When the woman walked into the Butler High School gymnasium and told a crowd of students she was on the phone with President Obama, language arts teacher Carla Clemons knew something was off.
“She came into the assembly and told everyone to be quiet because she had President Obama on the phone,” Clemons said. “She kept talking to us then going back on the phone. It was like he was on hold. President Obama ain’t got time to wait for students to quiet down and be on hold on the phone. That’s when I started doubting.”
A few days before that assembly in mid-January, the woman, Erica Jones, approached Butler about organizing a trip to Obama’s inauguration through her organization DRBJ Legacy Foundation.
Jones said students who paid $135 for a seat on the charter bus would receive a ticket for premier seating at the inauguration and would be entered into a lottery to meet the president.
Students said Jones told them Butler was the only school from Richmond County selected to attend the inauguration. At the assembly Jan. 17, Jones promised a group photo of the school taken that day would hang in Obama’s library at the White House.
According to several people interviewed about the trip, few of the promises Jones made turned out to be true. Parents and students say they traveled through the night to Washington with the promise of ticketed seating only to stand a long away from the president in the bitter cold.
Those who said they were wronged are now demanding answers about how their money was spent and who this person is who misled them.
“We wanted to believe it was all true,” Butler senior Zakiyyah Muhammad said.
Zakiyyah said she realized many of the promises Jones made were far-fetched, but excitement made her believe. At the assembly in mid-January, Jones called Zakiyyah’s name out with a personal message from Obama.
Jones relayed that the first lady received the letters Butler wrote earlier that month and that Michelle Obama read Zakiyyah’s letter out loud at a dinner that week and cried.
“I did believe it,” Zakiyyah said. “I was jumping up and down, I was about to cry.”
Butler Principal Greg Thompson would not provide a contact number for Jones, and he refused to comment on the situation because the inauguration trip “was not a school function.”
Students, however, said they paid their trip fees to the school’s bookkeeper and saw Jones on campus for several days organizing the trip.
After several attempts to reach Jones, she left a voice message late Thursday for an Augusta Chronicle reporter but called from a blocked number and did not leave a contact number. She said the newspaper should contact her legal staff, but she did not leave any contact information for them.
Jones’ organization, DRBJ Legacy Foundation, is not registered with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office or the GuideStar Inc. Web site, which tracks U.S. nonprofits.
Zakiyyah said students got suspicious of Jones when they arrived in Washington around 5 a.m. Jan. 21 after the more than 10-hour trip. About 30 students, two teachers and two parents boarded the bus the day before from the Wal-Mart parking lot on Deans Bridge Road. A separate group with the Legacy Foundation traveled in a second charter bus, they said.
They spent the night driving, listening to music and talking to friends.
Butler junior Taylor Clark said Jones repeatedly told the students on the bus to not let anybody “sabotage their destiny” and that they should not allow negative media portrayals of Butler to affect them.
When they arrived in Washington, students say Jones asked them to take out $15 for a Metrobus pass – an expense no one had budgeted for.
After they took the Metro into the city, Jones went to 12th District Congressman John Barrow’s Washington office, where she said she was picking up the school’s tickets.
The Butler group waited for almost two hours in the cold for Jones to meet them near Barrow’s office, and she did not provide a cellphone number where they could contact her. All people interviewed said Jones only contacted them from a blocked number before the trip.
When Jones reunited with the group, students said she informed them she had only three tickets to hand out and the rest of the group would have to stand in a nonticketed area.
“I would not have gone if I had known we wouldn’t have tickets,” Taylor said. “I was livid. I was really livid. Her whole thing talking to us about ‘sabotage’ turned out to be on us. She was going to get a school that was willing to do anything to make it look better. She used any school that was down to get us to go.”
Clemons, Taylor, Zakiyyah and Butler junior Kionne Francis said the group ended up watching the inauguration in the back section behind thousands of other people, and were so far back they could not see the jumbo screens or hear the audio.
Jones did not give an explanation for why she did not have tickets for the school or apologize for the change of plans, according to the group.
“We were the last people in the back,” Clemons said. “We couldn’t see anything. We couldn’t even see the screens. Kids spent $135 for nothing.”
According to Barrow spokesman Richard Carbo, Jones contacted the congressman’s office in December and requested about 20 tickets to the inauguration.
On Jan. 9, Carbo said his office informed Jones that because of immense demand, he could provide only two tickets. On Jan. 15, Carbo said Jones confirmed the two tickets with his office in an e-mail.
When two guests were unable to attend the inauguration and those tickets became available, Carbo said he contacted Jones on Jan. 19 and said he could give her two more tickets for a total of four.
“We weren’t aware of the extent of the promises she made, but unfortunately it wasn’t from our office,” Carbo said of what Jones told students.
When they boarded the bus later that evening to return to Augusta, Zakiyyah and Taylor said Jones told the students they did not meet the president or have tickets to the inauguration because they “had misbehaved” and were “disrespectful.”
On the ride home, Clemons said students called their parents and complained about the ordeal. Several students said they held a meeting with Thompson after the trip, but nothing has been resolved.
Students said they’d like to know how their money was spent and to get an explanation of why they were lied to. Many searched Google and Facebook to find information on Jones and her organization, but came up with nothing.
Taylor’s mother, Jennifer Roberts, who also went on the trip, said she was suspicious of Jones from the beginning but wanted her daughter to experience the inauguration.
Roberts said she saw Jones change from an encouraging chaperone on the ride to Washington to someone telling students they were not able to stand in the ticketed area because they had misbehaved.
“She flipped the script,” Roberts said. “She just became really mean to the kids.”
Roberts also fears each passenger’s $135 helped fund the second bus that traveled with the Legacy Foundation. She said Jones promised the $135 would also include snacks and drinks but those were never provided.
“The children were lied to,” Roberts said. “Not all of their money, but some of their money should be refunded. She shouldn’t have ever made promises to these children.”