Forged Diplomas: Graduates of The Picayune Christian Academy receive letter of admission

Published 7:00 am Saturday, March 4, 2017

Several families in the Picayune area were recently sent a letter stating that the diploma their children received from The Christian Academy of Picayune contained a forged signature, making the diploma invalid.
Classes for the school were being held at the House of Refuge church at 105 Highway 11 South in Picayune. The church’s pastor, Brad Heffner, said that the school had no affiliation with the church other than leasing space on the weekdays from 8 a.m. to noon.
Amiee Tebo, a former high school student of The Picayune Christian Academy, is now a college student, but might not be for long. She said she received a diploma from the school last year and is currently attending classes at Pearl River Community College, but since receiving the letter alerting parents and students that the school’s administrator, Candace Downey, forged Pearl River County School District Superintendent Alan Lumpkin’s signature to the diplomas, she may have to acquire a GED before continuing at PRCC because forged diplomas aren’t accepted by accredited colleges.
Tebo said she is disappointed because she spent her senior year at the school thinking it was accredited, and thought she was ready for college.
“I just wanted to graduate with a diploma and have paperwork behind it,” Tebo said.
Tebo now owes $2,700 for the college courses she’s taken and won’t be able to enroll next semester until she at least obtains the GED.
“I don’t have time to go back to high school because she made a mistake,” Tebo said.
The letter sent to parents states, “The Pearl River County School District is not and has never been affiliated with The Christian Academy of Picayune.
“The diplomas issued to graduating seniors by The Christian Academy of Picayune are not valid documents due to the fact that I forged the signature of Alan Lumpkin on each diploma issued.”
The letter goes on to ask forgiveness from those affected and is signed with the name “Candace Downey.”
In a phone interview with the Picayune Item, Downey said that the school was in fact only leasing space from House of Refuge Church, and that while she declined to directly admit it was her hand that forged the signature, she is taking full responsibility.
“The bottom line is I’m responsible for the school, so I took responsibility for any and all wrong-doing,” Downey said. “I dropped the ball and the children should not have to suffer the consequences.”
Lumpkin said that he received information about his forged signature on the diplomas about three weeks ago from concerned parents. After becoming aware of the problem, he was able to make contact with Downey after several attempts. Lumpkin said that when contact was made, she admitted to forging the signature. After conferring with the school district’s attorney, Lumpkin said the decision to have Downey send letters informing parents of what had transpired was made. Lumpkin said he wanted the parents to know the diplomas are not valid.
“Those are the real victims in that case… the students,” Lumpkin said.
As for why the district is not filing criminal charges on behalf of the parents, Lumpkin said that is something the district can’t do, it is up to the parents to deal with the situation themselves.
Tebo said to her recollection, there were about 15 students attending the school last year.
Brandy Melbourne said she enrolled her child in the school as well, transferring her son from a Hancock County School due to academic difficulties. Last year he also received one of the fraudulent diplomas. He is currently enrolled in a technical college. She does not expect his status at that school to be affected, but she is still upset that she has not received a refund for the tuition she paid to The Picayune Christian Academy.
“It’s a scam after a scam after a scam,” Melbourne said.
Downey said she intends to provide all parents with a refund and provide any assistance they need to “make it right.” That includes paying for GED courses.
Melbourne said Downey is a distant family relation, but has yet to get a clear explanation about what actually transpired with the diplomas.
Pamela Quinlan said she enrolled her child in the school for about two months, until she became suspicious.
Quinlan said she’s sent her daughter to Louisiana private schools, but shortly after transferring her child to The Christian Academy of Picayune, Quinlan learned that Downey was not teaching classes as she should have been. Instead Quinlan was told that Downey’s 16-year-old sister was running the classes. That led Quinlan to ask her daughter to video class sessions. What Quinlan learned was that the students were watching movies instead of receiving proper schooling.
Downey contends that the videos were primarily instructional, but did say that there were times when the students were allowed to watch movies, just like in any class setting. Additionally, Downey said that in addition to her sister, adults were also in the class as substitutes in her absence while Downey dealt with medical issues that will require surgery.
Quinlan said she got a refund on the $400 she spent on two-months worth of tuition, but she filed a report with the Picayune Police Department to attempt to have criminal charges pressed.
Quinlan’s daughter was moved to a homeschool because she missed too many school days to be moved to another private school.
Assistant Chief Jeremy Magri said the Picayune Police Department has received several reports from concerned citizens about the diplomas and the department is looking into what action can be taken. Fifteenth District Attorney Hal Kittrell said his office will handle any cases that come to his office and is working with the Picayune Police Department as the investigation continues. So far, Kittrell expects any initial criminal charges to be for uttering forgery or false pretense.
Additionally, the Mississippi Department of Education’s office of accreditation is looking into the complaints. MDE Public Information Officer Patrice Guilfoyle said The Picayune Christian Academy was not accredited by the state department. She said private schools are not required by law to become accredited under the MDE, but can do so voluntarily. Alternately, private schools can seek accreditation through the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools, again, voluntarily. A search of the MAIS website did not list The Picayune Christian Academy as being accredited with that agency. Guilfoyle said she will have to wait to see what the investigators find before commenting on a potential action to be taken.
“It’s really too soon at this point to say what, if anything, would take place,” Guilfoyle said.
Heffner said the church will continue to minister Downey in her time of need.
While the school has since closed, Downey said some parents of middle school aged children requested that she continue to home-school those students for the remainder of the year.
Prior to opening the school about two years ago, Downey said she had a homeschool. Today, she has no plans to open another school.

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