Amid scandal, UK researcher joined Bourbon County Schools. Complaints are coming again.

At least two former Bourbon County High School students have reported sexual harassment — including numerous demeaning and sexualized comments — by one of their teachers to school officials, and at least one of those students made a formal complaint to the Education Professional Standards, which oversees teacher certification and discipline.

But it should come as no surprise to Bourbon County officials; the subject of the complaints, science teacher Eric Smart, was investigated and disciplined for sexual harassment in 2009 when he was a high profile researcher at the University of Kentucky. Three years later, he resigned amid federal and UK investigations into falsified data at his laboratory and became a teacher at Bourbon County High School. As the Herald-Leader’s higher education reporter, I wrote a series of stories about Smart, and contacted then-Bourbon County superintendent Lana Fryman about both sets of allegations. Fryman retired as superintendent and now serves on the Bourbon County school board.

It’s a dismal saga, one that condemns the “grownups” at every point, from UK, where one official is believed to have removed the letter detailing Smart’s sexual harassment discipline from his personnel file, to Bourbon County administrators, who didn’t bother to investigate every angle of Smart’s career or, apparently, the more recent complaints about him. Then there’s Smart himself, who won millions of dollars in state and federal grants based on falsified data. As UK and federal investigators closed in, he applied to teach at Bourbon County, but then failed to acknowledge on his job application that he had been found guilty of misconduct. After our stories, the EPSB did investigate and censure him for that omission; in 2013, he was not allowed to teach for three months of summer.

Bourbon County High School. Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022
Bourbon County High School. Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022

But first, let’s examine the latest allegations from two former students, who went to high school officials in the 2021-2022 school year to complain. The Herald-Leader does not identify victims of sexual harassment or assault, so we will call them Student #1 and Student #2. Student #1 filed a complaint with the EPSB this year. That agency will not confirm open investigations.

Student #1 said she made numerous complaints to then-Bourbon County High School Principal Shane Mitchell (who is now principal of Bourbon County Middle School), including with her parents. She said notes were taken; however there is nothing reflecting these complaints in Smart’s personnel file, obtained by the Herald-Leader under the state’s Open Records Act.

Student #1 made the following allegations in the report to the EPSB. According to that document, Smart:

“Commented on the dress I wore on my birthday, saying I ‘look like a real college girl’ and that I ‘would get so many guys if I dressed like that;’

“Had an in depth conversation with himself to decide which student in his class (there were 6 of us) would be the best stripper. He did this in front of us.”

“Repeatedly called me a bitch in order to demean me, under the guise of a compliment. I once counted upwards of 15 times in one class period that I was called a bitch by him.”

“On numerous occasions, he attempted to look up my skirts/dresses in the hallway, in addition to staring at my butt when I wore leggings. This behavior caused me to entirely stop wearing leggings, tight clothes, dresses, and skirts.”

“He would make us do various actions to gain extra credit on tests. One girl was forced to jump, full speed, at a wall. I was forced to do a crab race with another student around the entire room.”

“He constantly told us about how ‘stupid,’ ‘dumb,’ etc we are. He continually told us about how we were the ‘dumbest AP Biology class he’d ever had.’”

Student #1, who is now a college student, told me she wanted to come forward now because she has heard that Smart is acting this way toward his current students.

“This trauma consumes my entire life, in every way imaginable,” she wrote in the complaint. “I now find myself questioning every single male professor I have a class with, because I do not want to experience this again. It is difficult for me to make friends, because I am worried about whether they will believe me. I am still recovering from the mental damage that Eric gave me.”

Student #1 said in her standards board complaint: “Now, every time a motorcycle drives anywhere near me, everything within me sinks, for fear that he has come to gain his revenge. He knows that I reported him, so it is not unreasonable for me to believe that he may seek revenge against me. I tried to warn the BCHS administration and I was ignored. I will not allow him to do this to more young women, so I implore you to do something about this. Bourbon County Schools did not listen to me, but they might listen to you.”

Student #2 recounted similar stories in interviews and emails to the Herald-Leader.

“At one point he asked that I run around the room with scissors pointed at my chest, so that if I fell, I would likely hurt myself,” she wrote. “This became a recurring theme, that he would talk about my death. At one point, he detailed how I could die if I got the wrong helmet, with graphic detail. Specifically mentioning my skull splitting open and my neck snapping.”

Smart also told her she looked like a stripper because she was holding some dollar bills.

Smart did not return calls for comment. Superintendent Amy Baker emailed the following statement: “I have no formal complaints regarding Mr. Smart. Our school principals appropriately investigate any complaints received from students, staff members, and parents in a thorough and timely manner. If the complaint or concern warrants further investigation, the matter would be shared with district personnel and our district police department if the complaints are potentially criminal in nature.”

Similar complaints

What’s interesting is how similar these complaints are to those made by women in Smart’s UK lab, although these were graduate students and adults, not high school students. Here’s what I wrote in 2013:

“Smart’s alleged harassment was mostly reserved for female workers in his lab and included teasing, pushing, slapping, tickling, touching, and playing in the lab, sometimes ending in wrestling on the floor or someone sitting on another person,” according to a February 2009 letter from Patty Bender,then-UK’s assistant vice president for equal opportunity, to Tim Bricker, chairman of UK’s Department of Pediatrics, who was Smart’s boss at the time. “Ice fights and ice being put down clothing was described,” Bender wrote. “These activities were reported to be initiated by Dr. Smart and may start playfully but were described as ending violently with someone on the floor, under the furniture, and on occasion partially undressed/exposed due to the wrestling.”

Bender also said Smart had trouble controlling his anger and created a hostile work environment that had been going on for a long time without being reported.

According to the documents, in 2009, Smart was put on probation for a year and was ordered to seek psychiatric evaluation. A reprimand was supposed to be put in Smart’s personnel file; however, that reprimand was not in the file obtained by the Herald-Leader under a separate open-records request. At the time, UK Counsel William Thro said he believed that Bricker had removed the letter from his file. Bricker was a big Smart fan apparently; he wrote a glowing recomendation letter on UK letterhead to Bourbon County schools in 2010, calling Smart “an outstanding teacher from both the standpoint of content and teaching style with all levels of learners.” Bricker died in 2013.

It’s not clear why numerous newspaper articles about Smart didn’t raise more alarm bells for Bourbon County officials. It is true that STEM teachers are hard to find, and an award-winning chemistry researcher might have seemed like gold until you bothered to wonder why he was no longer at UK.

But Smart had a meteoric rise at Kentucky’s flagship university; he brought in $8 million in federal grants starting in 2000. He was the Barnstable Brown Chair in Pediatric Diabetes Research and director of the Kentucky Pediatric Research Institute until being put on leave in 2010. Smart oversaw 13 employees engaged in nutrition research.

UK received the first allegation of Smart’s scientific misconduct on April 14, 2009. The first scientific misconduct investigation took nearly a year, during which time Smart apparently worked toward his high school teacher certification, according to his file. In August 2010, he was placed on leave and got special assignments to work on at home while being paid his full salary of $164,000.

Smart resigned from UK in May 2012. He received a provisional certificate for college faculty in biology and chemistry in 2011, when he first started teaching at Bourbon County High School, then full certification. At the time, UK officials said they didn’t know that Smart had applied for another full-time job while on the UK payroll, nor did they know that Bricker had written a recommendation letter for Smart.

The Herald-Leader articles about Smart appeared between fall 2012 and early 2013. At the time, then-Bourbon Superintendent Lana Fryman said Smart had said nothing about research misconduct. He answered no to the following question: “Have you ever been dismissed, resigned, released or asked to resign/retire or discharged from a professional position or military service for immorality, incompetence, willful neglect of duty, misconduct, or presenting false information toward obtaining the position?

In March 2013, the EPSB opened an investigation into Smart’s response, later agreeing to a settlement that allowed him to keep his license, but suspended it for three months of summer. He also had to complete 12 hours of ethics training in 2013, 25 hours of community service each year for the next five years, and training in “cultural competency,” which includes demonstrating an understanding of “socio-economic class differences, gender bias, and ethnic diversity.” On all future applications for certification or public school employment, Smart shall “fully disclose that he was investigated for research misconduct while employed at the University of Kentucky and that he resigned from his faculty position with the university after two investigative committees found that he falsified data.”

Those documents are now in Smart’s personnel file with the Bourbon schools.

At the time, Fryman said she did not know about the sexual harassment reprimand because it did not get flagged in Smart’s criminal background check. But the 2012 story about his year’s probation for sexual harassment did not appear to interrupt Smart’s teaching career. He has received several good evaluations. including comments like “Your leadership has moved the science department into a direction of systemic success,” in 2014 and “Dr. Smart has high expectations for students and holds them accountable for achieving it. Great leader” in 2013, according to open records.

Warning signs

Principal Mitchell did not report the students’ complaints to the Bourbon County administration, so there was no official investigation of Smart, according to Superintendent Baker. In 2018, according to Smart’s personnel file, Superintendent Amy Baker wrote him a letter informing him his salary would be reduced for the 2018-2019 school year “due to the reduction of Science Department Head.” But there are not details about why.

Bourbon County appears to be going through some issues with its educators. In October, Kentucky State Police arrested cross country coach Matthew Perraut on charges of third-degree sodomy and unlawful transaction with a minor in connection with an alleged incident in November of 2015, according to media reports. Herald-Leader reporters Beth Musgrave and Valarie Honeycutt Spears have written about one teacher who moved from Paris Independent to Jessamine County despite being disciplined for sexual harassment against students. That teacher was accused of 1,753 phone calls and texts with a female student.

Sadly, teacher sex abuse is all too common in Kentucky. Musgrave and Spears wrote in a project in September, Kentucky has some of the weakest laws in the country regarding teacher sexual misconduct. A five-year review of teacher revocations and suspensions by the EPSB showed the majority of teachers who have had licenses yanked or suspended was due to sexual misconduct, the newspaper found.

Educators are required to do sexual harassment training, but it’s obviously not working all that well if many have to be reminded not to text students or not to call them demeaning and sexualized epithets. Eric Smart came to Bourbon County with warning signs all over him; let’s see if Bourbon County officials are now willing to investigate.