Bourbon County educator can never teach again in KY public schools, board rules

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Eric Smart, a Bourbon County high school teacher accused of inappropriate behavior by students, parents and other teachers in the district, will never teach in Kentucky public schools again.

Under an agreed order with the Education Professional Standards Board, Smart’s current teaching certificate is revoked through 2026. After that time, “Smart shall neither apply for, nor be issued, a teacher and/or administrative certificate in the Commonwealth of Kentucky at any time in the future,” according to documents the Herald-Leader received under the state open records law.

The order also said Smart was accused of “Conduct Unbecoming and Subjecting Students to Embarrassment or Disparagement.”

“To wit: it was reported that Smart frequently used profanity when addressing students, made inappropriate comments about students’ dress and bodies, and would refer to students in a demeaning manner in regard to their performance,” the document said.

Smart maintains his innocence in these accusations, but “acknowledges that the evidence is such that, if presented at a hearing of this matter, it could result in a finding that he violated KRS 161.120 and 16KAR 1:020, the Professional Code of Ethics for Kentucky School Certified Personnel,” the EPSB order said.

Smart resigned from his post June 18, 2023, according to Bourbon County officials, but the standards board only voted on the investigation and agreed order at its February meeting.

Through his lawyer, Smart declined to comment on the latest (and hopefully last) turn of a saga that began in 2010 when Smart, then an esteemed diabetes researcher at the University of Kentucky, was first accused of fabricated data results from mice that were found to not exist. He resigned in 2012 after both UK and federal investigations found more than a decade of such fabrications.

In many ways, he has been constantly protected by his employers; a disciplinary matter for sexual harassment in 2009 never found its way into his UK personnel file, and one of his former bosses wrote him a glowing recommendation letter.

Bourbon County officials, perhaps excited to hire a science teacher with a Ph.D., ignored newspaper reports about his data fabrications and his sexual harassment case. They also kept him employed after he was sanctioned by the standards board in 2013 for marking on his school application that he had never been investigated at work.

“The board expects members of the teaching profession to be forthright and honest and to model those characteristics for the children of the Commonwealth,” the 2013 standards board order said. “Smart failed both those expectations. No further acts of misconduct by Smart will be tolerated by the board.”

But Bourbon County officials apparently tolerated many, according to complaints about Smart detailed to the Herald-Leader by students, parents and teachers. Officials seemed reluctant to take complaints about him seriously, and nothing was reported to the standards board until one student stepped forward in fall 2022.

He asks: Who’s the best stripper?

The student said she first complained to then-Bourbon High School Principal Shane Mitchell (who is now principal of Bourbon County Middle School), with her parents. She said notes were taken; however, there is nothing reflecting these complaints in Smart’s personnel file, obtained by the Herald-Leader under the state’s Open Records Act.

The Herald-Leader does not identify victims of sexual harassment and assault.

In her formal complaint to the standards board dated Oct. 7, 2022, the student alleged that Smart:

  • “Commented on the dress I wore on my birthday, saying, I ‘look like a real college girl,’ and that I ‘would get so many guys if I dressed like that.’”

  • “Had an in-depth conversation with himself to decide which student in his class (there were 6 of us) would be the best stripper. He did this in front of us.”

  • “Repeatedly called me a bitch in order to demean me, under the guise of a compliment. I once counted upwards of 15 times in one class period that I was called a bitch by him.”

  • “On numerous occasions, he attempted to look up my skirts/dresses in the hallway, in addition to staring at my butt when I wore leggings. This behavior caused me to entirely stop wearing leggings, tight clothes, dresses and skirts.”

  • “He would make us do various actions to gain extra credit on tests. One girl was forced to jump, full speed, at a wall. I was forced to do a crab race with another student around the entire room.”

According to Bourbon County’s response to the standards board in December 2022, written by school board attorney Sam Burchett, the student also made a report to Bourbon County Attorney Wade Davis, who determined the behavior did not merit a criminal investigation.

In the same documents, Burchett wrote that the complaints did not rise to the level of harassment under Title IX. They disputed exactly how many times Smart called the student a bitch, and in a meeting with the student and her parents, “Principal Mitchell indicated it was not possible to tell if someone was looking at someone inappropriately as to do so would require the teacher to be lying on the floor as the student walked over him.”

The rebuttal also said Smart would try to alleviate stress by making the students laugh or by letting them do silly games, such as crab walking in the room. He did not confine these activities to one gender. Burchett’s memo also said Mitchell and then-Superintendent Baker promptly reached out to parents and students about the allegations.

The conclusion of the Title IX committee, Burchett wrote, was the allegations “did not trigger a full-scale investigation as to sexual harassment as taken individually and/or collectively those remarks and ‘looks’ do not rise to the level of sexual discrimination.”

The standards board file on Smart’s most recent investigation also includes an Oct. 10, 2022, email from a group called “The Parents of Bourbon County High School” to the Bourbon County School Board. The group charged the “administration of Bourbon County High School has knowingly and willfully disregarded numerous complaints against Dr. Smart, refused to investigate and remove him from a position of authority over our children.”

Bourbon County High School. Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022
Bourbon County High School. Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022

Indeed, after the Herald-Leader’s story about the student’s complaint appeared on Dec. 2, 2022, the Herald-Leader received a flurry of calls and emails from students, parents and teachers who said they also had experienced such conduct from Smart.

As I wrote on Dec. 15, 2022, “Three students, four teachers and five parents contacted the Herald-Leader; all said they or their children had been targets of Smart’s and most of them said they had also complained. In addition, three people who worked with Smart at UK emailed to talk about their harassing and demeaning experiences with him there.”

One mother said she met with Baker and a school district attorney in 2017 about Smart’s sexualized comments to her daughter, who took his class. The mother said she was told that “the things he said were not sexual harassment,” she said.

The mom pulled her daughter out of Smart’s class but was obviously furious about the 2022 allegations because nothing had been done.

Numerous teachers complained about Smart, both on their own accounts and those of students, but nothing was done. At least three people who contacted the Herald-Leader also provided copies of emails they sent to administrators complaining about Smart’s behavior. But none of those emails were in Smart’s personnel file, which the newspaper requested under the state’s Open Records Act.

The student complained on Oct. 7, 2022, and the paper wrote about Smart in December 2022. Smart resigned in June, 2023. But the standards board did not vote on the finished investigation until February 2024.

A legislative corrective

That Kentucky has a problem with sexual abuse and harassment by teachers has been amply demonstrated in a package of stories about teacher sex abuse by reporters Valarie Honeycutt Spears and Beth Musgrave. Their reporting prompted House Education Committee Chairman James Tipton, R-Taylorsville, to create House Bill 275 this session.

The measure would make it more difficult for teachers with multiple allegations of misconduct to move from school district to school district

“It would bolster disclosure requirements for teachers accused of sexual misconduct, up training requirements and require teachers and other personnel to pass criminal background checks every five years. It would also ban nondisclosure agreements between schools and teachers if they are accused of misconduct,” Spears and Musgrave wrote.

Last month Tipton told the committee the school district would also be required to complete an investigation into misconduct regardless if the person resigns.

HB 275 was still awaiting a vote by the full Senate as the General Assembly wound down its work on March 28. That could still happen in the two veto days in April.

Let this be a plea to lawmakers to make this happen.

School districts and their employees clearly need much more training on what constitutes harassment and discrimination, and we need to know that bad actors are not being shipped from school to school across Kentucky. We need to learn how to listen to students and believe what they tell us.

The student who filed the initial complaint is now a college student. She emailed me to say that while she was relieved Smart was no longer teaching, she was still furious at how Bourbon County officials handled it.

“Very few people genuinely seemed to care about what was happening, likely because he had been doing it for so long,” she wrote. “Guidance counselors, teachers, administrators, it felt like there was no one who could do anything about it.

“It’s inexcusable the way the school system stuck with him for so long, when we were definitely not the first to feel this way about him. I’m still so disappointed and dissatisfied with the administration of BCHS. I want them to know, albeit anonymously, that I find them just as guilty as he was. If a student ever has to express to her principal that she does not feel safe in that class, then there’s something seriously wrong.”

The Eric Smart saga is an unusual one in its length and journey from higher education to K-12. But the issues are the same. It should not have taken so much collective action to stop a teacher who caused this much pain.