In September, Orange County Schools settled two federal complaints filed by a senior district official over claims of discrimination and retaliation.

According to a settlement agreement obtained by the INDY, chief communications officer Seth Stephens filed a Title VI complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights against OCS on April 29, alleging that he had been subjected to retaliation. Months earlier, Stephens, who is black, had filed a separate discrimination complaint against the Board of Education with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The circumstances behind the EEOC complaint are unclear. But OCS interim superintendent Randy Bridges confirmed that the retaliation complaint stemmed from the aftermath of an investigation Stephens conducted into allegations of racial discrimination made by the parent of a first-grader at Cameron Park Elementary School. 

In both cases, records requests that might shed light on why Stephens felt slighted have not yet been fulfilled.

Stephens declined to comment on the settlement, saying, “I hope that the focus is on the students and starting the school year on the right track.”

In a closed session on September 9, the school board approved the settlement, placing Stephens on paid administrative leave until his resignation becomes effective on January 31, 2020, according to the agreement. His contract had been set to expire in 2022. 

Stephens’s salary is $98,549.40, according to Bridges. Under the agreement, he will be paid about $41,000. 

In return, Stephens—who has worked at OCS since 2012—agreed to withdraw his complaints as well as another grievance he had filed at an unspecified time, according to the settlement.

Stephens’s mother, Brenda Stephens, is a school board member. She recused herself from the vote on her son’s settlement, Bridges says. In a 4–3 vote in May, the board removed her as chair shortly before her time in that role was set to end, citing in part a perceived conflict over her son’s involvement in the Cameron Park investigation. 

As the INDY first reported, Stephens completed his investigation into the Cameron Park matter on March 8. His report upheld complaints of harassment and racial intimidation made in February by parent Krystal Little against staffers at the school—which, his report noted, had no black teachers. 

According to Stephens’s report, he looked into the matter because “neither the Chief Human Resources Officer nor the Superintendent” was in the office, though they would usually be the ones to handle such complaints.

The school board evidently wasn’t satisfied with his investigation.

In April, OCS had its chief human resources officer conduct a second investigation. Asked at the time whether that was standard practice, then-outgoing superintendent Todd Wirt replied, “It depends on the situation.”

Then, in early May, OCS initiated a third investigation. It hired Bryan Martin, most recently the senior director for employee relations for the Wake County Public School System, to review the Little case, according to his contract with the district. He was paid $5,000, or $100 an hour for fifty hours of work through June 10.

But even that wasn’t enough. 

On June 10, the school board hired Brooks Pierce, a law firm with locations in Raleigh, Greensboro, and Wilmington, to “conduct a comprehensive independent review of a parent’s complaint at Cameron Park, including all aspects of both the parent’s complaint and the administrative review of the complaint,” chairman Will Atherton told the INDY in an email. The board authorized OCS to pay Brooks Pierce attorney Shana Fulton $310 per hour and her paralegals $195 per hour, up to $25,000.

According to Brooks Pierce’s website, Fulton specializes in representing entities “facing white-collar criminal prosecution and government investigations” and has “represented public officials in investigations and administrative hearings, defending them against alleged government ethics violations.”

On August 26—two weeks before approving the settlement with Stephens—the board voted to amend OCS’s contract with Brooks Pierce to authorize paying the firm an additional $25,000.

It’s unclear where the school district’s inquiry into Little’s complaint stands, or why the district appears to have signed off on spending more than $50,000 on three additional investigations into what happened at Cameron Park.

Little removed her child from the school—and the school district—in March.

In June, as part of its efforts to ease racial tensions and reduce a gaping achievement gap, OCS hired its first chief equity director, Dena Keeling. The school district also named Bridges the district’s interim superintendent, replacing Wirt. Both started on July 1.

Comment at This story has been modified and edited for print. 

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.