Freedom Christian Academy co-founder receives probation in plea deal
Posted September 1, 2015
Fayetteville, N.C. — The former head of a Fayetteville private school told a judge on Tuesday that she takes full responsibility for hiring a convicted sex offender to perform work on the campus.
Joan Ellen Dayton, co-founder of Freedom Christian Academy, turned herself in Monday on a felony charge of violating the state's Sex Offender Registration Act. Authorities said she failed to report, and aided and abetted, Paul Conner, a registered sex offender who worked at the school.
In her appearance Tuesday in Cumberland County Superior Court, Dayton accepted a plea agreement of 11 months of probation, 50 hours of community service to be performed within 180 days and payment of court costs. She also is not allowed on campus during her probation.
If she completes the requirements, the felony charge will be dismissed.
Before sentencing, Dayton told Judge Jim Ammons that she wanted to help Conner's and his family because she felt he had paid his debt to society. She thought it would be OK to allow Conner to work on campus after school hours when the children were gone.
"That was my error in judgment, and I'm paying for that," she said. "But I felt like I needed to...as a role model, you need to admit what you do and then pay the price for it. And there's a heavy price."
Dayton's supporters said she was trying to be a good Christian by helping a man who made a mistake in his past.
"Miss Dayton was extending an opportunity to give him a second chance in life, and never would she have put children in harm's way," parent Casi Gilmer said.
District Attorney Billy West said the evidence showed Dayton knew of Conner's criminal past, yet she brought him on campus at least three times to do maintenance work.
"I think it was a lapse in judgment and, unfortunately, that lapse in judgment was criminal in nature," he said.
The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office began looking into the school in March after an unidentified parent withdrew her children when discovering Dayton knowingly allowed Conner to work there during the 2011-12 academic year, the department said. Conner’s wife was a teacher at the school during that time, deputies said.
Under state law, a convicted sex offender cannot live within 1,000 feet of a K-12 school or child care center or “work at any place where a minor is present and the person’s responsibilities or activities would include instruction, supervision or care of a minor or minors.”
The school was issued a subpoena by deputies to produce all records related to Conner's employment at the school and the changing of student grades.
Dayton announced in July that she was taking an unpaid leave of absence. She was not charged at the time but was named in Conner's arrest warrant as a co-conspirator.
Kirsten Brunson, chairwoman of the Freedom Christian Academy School Board, issued the following statement on behalf of the school Tuesday:
“Freedom Christian Academy is pleased that the Sheriff and District Attorney offices have dropped any further investigation of our school based on Joan Dayton accepting full responsibility for the events that led to the investigation started in May of this year. We feel that this situation is now in the past and we can move forward focused on the education and spiritual growth of our children. We have had an incredible start to our school year and our board and administration remain steadfast in our commitment to the safety and education of our children.”
Dayton's husband said the couple is still processing what happened.
"Even though we've had plenty of time, but the emotions come and go, and it's a bit of a rollercoaster," John Dayton said.