Denison Independent School District Superintendent Henry Scott said the district will not be making any changes to its policies after recently settling a civil case that stemmed from the way a district employee restrained a student in 2015. And that former employee says the district knew of his criminal record, including an assault conviction, before he was hired.
In the suit, which was settled for $500,000, Brian and Lisa Sexton accused Denison ISD special education classroom aide Mark Mask, 55, of placing their child, who was in Denison High School’s Life Skills Class in December of 2015, in a choke hold. The suit also said Mask applied arm bars to the child, threw the child on the floor without the ability to break his fall and then dropped a knee on the child’s back with unnecessary force. Mask was eventually fired for his use of the restraint and was subsequently convicted of misdemeanor assault by physical contact. District officials say use of that restraint was against district policies in place at the time of the incident.
Scott said Wednesday the district knew the case was going to be a difficult one to handle, and he didn’t try to defend what Mask had done.
“There were policies in place, he just didn’t follow the policies,” Scott said in an interview Wednesday.
Scott said there is a video showing Mask’s actions with the child. Noting a need to be careful about what he said because he didn’t want to discuss the student in the case, Scott said he doesn’t feel the district needs to address its policies other than making sure that its staff follow the policies that have been approved.
After multiple open records requests, a law firm representing the Denison Independent School District released on Tuesday that the district settled the lawsuit for $500,000. On Wednesday morning, Scott said it should be clear that the district only paid $50,000 of the $500,000 settlement cost for the case the Sextons brought against the district in federal court last year. The remainder of the funds, Scott said, came from the district’s liability insurance carrier.
“It was an unfortunate situation that happened and it was my mistake,” Mask said in an interview on Thursday. “However, my charge was assault by contact. My fine was $250. A half a million for them, it just doesn’t add up to me.”
The suit also said the district should never have hired Mask because he had a criminal history. A search of the Grayson County court records show that Mask was charged with a number of traffic violations and theft under $1,500, which occurred in late 2010. The charges were all misdemeanors handled in justice of the peace courts. But Mask was also convicted of crimes in Tulsa County, Oklahoma. Between 2000 and 2003, Mask was convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault and battery and two felonies — second-degree burglary and escape of a correctional program or custody.
On Thursday, Mask expressed regret for his past crimes and also said he wanted to apologize to both the Sexton family and Denison ISD.
“I’m truly sorry for any disruption that I’ve caused the family and the school district,” Mask said. “I never meant to. It was a bad restraint. I didn’t take the proper procedure to what I had been taught. I was wrong there.”
Mask said he was “forthcoming” and “upfront” with both Scott and then-Assistant Superintendent George Hatfield about his crimes and convictions in Tulsa County.
“I told all of the administrators that were involved, including Dr. Scott, including Dr. Hatfield,” Mask said. “They asked me to tell them my story. So I sat down and told them for a long time I was making bad choices in my life.”
When asked Thursday if he was informed of Mask’s burglary, assault and escape convictions during the hiring process, Scott said, “No, not really.”
“I wouldn’t have (been informed) because I wasn’t in the hiring loop — especially with a teacher aide,” Scott said. “If it had been an administrator or somebody of that nature, I would have been notified based upon if something did come up that would have been an issue — I would have been in the loop.”
But, Scott said, for a position like Mask’s, he wouldn’t have been updated on the applicant’s background check.
“Dr. George Hatfield was the personnel director at that time and he was the one that did the check on Mark,” Scott said. “And it’s my understanding that there wasn’t anything in his past that would be any kind of indication that he would be a danger to a child. At least, that’s what I was told.”
Hatfield retired from the school district in August 2015. A call seeking comment from him was not immediately returned Friday.
Mask was unsure of the exact date he was hired but estimated he began working with Denison ISD in September 2010 and worked for the district for six years. Scott said he believed Mask worked for the district for approximately six and a half years. Denison ISD administrators were on vacation Friday and no one from the district’s central office was available to confirm Mask’s exact dates of employment.
On Wednesday Scott said, Mask was cleared through the Texas Education Agency to be hired as a school district employee and the district did nothing wrong in hiring him. On Thursday, Scott encouraged the Herald Democrat to contact the district’s attorney, Meredith Walker, adding that she would have a greater knowledge of the laws regarding what criminal offenses would disqualify an applicant with the school district. A call placed to Walker on Friday wasn’t returned.
Background check process
At the beginning of 2008, the TEA required that all applicants for public school positions who do not require a state-administered educator certification undergo a fingerprint check. Mask said he was fingerprinted as part of the application process with Denison ISD.
TEA spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson said the results of applicants’ fingerprint checks reveal criminal records at the national level. A search of the state’s educator certificate database revealed Mask received his certification in October 2011. Provided an applicant passes a state’s background check, Culbertson said school districts have some discretion in deciding what offenses would prevent an applicant from being hired.
She said, in her experience, those offenses would include particularly heinous and violent felonies or those that would indicate a danger to children. Culbertson said she could not comment on Mask’s criminal record or whether his crimes would have caused the TEA to prevent him from working in public schools as Mask is currently under investigation by the TEA’s Educator Investigations Division. She said the division investigates “complaints against teachers, especially any that involve misbehavior of any kind, really.”
The Texas Association of School Board’s Director of Legal Services Joy Baskin said, under the TEA’s hiring requirements, Mask’s burglary, assault and escape conviction did not require a dismissal of his application or consideration in the hiring process.
“Those are not crimes that would fall under an automatic disqualification,” Baskin said. “So then that goes into the local school district’s decision-making.”
Mask’s state-issued educator certificate became inactive in February and he said he now works as a faith-based, adult and couple’s counselor, in addition to providing lawn care and landscaping services.