Troubling questions about the new CMS superintendent

The Observer editorial board

Clayton Wilcox was named new superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools last week.
Clayton Wilcox was named new superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools last week. Herald-Mail Media

Did Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ new superintendent allow high school athletes to participate in a discredited chocolate milk study without getting permission from district officials – or even the students’ parents?

Questions surrounding that study – and the answers Superintendent Clayton Wilcox provided the Observer’s editorial board last week – should give CMS school board members pause about the man they’ve hired to lead the district.

The questions also should cause the board to reexamine its search and vetting process, which didn’t include candidates being made available to the public.

The chocolate milk study, conducted in 2013-2014 by researchers at the University of Maryland, examined whether a product called 5th Quarter Fresh helped college and high school athletes improve their cognitive and motor skill function, even after suffering concussions.

The study involved athletes at the university, as well as high school football players from Washington County, Md., which also is the home of Fluid Motion, the maker of 5th Quarter Fresh. The high school athletes were not identified in data, so university researchers did not feel compelled to get their consent to the study.

Wilcox, Washington County’s superintendent, also apparently didn’t get consent from the players, their parents or the school board. In fact, he claims, he and his district didn’t agree to participate in a 5th Quarter Fresh study.

“I never would have agreed to the study,” he told the editorial board last week. “We have very specific protocol about going into a study.”

University of Maryland documents, however, indicate that Washington County officials did agree to and participate in the study. And, in a December 2015 university press release touting the initial research, Wilcox is quoted citing the study and lauding the chocolate milk.

“There is nothing more important than protecting our student athletes,” he is quoted as saying. “Now that we understand the findings of this study, we are determined to provide 5th Quarter Fresh to all of our athletes.”

Wilcox and Washington County officials told the editorial board that players did receive free 5th Quarter Fresh from Fluid Motion, but that it was merely put in coolers for athletes who wanted it. “Any of the students could have it,” Wilcox said.

Documents show, however, that the study was more intentional and focused on high school football players. A September 2014 agreement between the university and Fluid Motion details how Washington County had agreed to conduct ImPACT tests, which measure cognition, before and after the football season. Documents also explain that researchers would receive “de-identified” data – which means that students names would not be included – from the school district.

An August 2015 feature in Wilcox’s local newspaper, the Herald-Mail of Hagerstown, also contradicts Wilcox. In it, Fluid Motion co-founder Richard Doak detailed how “more than 500 football players in Washington County public high schools” participated in a study on the “effectiveness of 5th Quarter Fresh.” Players at three schools received the drink before and after each practice, Doak told the Herald Mail. At four schools, players didn’t receive the drink.

Doak did not return a message from the editorial board Friday.

In another report from the science-research publication Stat, Washington County athletic trainer Keshia Williams said that her high school was in the chocolate milk study’s “control group” while others were in the “study group.”

Wilcox, along with Washington County athletic director Eric Michael, said the district didn’t agree to that. “I never would have released our student data,” Wilcox said.

That data appeared to arrive, however, following the 2014 football season. A “final report” from researchers on the high school testing shows results from seven Washington County schools, with numbers from individual schools and students included. The breakdown included students who suffered concussions and those who didn’t. Two schools did not provide post-season testing data, the report said.

In December 2015, Maryland announced the initial and positive findings of the study in the press release that quoted the superintendent. Wilcox said the quote must have come from a conversation he had with Doak, and that when he saw the quote, he called Doak and told him “you’ve got to fix this.”

Wilcox added to the editorial board: “I would never be in the business of endorsing a product.”

Just weeks after the December 2015 Maryland announcement, however, Wilcox told a reporter that he was so impressed with 5th Quarter Fresh that he’d budgeted $25,000 for it to be available to all Washington County high school athletes. In the article, Wilcox said he knew that scientists might think he was “damn nuts.”

Wilcox told the Observer’s editorial board that he did have $20,000-$25,000 in the Washington County school budget, but removed it when reports surfaced that discredited the University of Maryland study. Those reports were sparked by the online site HealthNewsReview.org, which began asking questions about the study shortly after the December press release.

In April, after an investigation by experts inside and outside the University of Maryland, the university acknowledged problems with the study, the premature issuing of press releases and the collaboration between researchers and Fluid Motion. But, a university spokesperson told the editorial board this week: “At no point during this process were questions raised about the source of the data, its authenticity or the collaboration with the school district.”

One organization apparently didn’t have questions about the study and Washington County’s participation in it. When asked last week if anyone associated with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had inquired about the chocolate milk, Wilcox said: “No.”

CMS school board chair Mary McCray and vice chair Elyse Dashew did not return messages Friday. We encourage them to investigate the University of Maryland study, Washington County’s participation, and what students, parents and district officials should have been told by their superintendent.