Wilkinsburg School District truancy officer has assault record

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The Wilkinsburg School District may have run into another roadblock in naming an attendance officer, a position that has been vacant since October 2012. Since then, the high school habitual truancy rate has increased from 57.4 percent to 76.2 percent.

District officials now are uncertain whether Walter E. Wilson will fill the job because of recent revelations about his criminal record. Superintendent Lee McFerren named him Feb. 28 to handle truancy citations during the sick leave of Velma Parker.

Ms. Parker, the district's Pennsylvania Information Management System administrator and homeless liaison, was named attendance officer by the school board Feb. 25 but said she did not want the additional duties. Two days later, she gave notice that she was taking a stress-related sick leave.

Mr. Wilson, 35, has been a district employee since January 2013. He is parent/community liaison, a $45,000-a-year position paid for by federal grant money through the state Keystones to Opportunity program. He is also the head boys basketball coach for the high school, for which he receives a $3,200 stipend.

The Post-Gazette learned this week that as the result of an incident in 2010, he was convicted of simple assault against a woman who shared an address with him in North Versailles and was required, through a protection-from-abuse order, to stay away from her for three years. Mr. Wilson was found guilty of simple assault and harassment in connection with the incident after a non-jury trial before Common Pleas Judge David Cashman. He was sentenced to six months of probation.

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The victim simultaneously obtained the PFA from Common Pleas Judge David Wecht. The order expired Feb. 18, 2013, a month after Mr. Wilson started working for the district.

Mr. McFerren, who became superintendent last July, defended Mr. Wilson's hiring as parent/community liaison. In an interview this week, Mr. McFerren said Mr. Wilson was eligible to work in the district because he had obtained the necessary state, federal and child abuse clearances.

Mr. McFerren said when district officials hired Mr. Wilson they were aware of his criminal background, which also includes a guilty plea to a simple assault charge in 2003 and a guilty plea to attempting to flee or elude police connected to a 2008 speeding violation. But because the charges did not rise to the level of criminality that prevented him from getting a clearance, district officials did not press him for details, Mr. McFerren said.

School director Karen Payne, who was board president at the time of Mr. Wilson's hiring, could not be reached for comment.

But Mr. McFerren said neither he nor other district officials were aware of the PFA, which the Post-Gazette discovered during a routine background check.

A police criminal complaint on the 2003 incident stated that Mr. Wilson injured another man by deliberately striking him with his car in an Indiana beer distributor parking lot and then leaving the scene. In addition to the assault charge, Mr. Wilson also pleaded guilty to failing to stop and render aid in the incident.

In the 2010 simple assault and harassment case, a criminal complaint filed Feb. 5, 2010, by North Versailles officer Francis M. Speranza said police were called to the residence to respond to "a violent physical domestic."

The report said the woman at the residence said she and Mr. Wilson were arguing when Mr. Wilson pushed her onto a bed and, as she fought back, began to choke her. The complaint also said the woman said Mr. Wilson threatened to stab her with a kitchen knife.

Mr. Wilson was charged with terroristic threats, simple assault and harassment. Court records show that during the non-jury trial, Mr. Wilson was acquitted on the terroristic threats charge but convicted on the simple assault and harassment charges.

The woman later filed in civil court for a PFA order against Mr. Wilson in which she repeated her accusations about being choked and threatened with a knife. She also said Mr. Wilson threatened to kill her with a gun he kept in the house.

Asked this week about his record, Mr. Wilson said in an email that there is nothing to prevent him from performing any school-related jobs because he meets school code requirements to obtain state, federal and child abuse clearances.

He said he was not required to disclose the PFA information to the district when he applied for the job.

"The Wilkinsburg School District processed and received all of the required documents for employment. There is nothing in my criminal background that prohibits me from working in any school or with children," Mr. Wilson wrote.

School board President Ed Donovan, who took office in December, said he was unaware Mr. Wilson had a criminal record and is concerned about the domestic violence allegations.

"The domestic violence charges concern me the most. Violence against women is among the most despicable of crimes, and no school can offer up this kind of offender as a role model or a coach. If these allegations are true, and this candidate passed our human resources vetting process, then we have failures at multiple points," Mr. Donovan said.

Stuart Knade, chief legal counsel for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, and Ira Weiss, solicitor for the Pittsburgh Public Schools and other local school districts, said the most common protocol among school districts that have job candidates with criminal backgrounds -- even those that don't prevent obtaining clearances -- is to question the candidates for details.

"I would advise a district to make inquiry into the circumstances, especially if this is going to be a job that is going to be in direct contact with kids. An assault charge would be concerning to me," Mr. Weiss said.

"When you see a conviction, it's a good idea to ask for details," Mr. Knade said.

Mr. Knade said if a district does not do a complete investigation before the candidate is hired, it would be difficult to take action against the employee if information is revealed later. But he said a district could use the information in deciding how to assign the employee in the future.

The superintendent said he planned to consult with district solicitor Matt Hoffman on whether to let Mr. Wilson take on the truancy job.

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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