Documents suggest former principal used science lab, school supplies to make meth on campus

Updated: Mar. 19, 2021 at 7:45 PM CDT
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JONESBORO, Ark. (KAIT) - Months before a principal resigned after testing positive for drugs and amidst allegations he made meth on campus, newly released documents reveal that teachers had their suspicions.

In the last week, the Arkansas Board of Education levied a $500 fine and suspended former Westside High School Principal Michael Graham’s license for one year.

Graham resigned from his post after school officials discovered a methamphetamine lab dump site just off-campus and after he failed a subsequent drug test.

Graham’s resignation letter cited “personal reasons” for stepping down.

Just hours after Region 8 News posted the story online Sunday, March 14, Westside School Superintendent Scott Gauntt released an official statement.

In it, Gauntt claimed ongoing investigations by local law enforcement and the ADE’s Licensure Ethics Board prohibited him from releasing any information regarding the allegations against Graham.

The superintendent stated that there had not been any “cover-up.”

On Friday, Gauntt released a more detailed statement about the situation.

“In response to the events that led up to the resignation of former High School Principal Michael Graham, please note that Westside is not a law enforcement entity. The entirety of the evidence found was completely circumstantial and could have pointed to any number of individuals who had access to those areas of our campus,” Gauntt said. “These ‘single-pot’ methods of production are very small and take very little resources to produce material. Literally, this type of production is done in a 20 oz Coke bottle, not the massive ‘meth labs’ people have seen on TV. What may play in the ‘court of public opinion’ may not work in the ‘court of law.’ We do not have the authority to place anyone under arrest or bring charges. We can only remove that person from our employment, and that is exactly what we did.”

“That being said, once an actionable event took place, the district acted quickly and decisively in removing the issue from our campus. At no point was information held or evidence hidden. Immediately upon finding actionable information, the Craighead County Sheriff’s office was notified, the Drug Task Force of the JPD was notified and the ethics commission of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was notified,” Gauntt said. “In order to ease our patrons’ mind, many of the items found were thought to be months old. It was also determined that much of the scenario took place last spring and summer while the school was on COVID lockdown. So at no time were there students on campus when these activities took place. Westside has always taken the safety and well-being of our students and staff to be the most important role we play, and we will continue to do all we can to fulfill this most important mandate.”

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, Region 8 News received the school’s internal investigation documents, including emails and text messages between school administrators and staff, indicating Graham was suspected of illegal activity as early as February 2020.

According to a Sept. 21 statement from then-Assistant Principal Chris George, teacher Katie Smith said Graham came to her classroom during prep period and inquired about “at-home activities for science enrichment” for his children.

The science teacher suggested Graham’s children do a strawberry DNA extraction.

Instead, she said the principal said he wanted to test the pH of household items and asked if he could have some strips.

“I provided a bottle of Hydrion pH test strips to him,” Smith said in a Sept. 25 email. “He has not returned the bottle or any unused strips since that date.”

Christina Campbell, the science department’s chairperson, sent an email to George, Graham, and Security Director Ryan Tolbert regarding suspicious activity in her storage room and chemical closet.

She described finding glassware missing and a white residue on the counters and floors.

At the time, Graham told Tolbert he had been in the storage area and threw several things away.

But, he denied knowing anything about the white residue.

After speaking with George, Tolbert stated later they decided there was “nothing unusual” about Graham being in the storage room and that it was within the scope of his duties as principal.

On Sunday, Sept. 13, Josh Parks reports finding Graham in the science lab’s storage room.

“He seemed surprised,” Parks said in an email to Gauntt.

Graham reportedly told the vocational-agriculture teacher he was checking on an alarm at the ag building and that three deputies had just been there.

“Officer Gene told me that the alarm did go off,” Parks said. “But it involved the gym and that there was no alarm for the ag building.”

Following the encounter, Parks requested an in-person meeting with Gauntt.

George also texted the superintendent that same day to say he had received some “weird information that I need to run past you privately.”

Gauntt agreed to meet with both Parks and George.

Parks later went to Tolbert’s home that same Sunday afternoon to report his encounter with Graham.

“He said that Mr. Graham was pilfering through some chemicals,” Tolbert stated. “When he [Graham] saw Mr. Parks, he was very startled and nervous acting.”

Parks reportedly told the security director he had seen Graham in the storage closet on multiple occasions, including late at night.

“Mr. Parks went on to tell me that some of the other science teachers had also seen Mr. Graham pilfering around in the chemical storage closet,” Tolbert stated. “Mr. Parks believes that Mr. Graham has been seen at least five times in this area.”

Parks reportedly told Tolbert that “some of the science teachers are beginning to question Mr. Graham’s unusual interest in the chemical storage closet.”

At approximately 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 16, a student reports finding near the pond a “suspicious item,” later identified as a 24″ piece of clear tubing.

Tolbert and George went to the wooded area north of the pond, where they reported finding several clear plastic bottles containing a white powdery substance, as well as multiple cans of starter fluid.

The two men also found wash bottles and paper filters from the science lab and sodium chloride taken from the chemical closet.

“Due to my background in law enforcement, I recognized these items as components of a meth lab,” Tolbert stated.

George contacted School Resource Officer Greg Beavers, who, in turn, contacted Drug Task Force agents.

According to the documents, the agents believed that someone was using school chemicals and lab equipment to make methamphetamine in the science lab.

At the alleged dump site, Tolbert also spotted a blue plastic Aladdin cup with “Just have fun” printed on it.

“I told Mr. George that I had seen the cup somewhere. I just could not remember where,” Tolbert stated.

Four days after the discovery, on Sept. 20, Tolbert said he saw the same cups sitting on the kitchen counter of Graham’s lake home in Henderson.

Tolbert took a photo of the cup and texted it to George the following day.

“He [Tolbert] stated that after he took the pictures, he just walked away and did not say anything about it,” George said in Sept. 21 email.

After reporting the cup, Tolbert told administrators he was removing himself from the investigation, citing a conflict of interest.

During their meeting on Sept. 14, Gauntt instructed George to look for video evidence of any irregularities at the school.

The superintendent also told George to leave Tolbert out of the investigation due to his being Graham’s brother-in-law at the time.

George stated he again spoke with the science teachers who “provided the same basic statements as they had emailed in April” regarding missing equipment and white powdery substance on the lab’s floor and counters.

As George was wrapping up his investigation that day, Sandy Nichols told him she had found a can of starter fluid in a drawer.

“She said that she had originally thrown away another bottle of it back in April, but this was a bottle that was not there previously,” he said. “She said that it could be used to make meth.”

George then reviewed security camera footage which he said showed Graham coming to the school late at night on multiple occasions.

On Sept. 7, video showed Graham arrive at the school around 10:25 p.m. He went to his office, then at 10:39 p.m. he got in his truck and left for approximately 9 minutes.

George said he returned to the school at 10:48 p.m. from the opposite direction and went to his office.

“He remained there until 1:29 a.m. on Sept. 8,” George stated. “There were emails that Mr. Graham sent during this time that would suggest that he was working in his office late after having returned from the lake on Labor Day.”

While school administrators investigated the allegations, the teachers who had initially reported the suspicious activity were talking among themselves.

“He keeps going in there and messing with stuff,” Campbell said of Graham in a text message exchange on Sept. 13. “We’ve asked and he always has some excuse.”

She added that “they went so far as to remove the security cameras from the chemical storage room.”

Campbell did not clarify who removed the cameras.

In a later text, she said that Parks had caught Graham in the storage rooms.

“Graham just emailed me saying he was down there trying to get our ELMOs going (which Ronnie did last week),” Campbell said. “He just set himself up with an alibi.”

Since word of Graham’s fine and suspension came to light, numerous attempts have been made to get his side of the story.

When asked Tuesday, March 16, if he had anything to say about the drug investigation and the allegations levied against him, Graham replied: “No comment.”

To read all the documents, including the emails and text messages, click here.

[Editor’s note: ELMOs are document cameras used in virtual teaching.]

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