During a Tuesday, Feb. 5 sentencing hearing, Louisa County School Board Member Allen Jennings (Jackson District) testified as a character witness for Leslie Rayford Johnson Jr. of Mineral, who had pleaded guilty in October to aggravated sexual battery of a child under the age of 13.
The sexual assault occurred at Jouett Elementary School in March 2012 when Johnson followed a 10-year-old boy into a restroom. (Related story)
Asked whether he would have a problem allowing the convicted child molester back on school property, Jennings answered that he would not.
Gregory Strickland, chairman of the school board, said following the case that Jennings was not speaking on behalf of the school board, but only for himself.
On Wednesday, the day after Judge Timothy Sanner sentenced Johnson to 20 years with all but five suspended, Louisa County residents began discussing a petition to remove Jennings from his seat on the county school board.
According to the Code of Virginia (24.2-233) a petition “must be signed by a number of registered voters who reside with the jurisdiction of the officer equal to ten percent of the total number of votes cast at the last election for the office that the officer holds.” Registrar Cristy Watkins said that 973 people voted in that election. Once the registrar certifies that enough “good signatures” are attached to the petition, it would then be up to a judge to hear the case and decide whether to remove a school board member from office. “As soon as the petition is filed with the court,” the Code reads, “the court shall issue a rule requiring the officer to show cause why he should not be removed from office.”
Among those advocating a petition to remove Jennings from office is Nikki LeClair Atkins. The mother of three said that she was stunned by the news, saying that child molesters “should not be allowed in our schools. It’s a no-brainer.” Atkins, who lives in Louisa County but not in the Jackson District, said that she will do whatever she can to help this issue. “I don’t feel like my children are safe,” she said. Atkins said that she was arguing for Jennings’s removal from the school board “because he’s an advocate for our children. To say he’s ‘OK’ with letting a child molester back in school is appalling.”
On Wednesday after many more Louisa County residents began calling for his immediate removal from the school board, Jennings said he had misspoken at the sentencing hearing. “I don’t want him back in school,” he said during a telephone interview. Asked about his response in court and the reports that he would not have a problem allowing Johnson back in school, Jennings said, “That part was wrong.” Jennings said he had answered that he would not have a problem allowing Johnson back in the schools, but that he had meant to say the opposite of that. Jennings explained that he had been asked a number of questions, one after the other, and that the matter became “complicated.” He said that he thought he was answering “No” to the question of “Do you want him [Johnson] back in school?” Jennings repeated, “I don’t want him back. No.”
Though news reports had indicated that Jennings knew Johnson from church, he said that he had met Johnson when visiting area churches, but that the two do not attend the same church.
Jennings, who was not at the Tuesday night school board meeting the night of his testimony, added that he wasn’t hiding from anyone by missing the meeting. “The meeting was supposed to be Wednesday, but they moved it to Tuesday,” he said. The superintendent’s office confirmed that the meeting, normally held on the first Tuesday of each month, had been rescheduled for Wednesday. The meeting had then been rescheduled back to Tuesday on short notice.
“I’m telling you 100 percent the truth,” Jennings said.
Asked why he was testifying as a character witness for Johnson if he didn’t think he should be allowed back at the school, Jennings said he was compelled by law. “I was subpoenaed by the defense,” he said. “And once I was there, all I could do was tell the truth.” A truth, Jennings said the day after, was the opposite of what he had meant to say.
By Wednesday afternoon, many Louisa County residents had taken to social media, phone calls, and emails to spread the word about the petition to remove Jennings.
Told of Jennings’s updated statement that he had misspoken in court, Nikki LeClair Atkins said, “I hope that’s the case, and that it’s not just double talk.” She added, “He owes it to his constituents to stand up and give them an explanation.”