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Uplift CEO apologizes over choking incident

WINDSOR – One isolated incident.

That’s what Garrett Taylor, the CEO of Uplift Academy, wants to stress about last week’s incident in which a former teacher at the academy was arrested and charged for allegedly strangling a student.

“I don’t want it to be misunderstood,” Taylor said. “We do work in a charged environment with some students who have behavioral problems, but this incident does not define what we’re about. We’re about trying to help these children.”

Last week the Windsor Police Department arrested Johnnie Cale, 42, of Williamston. He was charged with assault by strangulation and misdemeanor child abuse after allegedly choking a juvenile at the academy until he passed out.

The juvenile was taken to Bertie Memorial Hospital by another staff member and law enforcement officers were alerted to the situation shortly afterward.

Uplift Academy was organized as an alternative setting for students in the Bertie County Schools last year. It is one of three alternative sites for students and the one that Superintendent of Schools Dr. Chip Zullinger said houses some of the most challenging students as far as behavior.

Taylor said the challenges were real and dealt with daily.

“A lot of our students would have dropped out, been suspended or expelled if it weren’t for an alternative setting,” Taylor said. “In the grand scheme of things, we’re proud of what we’ve done with our students.

“We do work in a charged environment, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “But, while the students behavioral problems can prove difficult, we in no way condone what happened last week.”

Taylor said he was not at Uplift Academy when the incident occurred, but said he was disappointed it happened.

“I’m upset about the incident,” he said. “First of all, I’m upset for the young man that was involved. I hate it for that young man. I’m also upset because of Johnnie Cale, because he has an excellent background. The entire incident is unfortunate.”

The Windsor Police Department reported that Cale had been dismissed from Uplift, but Taylor said he couldn’t get into specifics because of legal ramifications.

Taylor did say he was extremely pleased with the way staff members at Uplift handled the incident once it came to light.

“They did everything by the book,” he said. “We have guidelines that go beyond the school system and they did everything they were supposed to.

“Our first concern was the safety and well-being of the young man,” Taylor said. “I’m very pleased with the way it was handled.”

As for Bertie County Schools, Dr. Zullinger said he knew about the incident and felt Uplift Academy did what was necessary once the incident occurred.

“Uplift acted quickly and, I think, appropriately,” the superintendent said. “We have a contract with Uplift and we will continue to evaluate it as we do with all three alternative settings.”

Dr. Zullinger also said while the incident was unsettling, it was the first of its kind in more than a year of Uplift working as an alternative setting.

“This is the first significant incident,” he said. “If you look at when we were operating our own alternative school, we would have the sheriff’s office breaking up fights every other day.”