TRAVERSE CITY —
Traverse City Area Public Schools officials violated the district's nepotism rules when they hired a former school board president's son, a man with a history of legal scrapes who now stands accused of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old student.
The district hired Marc William Morris, 28, as a custodian at East Middle School in 2008. In 2010, Morris initiated a sexual relationship with a 13-year girl who attended the school, authorities contend. He was arrested Aug. 2 on three counts of felony criminal sexual conduct.
Morris is the son of former longtime TCAPS Board President Gerald Morris. School district records obtained by the Record-Eagle through Michigan's Freedom of Information law show TCAPS officials hired Marc Morris in June 2008 as a temporary employee, then made him a permanent employee five months later, in November 2008.
TCAPS written policy prevents children of school board members to be hired on a permanent basis, yet Marc Morris was elevated to permanent status a month before Gerald Morris left the school board in December 2008.
Christine Davis, TCAPS Human Resources executive director, acknowledged on Friday that Marc Morris' hiring violated the district's nepotism rules.
"We are reviewing our policy and procedures to see if changes need to be made," Davis said.
Suspect's questionable behavior
A TCAPS official this month said Gerald Morris contacted a district human resources official about his son's job application. Gerald Morris did not pressure school officials to hire his son, a district spokeswoman said, but Marc Morris' application for the custodial job listed then-Superintendent James Feil and Chief Financial Officer Paul Soma as references.
Feil no longer is with the school district. Soma declined comment.
Morris was hired despite prior convictions in Grand Traverse County for drunken driving, marijuana possession and a host of probation violations.
TCAPS officials said they were not aware of Marc Morris' marijuana conviction or probation violations because they did not show up in a criminal background check. But the marijuana conviction and probation violations appear on the 86th District Court's public online database.
An internal school district memo obtained by the Record-Eagle shows East Middle School staff members documented six separate incidents of questionable behavior attributed to Marc Morris in 2010 and 2011. The memo was written after school officials fired Marc Morris in 2011 for showing up to work with alcohol in his system.
The memo states that in fall 2010 Marc Morris was observed giving a piggyback ride to a female middle school student. In two other instances in 2010, Marc Morris invited students into a custodial area — where students are not allowed — so the students could choose pencils from his pencil collection.
In winter 2010, then-Principal Cathy Meyer-Looze observed Marc Morris chatting with choir girls in the school's lobby area.
"Dr. Meyer explained to him there was work that needed to be done in the cafeteria, and he was not to be hanging around the girls during their class time," the memo states.
In winter 2011, Meyer-Looze saw two girls follow Marc Morris in the cafeteria; Marc Morris was running from the girls, according to the memo.
"Dr. Meyer had to go over to them and tell Marc that he needed to get to his work and tell the girls they needed to go back to their tables," the memo states.
Another incident in winter 2011 involved Marc Morris poking a female student in the ribs.
When a school employee told Morris to stop, "he poked her again."
"When the young lady left the area, (Morris was told) he could not be poking the students," the memo states. "It was inappropriate and could get him into trouble. He replied that it would be his word against theirs."
Should TCAPS have contacted police?
Meyer-Looze documented the incidents after Marc Morris' termination, and as he appealed his dismissal through his employee union.
Grand Traverse sheriff's reports from July show school officials received a report from the teen victim's stepfather in 2010. He said Marc Morris sent the girl a photo of himself shirtless from chin-to-waist. School officials told police the stepfather would not provide the photo to Meyer-Looze and he only identified the sender by his first name of "Marc."
Meyer-Looze and Assistant Principal Steve Urbanski determined the only person on staff at East Middle School with the name of "Marc" was Marc Morris. They questioned Marc Morris about the photo incident, which he denied.
That incident prompted questions as to whether TCAPS officials should have alerted police when the step-father lodged his complaint.
Terri Miller founded the nonprofit Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation. She said Meyer-Looze and Urbanski should have immediately contacted police when they learned of the photo allegation.
"An adult sending an unclothed picture to a child is, in my view, great cause for alarm," Miller said. "It shows there is a serious boundary violation. There is an adult acting and communicating in an extremely inappropriate way. They should have definitely reported it to police.
"Mandatory reporting says when they suspect abuse, and as long as they know the name of the victim or the name of the perpetrator or how to contact the perpetrator, that's all the information they need to make a mandatory report of suspicion of abuse," Miller said.
"It's not up to the school system to substantiate and investigate abuse. It's up to them to report."
Davis, TCAPS human resources director, on Friday said school officials had scant information to go on. At the time they received the step-father's photo complaint, Marc Morris had not been the target of misconduct or questionable behavior allegations.
"The individual who called it in did not want to give his name ... or his child," Davis said. "He also declined to meet with the principal and did not call law enforcement, either."
Grand Traverse Undersheriff Nathan Alger last week said TCAPS officials weren't required to report the shirtless photo incident to authorities, given the limited information then available.
Authorities continue to investigate the possibility that Marc Morris assaulted other underage students.