Circuit judge rules Penton case can go forward

Published 1:16 pm Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A circuit court judge on Thursday ruled that a charge of failure to report unlawful activity on a school campus made against Pearl River County School Superintendent Dennis E. Penton can go forward to trial.

The charge was filed by a former school employee, Jill Dodd Frierson of Picayune, who resigned on July 7 as an Allied health instructor at the school.

The affidavit containing the charge was filed in Pearl River County Justice Court on Aug. 21 by Frierson, but court records were sealed until Thursday after Special Senior Circuit Court Judge Richard W. McKenzie handed down his ruling,

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State law requires a judge’s “probable cause” hearing before a charge against a school official or law enforcement officer is allowed to go forward in court and be made public. The charge has to be one that arises during the official performance of that official’s duty.

Contacted over the weekend, Penton said he had “no comment” on the charge and referred the Item to his attorney, Albert Necaise, of Gulfport. Necaise told the Item that he had “no comment at this time.”

A spokesperson for Frierson said she had “no comment” on the case.

Frierson alleges in an affidavit filed with the court that on two occasions she informed Penton that another employee at the school made a “simple assault attack” against her, and that Penton failed to report to the appropriate authorities the incidents that she alleged happened. The assaults were in January 2009, she charged.

In her affidavit filed in justice court, she says in March 2009 she signed a “harassment report.” Her affidavit also alleges that “as of this date (Aug. 21, 2009) no action has been taken and (Jill Frierson) feels Dennis Penton violated a law requiring (him) to report unlawful activity on educational property.”

McKenzie’s ruling ordered that warrants against Penton be issued by the appropriate judge and that when the warrants are served that Penton “be released from custody on his own recognizance until a further order of this Court or some other court of competent jurisdiction.”

The charge is a misdemeanor, and the trial will be held in justice court, assigned to one of the three Pearl River County justice court justices. They get their cases on a rotation basis, and as of press time on Monday, no judge had been assigned to the case nor had warrants been served.

When the warrants are served, Penton will be given a plea date on which to enter his plea, and if he pleads not guilty, a trial date will be set, officials said.

The person who allegedly committed the sexual harassment also will face a probable cause hearing on those charges in December and those records also have been sealed, as Penton’s case was, because that person also is a school official, a court official said.

The state law that covers both cases is Sec. 99-3-28 that went into effect on July 1, 2004, and states that a “probable cause” hearing in connection with charges against a school official or law enforcement officer must be held to determine if there is enough evidence to determine whether or not warrants against the person charged can be issued by the court.

The court records are sealed until the judge rules that the case can go forward.

The accused person also has the right to present witnesses and to testify in the closed hearing held before the circuit judge.

The probable cause hearing is sort of a mini-trial, say officials familiar with the process.

The probable cause hearing on Penton was held on Monday, Oct. 19. It was closed.

The Pearl River County school board oversees the operation of the Pearl River County schools at Carriere and McNeill. All five seats on the board are elected and Penton also is an elected superintendent, the only elected superintendent in the county. He is not appointed by the board.

Picayune and Poplarville operate under separate municipal systems and in Poplarville all school board members are appointed and in Picayune three of five are appointed and two elected. The Picayune and Poplarville school boards appoint the superintendent.

Pearl River County prosecuting attorney Aaron Russell recused himself from the legal process, saying his wife was an employee of the county school system. The court appointed Scott Phillips, Marion County prosecuting attorney, in Russell’s place.