The seniors who graduated from the Christian Academy of Picayune last year thought they would head out into the world just like any other high school graduates. But everything about the validity of their education, and their immediate future, hit a brick wall early last week.
That’s when the head administrator of the academy, Candice Downey, admitted in a letter to parents she had issued fraudulent diplomas on graduation day with the forged signature of Pearl River County School District Superintendent Alan Lumpkin on them.
Now, students and their parents are scrambling to figure out what to do next. So far, there are more questions than answers. Among them: Will the teens have to repeat senior year somewhere else? Will colleges accept the diplomas? Or will the students have to get their GEDs, likely meaning many more classroom hours? What will it take before they can legitimately say they are high school graduates?
And the more they learn about Downey — who parents say assured them of the school’s legitimacy — the angrier they become.
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After pressure from Superintendent Lumpkin and Picayune School Board attorney James Keith, Downey admitted the diploma forgery in a letter to parents.
Lumpkin said the board didn’t pursue criminal charges, fearing Downey would hire an attorney, keep quiet and not carry through with the board’s wishes for her to remain accountable.
He said the District Attorney’s Office is investigating.
Downey offered an apology to the parents that included the promise that “this will not happen again.
“I deeply regret the events that have transpired. I can only ask for forgiveness and let you know that I am willing to do whatever is necessary to make this right. I assure you, this will not happen again.”
However, it’s not the first time Downey has been accused of fraudulent activity.
In 2005, she was arrested in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, on a charge of issuing a worthless check. That case was dismissed, the Clerk of Court’s Office said.
In 2010, she was charged with failure to return leased movables, related to leased property. Downey was put on probation, which the office noted as terminated for unsatisfactory reasons.
Parents, students react
Amanda Wilson had two sons, a niece and a nephew attending the school.
Seventeen-year-old Zachery Wilson was the Christian Academy’s class valedictorian. He spoke at the May graduation.
Now, he’s taking GED classes. His once-bright scholarship hopes look dim.
Paying for college will be tough on the family, his mom said.
“We’re not rich. We don’t know if we can pay for college. (Downey) told us Zachery would have scholarship opportunities. She said she’d prep him for the ACT. None of those things were true,” Amanda Wilson said.
Eight-year-old Mason Wilson went to the school for two years. Despite getting report cards showing A’s and B’s, Mason tested well below average for his grade level.
Amanda Wilson’s nephew, Ezekial Cowart, 16, was supposed to graduate in May. He, too, is taking a GED course.
Madison Cowart, 13, her niece, has been pulled from Christian Academy and enrolled in a Stone County school.
Pamela Quinlan’s 16-year-old daughter Shea Garland attended the school for about two months.
“I found out it’s all fake,” Shea said, breaking into tears. “I found out now I’m not getting an education. I’m not graduating.”
Shea is now enrolled in a home school.
“She’ll graduate with a home school diploma,” Quinlan said. “It’s not accredited.”
How did this happen?
The parents said they met Downey through church, where they say she convinced them to enroll based on one key point. Attending the school would help their kids with college. Downey also promised accreditation, especially appealing to parents with children attending non-accredited schools.
“She said that would help get Zachery to college,” Amanda Wilson said. “But she also promised us that she had contact with the Pearl River School District and she would help get our kids scholarship help.”
The various families’ payment arrangements differed. Wilson said she payed Downey through PayPal, or sent checks made out to Picayune Christian Academy. She paid $150 a month for almost two years.
Quinlan said she paid Downey in cash, about $200 a month.
“We paid good, honest money,” said Brandy Melbourne, whose son Austin Creacy graduated from the academy last year. “In return, we got fraud diplomas and the uncertainty of our children’s future.
“Not only that, but it’s sending a message out to the youth that they can steal and lie and nothing will happen as long as you send out apology letters.”