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Independent Investigator Will 'Start Fresh' Looking Into Complaints Against Shawnee Mission Principal

Kyle Palmer
KCUR 89.3
The former principal of Horizons High School, Shawnee Mission's alternative program, has been accused of sexual harassment and racist bullying.

A third party will look into complaints of racist bullying and sexual misconduct by the former principal of the district's alternative high school.

The Shawnee Mission School District will pay an independent investigator up to $45,000 to look into allegations of racist bullying and sexual misconduct by a high school principal.

The complaints against former Horizons High School principal Paul Colwell were first reported Sunday in the Kansas City Star. According to the Star, an investigation into Colwell’s behavior this spring cleared him of wrongdoing.

Paul Colwell, the former Horizons High School principal, is supposed to move to Shawnee Mission West for the 2020-21 school year.

“The article included new information not previously reported,” SMSD spokesman David Smith said in a statement. “Given the new information contained in the article, and due to the now public nature of this issue, the district will secure a third party to conduct an independent and confidential investigation.”

On Tuesday, the Shawnee Mission school board agreed to hire a third-party investigator, Shelly Freeman, with money from the district’s special liability fund.

During the brief meeting, board member Jessica Hembree pressed Superintendent Mike Fulton for details about the nature of the forthcoming investigation.

“I just want to clarify that this independent investigation is looking into not just the set of new complaints, but also more broadly how we investigated them as a district,” Hembree said.

“When an independent investigation like this is done, they start fresh and look at all of the data and the process as well, yes,” Fulton replied.

“So the investigation will help us confirm that we did our due diligence with any complaints that were before the district?” Hembree asked.

“I don’t want to speak for the investigator, but we give them full license. They come in, they start fresh, they take the data that’s there, and they look at the content and the processes,” Fulton said.

But the public won’t be privy to the investigator’s findings because it will involve personnel matters. The findings will be reported to the board in a closed executive section.

Meanwhile, Colwell is set to move within the district to become an assistant principal at Shawnee Mission West High School, which is one of the district’s most diverse schools.

The investigation could exacerbate tensions between district leadership and teachers. Many Shawnee Mission teachers felt disrespected during contract negotiations for the school year that ended in May.

They say that administrators haven’t listened to their concerns about burnout, though the school board is considering asking voters to approve a bond issue to alleviate some of their workload.

Public perception of this new investigation could make that request more difficult.

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