On May 16, the day police arrested Montessori School of Raleigh headmistress Nancy Errichetti on charges of aiding and abetting alleged sexual abuser and former middle-school teacher Nick Smith, more than two-dozen parents fired off an email to the school's Board of Trustees, begging the board to rethink what they believed to be one of Errichetti's most inexplicable decisions: the sacking of Janie Jackson.
Two weeks earlier, Jackson, who had worked at the school for nine years, including the past six as directress of MSR's Children's House II (pre-K and kindergarten), had learned that her contract would not be renewed for the upcoming school year. Jackson was one of six teachers whose contracts weren't renewed—several of them, including Jackson, had previously gone to the board to complain about Errichetti's leadership style—and one of at least sixteen teachers who won't be returning this fall.
"As parents of Children's House II students," the parents wrote, "we were both surprised and concerned to learn of this decision. We firmly believe she embodies the values of grace, integrity, and leadership we want the Montessori School of Raleigh to instill in our children. ... Many of us have already enrolled our children for next year with the understanding that Janie would continue as their teacher."
The parents never found out why Jackson was terminated. Like Jackson, they were only told that she no longer "fit the school's culture." One Children's House parent says a board member told her "there was something they knew but couldn't tell us. We absolutely didn't believe it. Nancy was feeding them BS reasons. It was so frustrating. I know for a fact that [Jackson is] a very honest person, very up front."
In a wrongful-termination lawsuit filed last week in Wake County Superior Court, Jackson posits her own theory: She was fired, she
Smith, a longtime math teacher, was indicted in November on twenty counts of statutory rape and child pornography stemming from an alleged yearlong sexual relationship he had with an eighth grader, identified in court documents as Jane Doe I, in 2011–12; he is currently in the Wake County jail on a $3 million bond.
In January, Jane Doe I and her family filed a lawsuit against Smith, Errichetti, and the school, alleging that Smith had also sexually abused Jane Doe I's younger sister and that the school knew about his inappropriate behavior but didn't take action.
In May, in a potentially precedent-setting prosecution, the District Attorney's Office indicted Errichetti on charges of aiding and abetting Smith, a felony, and contributing to the delinquency and neglect of a minor, a misdemeanor.
Errichetti has stepped away from management of the school. Although her contract was up for renewal at the end of June, the Board of Trustees declined to take any action while the charges against her play out, according to a school spokeswoman. MSR is currently searching for an interim head of school. On Monday, Errichetti's scheduled arraignment was postponed for the second time.
Jackson says she first spoke with Detective Alex Doughty ten days after Smith's arrest. Then, and in a follow-up conversation in December, she relayed some disturbing stories she'd either witnessed directly or heard about secondhand.
Her first red flag, which she described to Doughty, came in
Jackson also told Doughty about concerns raised by a teacher named Carolina Eidson. In August 2012, soon after Errichetti became head of school, Eidson sent her an email detailing reports of inappropriate behaviors between Smith and female students. In that email, Eidson described Smith hanging out late into the night in girls' hotel rooms on overnight trips and being alone with and holding hands with Jane Doe I. (In an email, Eidson declined to comment.)
In addition, Jackson told the detective about an end-of-year faculty party in June 2015 held at MSR's middle-school campus, in which a retiring teacher named Subhash Patel regaled the audience of about fifty with a story about a school trip—to Europe, Jackson believes—when Smith took students to a nightclub or a bar and got so drunk that Patel needed to come pick him up. (Patel did not return a phone call, but another former teacher who was there seconds Jackson's account.)
"When she heard this, Nancy put her fingers in her ears and said, 'La la la la la, I don't want to hear this,'" Jackson says.
It's difficult to know how seriously people took this exchange, Jackson admits. Many of the faculty members had been drinking, and a lot of people laughed.
"But there were some of us that looked at each other like, whoa," Jackson says. "We didn't really have enough information. You don't know how much was embellished."
After she spoke to the police, things carried on as normal, Jackson says. On April 19, she was given her student roster and classroom assignment for the 2018–19 school year, according to the lawsuit, an indication that MSR planned to keep her on. But then, as part of the discovery process in the civil case filed by the Doe family, on April 24 the school received a summary of Jackson's interviews with the police.
Six days later, Jackson was told she wouldn't be returning. She says she wasn't told why, after nine years, she no longer fit the school's culture.
"I was a mentor for numerous teachers; I was put in leadership positions; I was the chairman for a committee on reaccreditation as a result of that work," Jackson says. "I mean, it just didn't make any sense."
In a statement, MSR Board of Trustees chairman Joe Lee denies that these events are related: "Ms. Jackson's lawsuit wrongly attempts to tie her employment status to a tragic and unrelated event in our school's history. The decision not to renew this teacher's contract had absolutely nothing to do with her cooperation with the police. From the very moment of Nick Smith's arrest, we encouraged everyone—students, parents, staff, faculty, and alumni—to go directly to law enforcement if they had any pertinent information to share."
Jackson's case doesn't rest solely on the coincidental timing of her termination. It also involves conversations she says she had with Kathleen Malik, an MSR parent and the sister-in-law of a board member, in May.
In the first of these conversations, Jackson says Malik explicitly told her, "What we have been told was that you were not renewed because you went to the police." The next week, Jackson says, Malik told her she couldn't help her get reinstated because "it's tearing my family apart."
In an email Friday, Malik denied telling Jackson she was fired for talking to the cops.
"I did not say any of the things attributed to me in the lawsuit. I was disappointed to see these false statements in the lawsuit, and I look forward to seeing the truth come to light," she wrote.
However, in a letter of recommendation Malik wrote for Jackson dated June 4, Malik praised her child's former teacher: "Nobody is more dedicated towards the improvement of our kids than Janie Jackson. ... In our eyes, she represents the best of the best when it comes to integrity and ethics and doing the right thing."
In a follow-up email Tuesday evening, Malik confirmed that she’d written the letter of recommendation, reiterated that she had not said what the lawsuit claimed that she said, and declined further comment.
Asked about Malik's denial, Jackson says, "She is in a horrible situation. I can't even imagine what is going to happen in her family now. So I understand why she's doing what she's doing."
In the wake of Jackson's dismissal, says the Children's House parent, "the majority of children have pulled out of Children's House II. The amount of people who withdrew their children is unbelievable." (Reached shortly before press time, an MSR spokeswoman couldn't immediately confirm or deny this parent's account.)
"I just got a text from one of Janie's parents asking me about withdrawal deadlines because a lot of parents are planning on leaving," a former longtime teacher told the INDY Tuesday morning.
Tuition for Children's House is $10,450 (for half-day) to $17,290 (for extended day), according to MSR's website. As part of the Montessori program, parents expect their children to have the same teachers for three-year cycles, to allow the teachers to get to know the kids socially, emotionally, and academically. It's a major selling point of the model. So it's not surprising that, amid such upheaval, some parents would look elsewhere.
"The students that would be with me for another year or two, their parents were shocked," Jackson says. "I have letter after letter after letter from parents saying they were devastated."