Squandered Schooling: Parents outraged over forged diplomas and alleged lies
PEARL RIVER COUNTY, MS (WVUE) - Imagine your child graduates from high school and then finds out their diploma isn't worth the paper it was printed on. More than a half-dozen local families say it happened to them at a Christian academy, and now they want to know why the administrator hasn't been criminally charged.
Their struggle began behind a blacked out storefront in downtown Picayune, Mississippi, at the House of Refuge Church. In 2015, the church advertised on its Facebook page: "If you are looking for a good Christian school, we will have one at the House of Refuge Church."
The Christian Academy of Picayune was advertised as accredited homeschooling, all grades and programs. It was run by Candice Downey, whose credentials impressed parents. She called herself an educator and counselor with a Ph.D in behavioral psychology.
"She promised to help them with the ACT, college placement, everything. She said she had a Ph.D and she could help them," said Susan Daigle, who registered her son, Brayden, as a senior last August.
Pam Quinlan also enrolled her daughter, Shea, who she thought could work at her own pace.
"One of my best friend's granddaughter was attending the school, and she had indicated to me it was a school run by a lady with a Ph.D," Quinlan said.
It didn't take long for them to realize the school wasn't what they thought.
"A month went by and we were sitting there watching movies and her 16 year old sister was teaching us," said Quinlan's daughter, Shea Garland.
The students started recording their own Snapchat videos in class. One's titled "This is school" and shows students dancing to rap music. Another is titled "We do nothing but watch movies in class" and shows students watching a movie on a big screen.
Renee Seal had three sons enrolled at the Christian academy.
"Everything was great. The kids never complained, never really said anything, you know?" said Seal. When asked if she felt like they were learning, she replied. "Yes, I did."
Quinlan said she wasn't so sure about that and popped in to the church for a visit.
"I did a pop in and my daughter was sleeping across the chairs. I tapped her on the shoulder and said let's go," Quinlan said.
Then she started digging and what she found raised serious questions.
Christian Academy of Picayune is not accredited by the Mississippi Department of Education, which private schools aren't required to be under state law, but can do voluntarily. And according to a search of the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools website, it's not accredited through that agency either.
"She stood in the house of God and told me she had a huge studio, and that the school was accredited. She lied," said Daigle, who almost immediately pulled her son out of Christian Academy. "Instead of preparing to go to college, my son is doing construction work right now. Not what I wanted him to do. He would have graduated in May."
But what about the kids who had already graduated?
"I was able to get hold of a diploma, and once I got that, it just confirmed my suspicions," Quinlan said.
Even though the school wasn't accredited, the high school diplomas from 2016 were printed with a Mississippi state seal and appeared to be signed by Alan Lumpkin, the Superintendent of the Pearl River County Public School District.
"We had two parents that brought those diplomas into us and we were able to see that my name was forged," Lumpkin said. "It was my name, but not my signature."
Lumpkin met with Downey and decided to let her inform parents about the fake diplomas. He told parents it was up to them to file criminal charges.
"The true victims of the situation are the students of the school, especially the graduating seniors who were under the impression that they had received a valid diploma from that school," Lumpkin said.
In February, Candice Downey sent parents a letter admitting that the diplomas aren't valid and that she forged Lumpkin's signature. She asked for forgiveness and assured them it wouldn't happen again. But parents of graduates are outraged amid uncertainty about their kids' future.
Scott Tebo's daughter received one of the bogus diplomas.
"The diploma's they were issued weren't worth the paper they were written on," Tebo said.
Renee Seal's oldest son, Ondie, hit a roadblock when he tried to join the National Guard.
"He had gotten a fake diploma. One week before boot camp, he was trying to get his papers from Downey for the state and she couldn't come up with them," Seal said. "The National Guard wouldn't accept him. He has no diploma whatsoever."
We tried to track down House of Refuge pastor Brad Heffner and his wife Stacey but were told they would only release a statement. It says: "House of Refuge is a separate entity from Christian Academy of Picayune. Candice Downey subleased the building from the church during the weekdays of Monday-Thursday 8am-12:30pm. Since March 3, 2017 the Christian Academy of Picayune no longer subleases from House of Refuge. Mrs. Downey was and remains a member of our church body. We will continue to pastor and counsel her during this time. What was done was wrong and we truly feel bad for the children involved, but House of Refuge was in no shape or form involved with any business of the school and legally totally separate."
Daigle isn't buying it.
"Something's not right about the whole situation," she said. "They're hiding behind God, hiding behind their church."
Candice Downey also declined our request for an interview, but told FOX 8 by phone she has closed Christian Academy of Picayune and is only homeschooling some younger children until the end of this school year. When asked if she lied to parents and gave out fake diplomas, she said "no comment." Asked if she's being falsely accused, she also said "no comment." When asked if she has her Ph.D, she also replied "no comment."
Shea Garland says the whole ordeal threw her off her path to graduate on time. Asked if she was embarrassed that she ended up at a school that was basically a sham, she replied, "Yes, I was. But I think she should be more embarrassed than I am."
Parents did bring their complaints to the Picayune Police Department, which began its investigation in February, but further frustrating parents is the fact that so far, no charges have been filed.
"Why they just letting this go?" asks Daigle. "She's stolen my kids' education, my money and my child's future is in jeopardy."
Picayune Police Chief Bryan Dawsey would not talk on camera, but said he turned the findings over the District Attorney Hal Kittrell. Potential charges could involve forgery and false pretense, and Kittrell tells FOX 8 the case could be presented to a grand jury in early June.
"I think it's important that our judicial system hold her accountable because if not, what does that say to our children and society? That it's ok," Quinlan said.
Quinlan did receive a refund for her two months worth of tuition, and even though Downey tells FOX 8 she will work on giving refunds to other parents, they say their quest for justice is about much more than money.
"Honestly with this many people involved, the chance of getting our money back is slim," said Jason Kutch, another parent. "It's the fact that this doesn't happen to another group of people."
Daigle agrees and says she feels betrayed.
"She told me she could do things for my son and it was just a lie," Daigle said. "I don't want this to happen to another child."
It's not the first time Downey has been accused of fraudulent activity. In 2005, court records show she was arrested in St. Tammany Parish on a charge of issuing a worthless check. That case was dismissed. In 2010, she pleaded guilty to a charge of failure to return leased movables and was put on probation.
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