Slemp said.
An alleged battery on a female student, touching her bottom, was the most serious of the accusations his office examined but the date of the offense was more than a year prior, Slemp said.
"Virginia law limits the prosecution of almost all misdemeanors to one year of the date of their occurrence. After the statute of limitations runs, we can no longer prosecute," Slemp said. "Thus, while the alleged conduct was inappropriate, it is not prosecutable under Virginia law."
Referring to the alleged sexual assault, Slemp also said: "It's unfortunate that we can't prosecute it because we would aggressively prosecute this type of crime."
Slemp said his office also considered an allegation that Adams threw a stapler at a student. The student indicated Adams tossed the stapler in his direction as a joke and the student took it as a joke. "While the conduct certainly was inappropriate, it was not criminal," Slemp said.
That allegation drew a brief suspension of Adams last year and then reinstatement.
Both Lane and Slemp noted that different agencies are sometimes guided by different standards when it comes to complaints being founded or unfounded.
"We take all allegations of criminal conduct against children very serious. We must balance that duty with the limitations set by Virginia law," Slemp said.
By law, a department of social services must look into and investigate every complaint it receives about possible abuse or neglect of a child, Slemp said, and must decide within 45 days of receiving a complaint whether an abuse or neglect allegation is "founded" or "unfounded."
A founded complaint, he explained, means the majority of the evidence shows it is true. An unfounded complaint means the majority of the evidence shows it is not true. States across the country use a variety of standards of proof to substantiate a case of child abuse and neglect, ranging from reasonable basis and probable cause, to credible evidence and preponderance.
In Virginia, the standard of proof for a complaint of abuse and neglect is a preponderance of evidence, he explained. According to the law, he continued, “founded" means that a review of the facts shows by a preponderance of the evidence that child abuse or neglect has occurred.
Because DSS cases are required to follow tight timelines, Slemp also said, "it is possible that a case be unfounded because credible evidence cannot be corroborated or verified within the timeline. Therefore it is completely possible that the same allegation be deemed 'unfounded' by DSS and prosecuted as a crime by the Commonwealth."
Slemp noted there is an additional element added for complaints of abuse and neglect against public school personnel. According to the Code of Virginia, he quotes, if the actions or omissions of a school employee "were within such employee’s scope of employment and were taken in good faith in the course of supervision, care, or discipline of students, then the standard in determining if a report of abuse or neglect is founded is whether such acts or omissions constituted gross negligence or willful misconduct.”
In the call detail report, the investigator reported that Adams and his lawyer had met with Norton DSS at the school board office. According to the DSS account, he said, "they would not answer any questions and wanted to know how it was a sexual abuse complaint and why CPS (Child Protective Services) was even involved. Mr. Adams and his counsel then stated that they needed time and would be in touch, but stated that the girls twirling around in front of the room definitely did not happen."