Murray High School Alumna Accuses Former Teacher Of ‘Predatory Sexual Grooming’

Oct 29, 2018

A Murray High School alumna is making public claims that a former teacher engaged in years of inappropriate conduct with students and predatory sexual grooming. She also claims the school turned a blind eye to the teacher’s activities, some of which are now under Kentucky Education Professional Standards Board (EPSB) and Kentucky State Police investigations.

(See a follow-up on this story here)  

The Kentucky State Police said in September an investigation was underway involving a Murray High School teacher and “inappropriate things” with at least two students - one current, one former. Police said their investigation opened after a call from the EPSB, which has a pending case involving the teacher. WKMS News has confirmed, through numerous records requests, documents, emails, phone calls and interviews that the teacher is Jason Shelby. He was hired to teach at Murray High School in 2002 and also coached the academic team and was involved with the school's marching band.

He resigned on October 5, 2018, following two suspensions. WKMS News has obtained a copy of his resignation letter and acceptance from Murray Independent School District Superintendent Coy Samons.

Jason Shelby's staff page is still active on the Murray Independent School District website as of the publication of this story.
Credit murray.kyschools.us

Shelby’s alleged misconduct has been under an EPSB investigation for five years, but former students say school officials have known about his behavior for at least 13 years, when a teacher brought a concern to administrators in 2005. The former students claim the school failed to take the matter seriously, permitting Shelby to continue his actions unabated. In 2013, alumna Isabel Duarte-Gray and others confronted then-superintendent (and a current candidate for Murray mayor) Bob Rogers and the school district’s lawyer David Buckingham about Shelby’s conduct. The district then notified the EPSB and the investigation began. Rogers gave Shelby a private reprimand “for personal use of school technology and for conduct unbecoming of a teacher.” He also prohibited Shelby from affiliating with extracurricular groups. WKMS News has obtained a copy of this letter.

Duarte-Gray approached WKMS News with her story, hoping to shed light on the issue. WKMS News also spoke with four others for this story who corroborated much of Duarte-Gray’s claims through their own accounts. All of whom were part of the 2013 group: three graduates and a teacher. These individuals wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation and, as such, are not substantively mentioned in this story, per NPR Ethics guidelines.

Shelby’s Response

WKMS News reached out to Jason Shelby for an opportunity to respond to the allegations. His lawyer, Emily Roark, responded. She said Shelby has “no comment” and is pursuing other opportunities. Roark asked to “reserve judgment until all the facts are made public.”

Isabel Duarte-Gray
Credit Courtesy of Isabel Duarte-Gray

Isabel Duarte-Gray

Isabel Duarte-Gray graduated from Murray High School in 2005. She lives in Massachusetts and is a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University. She took Shelby’s World Civilization course when she was 15 and said they became close after he broke a letter code she had developed in fifth grade that she had written in her journal. She described spending free-periods in his classroom and hanging out after school to converse and divulge in gossip.

Shelby’s conversations would gradually become more sexual, she said, beginning with the effectiveness of abstinence-only education, her school crushes and discussions on the term “technical virgin.” She said Shelby discussed a philosophy that intelligent students should become sexually active as an important part of being. He would talk about what sex was like, how it was different from TV and how students should enjoy it. “He speculated about the sex lives of current students at the school,” she said.

“It started out not wholly inappropriate and then slowly moved to this very inappropriate, almost total command of our conversations,” Duarte-Gray said, and described feeling skittish and nervous when he would bring up these topics, particularly when they centered around her.

“It’s better to copulate than not,” Shelby allegedly wrote, quoting Robert Heinlein, in one of Duarte-Gray’s journals when she was 17. “He hedges it with this comment,” she said, “‘Just so you can pretend to be mad at me.’ ...And I think that was, sort of, how he perceived my reactions.”

The journal entry Duarte-Gray said was written by Shelby in her journal in May 2005, prior to her 18th birthday.
Credit Courtesy of Isabel Duarte-Gray

After graduating from high school, and soon after she turned 18, Duarte-Gray said Shelby sent her an eight-page, handwritten letter that encouraged her to become sexually active. The letter elaborates on “male-female interaction in all it’s wondrous forms” and “playing for the other team.” It describes the ‘powerful’ nature of “the male-female duality which is lost in homosexuality.” And suggests if Duarte-Gray were to “investigate it further,” then, “I hope you will return to our team.” The letter-writer questions monogamy and is “not suggesting becoming the village bicycle, but I am suggesting shopping around.” The letter describes how it’s a fallacy that sex is thought to be “wrong or disgusting” when it is “one of the most beautiful things in this life and it should be enjoyed without guilt.” The letter advises that society is “growing more uptight” and that she “be discrete” but not abstinent. “Choose your playmates carefully, but play. No guilt.” The last sentence is underlined. At the end, the letter is signed, “Jason.”

The letter also ends with a coded message - another quote from Heinlein, “Darling, a true lady takes off her dignity with her clothes and does her whorish best.”

Scans of two pages of the eight-page handwritten letter Duarte-Gray said Shelby wrote to her shortly after she graduated and turned 18.
Credit Courtesy of Isabel Duarte-Gray
A close-up portion of the hand-written letter
Credit Courtesy of Isabel Duarte-Gray
A scan of the coded message that followed the hand-written letter, decoded by Isabel Duarte-Gray.
Credit Courtesy of Isabel Duarte-Gray

According to Duarte-Gray, Shelby’s talk of sexuality continued through emails, several of which she provided for WKMS News to review. The conversations involved various aspects of their lives and would occasionally contain advice about sex and relationships from Shelby with suggestions about her “miseducation,” “debauchery” and “mutually beneficial hookups” so as to not be “a shut in.” Duarte-Gray told WKMS News she felt the exchanges were a subtle pressuring to engage in activity she didn’t feel ready for.

"He was grooming me," Duarte-Gray said. "I think he planned at some point to proposition me, which he did when I turned 19, by email." She said the proposition, like other emails, was subtle, in which he brought up an anecdote about a conversation with a former classmate of hers about engaging in a sexual relationship. "He sort of brought up the idea of the two of us engaging in a sexual act to bring me to talk more frankly about it. The intent was then to actually have sexual relations, which I understand he has done with numerous former students." She said she became aware of affairs through conversations with individuals who said they had them with him.

This is a portion of an email sent by Shelby to Duarte-Gray on Saturday, February 3, 2007 at 7:20 PM. The "Subject" is "Magpies." This is cropped from a longer email where Shelby discussed her online journal entries and traveling as well as his "personal goings-on." The email ends after this portion. Redaction by WKMS News.
Credit Courtesy of Isabel Duarte-Gray

One of the former students WKMS News spoke with for this story said she was the "Unnamed Alumna." Duarte-Gray responded with the following email:

Email response from Duarte-Gray to Shelby.
Credit Courtesy of Isabel Duarte-Gray

Duarte-Gray said Shelby then responded that he was her teacher first and foremost, that “he’d never hurt me in that way,” would never proposition a student and said she “fully misunderstood his intentions.” The email exchanges cooled after that, according to Duarte-Gray.

A Concerned Teacher In 2005

Duarte-Gray said she wasn’t aware until years later that a teacher had expressed concerns in 2005 about Shelby’s interactions. This teacher would not go on record for this story out of fear school administrators would fire her.

Duarte-Gray and others said this teacher informed Principal Teresa Speed in 2005 that the way Shelby interacted with Duarte-Gray and other students was inappropriate and needed to be investigated. Duarte-Gray said, “In particular, [this teacher] felt the way that Mr. Shelby interacted with me was concerning because it bordered on sexual misconduct.”

Duarte-Gray said she believes this complaint was not investigated because if it was, she believes both she and her mother would have been questioned or notified. “My mother had a right to protect me from what was happening and she had a right to know. I was very young and thought our relationship wasn’t wholly inappropriate. I thought it was more of an intellectual meeting of the minds than anything else. Or an exception to the rule, because it was so grounded in conversation and had no physical connection.” She also felt had there been an investigation, the email correspondence would have surfaced as, at the time, Shelby used his school email address.

2005 yearbook photo of the Murray High School academic team. Duarte-Gray is in the center in the polka-dot dress.
Credit Courtesy of Isabel Duarte-Gray
Another yearbook photo of the academic team from 2005. Jason Shelby is standing on the right.
Credit Courtesy of Isabel Duarte-Gray

Coming Forward In 2013

Isabel Duarte-Gray approached school administrators in 2013 after another alumna shared her story and suggested there were others, too. “I realized that if I’m not an isolated case then he was not going to stop. So I felt the school needed to know what they were dealing with and take appropriate measures.” She said Principal Speed and then-superintendent Rogers confirmed that the 2005 allegations had been made, but didn’t tell her the scope of the investigation, or if one even occurred. Around the timeframe of the 2005 allegation, superintendents changed from Dale Reid to Rogers.

Duarte-Gray told WKMS News she wanted to inform administrators that Shelby “was almost certainly a serial predator.” She provided them in 2013 with her testimony as well as handwritten letters and emails from Shelby. “They seemed to believe that what he had done was inappropriate, but when I started to tell them that this was not isolated and that there were others who had been groomed, they told me this was pure hearsay. And Mr. Rogers looked me in the eye and said, ‘This is a man’s life we’re talking about.’ At that point, I had brought up the fact that there were allegations concerning Mr. Shelby and an underage student, which had taken place in 2008, which Ms. Speed confirmed were, in fact, made.”

In an email exchange with WKMS News, Rogers said Duarte-Gray told him she had been contacted by Shelby after she graduated and that he wrote things she considered inappropriate and that other graduates had similar experiences. He suggested she speak with the school’s attorney David Buckingham, who is said to have spoken with Duarte-Gray and other former students who similarly complained of Shelby’s behavior.

Rogers said after Buckingham had conducted “a thorough investigation,” it was concluded there was insufficient proof to accomplish termination. He said he reported the matter to the EPSB and removed Shelby from involvement in extracurricular activities. The EPSB investigation remains open.

According to KRS 161.790, "Immoral character or conduct unbecoming a teacher" is a cause for termination.

"It was my understanding that there was no indication that any of these students had any sort of sexual relationship with the teacher while they were students but perhaps one or more did so after graduating and becoming adults,” Rogers said.

Rogers said Duarte-Gray and others coming forward in 2013 was the first time he had received a complaint regarding Shelby since becoming superintendent in 2005. He also said he had not received any other complaint about the teacher by the time of his (Rogers') retirement in 2017. He recalled, in 2005, a teacher resigned as co-academic coach because she didn't want to work with Shelby, but he didn't remember a reason given. (This is the teacher who had complained to Speed about Shelby’s behavior.)

Attorney David Buckingham said he had guided Rogers to send a letter to the EPSB, but declined to answer other questions involving the matter.

Duarte-Gray said word of the 2013 meeting had spread and she and her mother faced public harassment. “People said horrible things to us… Someone went up to my mother in public and asked her if I’d had an affair with a married man.” She said, “It felt like the town was holding Mr. Shelby’s victims who had been groomed - I can’t emphasize enough: from childhood - responsible for what he had done. That he was not being held accountable for anything. He was free to continue to prey on people’s children. He was free to do whatever he wanted. He was free to teach students whatever he wanted about sex. And we were afraid to be in Murray after that.”

“I don’t feel at home in my hometown anymore. It’s not my hometown anymore,” she said.

Murray Independent School District Superintendent Coy Samons at a recent board meeting.
Credit Matt Markgraf / WKMS

School District's Response

Murray Independent School District Superintendent Coy Samons declined an interview on behalf of himself and Murray High School Principal Teresa Speed. Samons did, however, email responses to several questions regarding the allegations.

Samons said the district in no way defended Shelby over the years and rather took prompt action following the 2013 allegations.

He acknowledged the 2005 allegation “of an inappropriate conversation between the teacher and a student,” but said he learned nothing that caused him to believe the behavior warranted being reported to authorities or would have led to Shelby being fired. He said there is no documentation from the time involving any notification to authorities.

Samons said the principal informed him of a 2008 allegation involving an impregnation of a student. “The principal stated she and the superintendent at that time met with the student and her mother, and that both denied the allegation. The principal stated to me that she and the superintendent also met with the teacher at that time and confronted him with the allegation, which he denied.” According to Samons, the principal stated that both she and Rogers thought the allegation was unsubstantiated. “There is a typewritten note dated 2009 in the teacher’s file, signed by the previous superintendent, that confirms the statements of the principal,” Samons wrote. The individual in the 2008 allegation has not responded to a request for comment.

Samons wrote, “There were no allegations of misconduct by the teacher between 2005 and 2013 that were known by or reported to school officials.” He also said there are no documents involving any reprimands, bans, administrative actions, etc. regarding Shelby since he began teaching at the school until 2013. Samons noted two letters in Shelby’s file from former superintendent Dale Reid about using profanity in the classroom in 2003 and referring to a student as “dumb” in 2005.

In a 2005 school newspaper article, Shelby was asked to comment on students. One of the questions asked which was "dumber," a certain student or an ape. Shelby then went on to say some apes have learned sign language. Shelby was also asked to comment on Duarte-Gray. The question asked, “Why did Isabel have such a strong infatuation with [name omitted]?" Shelby referred to Duarte-Gray as having "the mind of a fiery Latina" whose "passions run hot and pure like the summer skies over Havana, and once scorned their vengeance is swift and cruel like the chupacabra." Duarte-Gray told WKMS News she felt this description of her is racist and sexualized and noted she was 17 at the time.

"Ask a Genius...." newspaper article from January 2015. (Name redactions by WKMS News.)
Credit Courtesy of Isabel Duarte-Gray

As for Shelby’s conduct in the classroom, after class, one-on-one with students and during extracurricular activities, Samons wrote, "My investigation revealed there were never any reports or allegations, either written or oral, made against the teacher for his classroom actions. There is nothing in his file that indicates such reports or allegations had been made." Samons’ response did not include mention of Shelby's conduct outside of the classroom.

WKMS News requested documentation involving reprimands, bans, administrative actions regarding Shelby and the only document provided was a 2013 letter from Rogers notifying him of the EPSB investigation. Samons would not provide misconduct investigation documents related to the EPSB because the case is pending. He also said the documents “contain information of a personal nature where the public disclosure thereof would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

The school district also said in response to several records requests no emails or other correspondence exists on the matter involving various school officials, between those officials and Shelby and involving the teacher who allegedly made complaints over the years.

Samons said the allegation that Shelby abused his power through grooming minors is what the district reported to the EPSB in 2013. He said Shelby was popular and well-liked by both students and parents and said the school received complaints when he was removed from extra-curricular activities.

Samons said this past August (2018), he "obtained new information that corroborated an earlier unsubstantiated allegation against the teacher,” which prompted Shelby’s immediate suspension. He said this was the first new information the district received regarding the teacher's actions since the investigation was turned over to the EPSB in 2013.

When asked what message the district would like to convey to the students who came forward in 2013 to allege grooming by Shelby, Samons wrote, “On behalf of the district, I am sorry for the actions of the teacher and any consequences of his conduct.”

Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities, including sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is also a part of the Kentucky Civil Rights Act. The Kentucky Personnel Cabinet defines sexual harassment in their policy on the issue

Sexual harassment is also defined on page 12 in the Murray Independent School District’s “Code of Acceptable Behavior & Discipline.” According to this document, “the District encourages the reporting of any and all perceived incidents of sexual harassment…” and states the incident will be investigated, including interviews with parties involved and witnesses, with results reported to the accuser or, in the case of students: their parents. Retaliation against the reporting individual is also prohibited and will be investigated. “Any person who has been found by the District, after investigation, to have sexually harassed an employee or student will be subject to appropriate sanctions and discipline, depending on the circumstances, up to and including termination of employment.” This document outlines numerous other aspects, including requiring the principal to report allegations of possible criminal activity, such as sexual activity with a minor, to the school board and law enforcement.

EPSB Investigation Continues

Cassie Trueblood works for the Office of Educator Licensure and Effectiveness and spoke on behalf of the Education Professional Standards Board. She declined to answer questions involving the Jason Shelby case, but acknowledged there was only one pending case involving the Murray Independent School District. Her office would not provide any documents involving Shelby. The only closed case involving Murray High School since Shelby’s hiring was in 2007- a former teacher and marijuana possession. That documentation was provided to WKMS News.

When asked why a case would take several years to determine whether there has been an ethics violation, Trueblood said a case may remain open depending on police involvement, the cooperation of witnesses, or if there are staffing changes. She noted the legal staff has seen “quite a bit of turnover in the last few years.” She said there is currently one investigator on contract who assists attorneys in cases. The legal department has three attorneys on staff.

As to whether an accused teacher should be allowed to continue teaching while an investigation is underway, Trueblood said, "We are not involved in the hiring decisions of districts. That is a district decision of who they hire." The board does not provide districts with legal advice, she said, and is ultimately responsible for the certification of educators, not instituting criminal action or penalizing educators financially.

Chelsea Young is Director of Educator Ethics with the Office of Educator Licensure and Effectiveness. She said superintendents have a duty to report allegations. Reports can also come in from other departments, parents and members of the public. Once the office receives a complaint, they’ll review to determine whether there is sufficient, credible evidence of a violation. If there is, the complaint is opened. That information then goes to the educator, who has a chance to respond, then it goes to the board for review. “We have board meetings six times a year… That tends to slow down some of this process.”

Young explained the educator could be admonished; the complaint could be dismissed; sent to an attorney for review and investigation; or a request could be made that the teacher complete training. When a case goes to an attorney for review, that attorney would look at that information to determine whether there are only allegations or any evidence to be used. The matter could enter into a settlement agreement or charges could be drafted that would go to a hearing. A hearing would take a while as it involves the Attorney General's office, Young said.

"It can take more than a year from the time we receive the complaint to the time that it actually gets to an attorney who is able to charge." She added it takes time to gather evidence, talk to witnesses and proceed with the hearing. "Last year, we received over 900 complaints that had to be processed. And we had been working on a backlog of complaints for a number of years. That is part of what slows down that process, but we have been able to reduce that backlog significantly."

Duarte-Gray said the case languished after an investigator left in 2014. “We never heard anything again,” she said, until new allegations in 2018. “I was really shocked in September when the news broke that there was a police investigation.” Other media outlets have reported that the KSP investigation is expected to conclude by the end of October or early November.

Duarte-Gray said she would like Murray High School to teach students what grooming and sexual assault looks like. She feels Shelby’s actions after 2005 were preventable if school administrators had investigated. “The subsequent allegations… were unnecessary. They didn’t need to happen. And it’s only through negligence that they did.” She said if the school didn’t listen over the past decade, she doesn’t feel they’ll listen to anyone else.

(See a follow-up on this story here)