Police, school district alerted to concerns with Lincolnton principal a decade before arrest for sex crimes, records show
LINCOLNTON, N.C. (WBTV) - A concerned parent called police about interactions between his son and the principal at his son’s school more than a decade before the principal was arrested on charges related to having sex with students, records obtained by WBTV show.
Tony Worley resigned as principal at Lincolnton High School in late June and was charged days later with multiple felony crimes, including having sex with a student and soliciting sex with a student.
Worley was also principal at Lincolnton High School in 2007 when the father of a sophomore student at the school contacted police regarding contact between Worley and the man’s son online.
A police report from 2007 taken by the Lincolnton Police Department shows the father “came in to complain about the Principal using a web sit (sic) on My Space and contacting their son and placing pictures and captions involving his son.”
The report further said that father “was concerned with what Mr Worley relationship was with his son.”
According to the report, detectives with Lincolnton PD and the FBI investigated the report from January to April of that year but did not find enough evidence to show a crime had been committed.
There is no record of a search warrant being executed as part of the investigation. Instead, the police report said, the detective interviewed the man’s son, a friend and a teacher at the high school.
The police report does not detail the FBI’s involvement in the case.
But the report does provide details of a meeting between the Lincolnton PD detective and leaders at Lincoln County Schools.
“I met with superintendant (sic) Dr. Waton (sic) and the school system attorney David Black. In the meeting I informed them of my findings,” the report said. "I explained to them that I could not find any evidence to indicate that Mr. Worley had committed a crime. They told me that he may have broken a policy and would follow up on their end.”
A copy of Worley’s personnel information provided by the school district to WBTV shows he was suspended without pay for five days in June 2007.
By law, the school district cannot disclose the reason for the suspension and a spokesman for the district refused an interview to answer questions about what, if anything, was done to further investigate and monitor Worley’s behavior following the 2007 meeting with investigators.
According to an affidavit filed with search warrants executed as part of the 2019 investigation into Worley, police were contacted by a student at Lincolnton High School in late June 2019 who said he first messaged Worley on the dating app Grindr and later continued exchanging messages over Snap Chat.
According to the affidavit, the student said he was in an emotional relationship with Worley, who the student said had also sent him pictures of other former students from Lincolnton High School at his house.
The report from 2007 should have been enough to raise a red flag for school administrators to continue investigating and monitoring Worley’s behavior, according to Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, a counselor who works with survivors of sexual abuse.
“If there were enough to concern a parent and there were pictures, why are there pictures? What is this? Is it the beginning of a ‘grooming’ process?” Frawley-O’Dea told WBTV after reviewing the 2007 police report and other documents from Worley’s current criminal investigation.
“It doesn’t start out like ‘hi, let’s have sex.’ It starts out ‘gee, you know, you having trouble with math? Could I help you with that? Would you like to go out for ice cream after our tutoring?’” she said. “You’re also earning the trust of the family as the kid and then it starts moving into, ‘would you like to see some pictures? Would you like to, you know, touch me?’”
Worley, through his attorney, declined to comment or give an interview for this story.
A spokesman for Lincoln County Schools sought to differentiate the allegations from the 2007 report from the current charges against Worley.
The current administration of Lincoln County Schools was not in place in 2007, however, upon researching the matter, we are unaware of any previous allegation that Mr. Worley engaged in sexual activity with a student in 2007," a spokesman said in a statement.
“Lincoln County Schools takes accusations of sexual misconduct seriously and the district always investigates these types of allegations and turns the matter over to law enforcement to investigate,” the statement said. “Again, to our knowledge the issue in 2007 was not related to sexual conduct with a student.”
An email and phone call to Dr. Jim Watson, the then-superintendent who was briefed on the 2007 investigation and who is now on the Lincolnton City Council, seeking comment for this story were not returned.
Frawley-O’Dea said the school district’s statement overlooks the fact that sexual abuse of children starts long before any physical contact.
“The perpetrator is judging ‘is this kid going to be a good victim? Are they someone who I can seduce into caring about me?’ And I think that’s one of the travesties is the child actually begins to care for and feel cared about by the perpetrator and then all of that is betrayed,” she said.
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