Lawsuit: Maximo Elementary employee fired for reporting abuse
UPDATE: The school district said Tuesday that Vaultonburg's dismissal was "unrelated" to her decision to report child abuse. Lisa Wolf, a district spokeswoman, said in an email that there were "performance issues that occurred prior to the date of her dismissal." She said she couldn't provide more detail because of the pending lawsuit.
Sitting in her office at Maximo Elementary earlier this school year, Emily Vaultonburg heard a child screaming from inside the bathroom — and the sharp slap of a belt hitting flesh.
“I hear smack after smack after smack,” she said.
Vaultonburg ran to the bathroom, where she said a man was beating his 10-year-old nephew with a belt. She said the man, a felon with a history of violent crimes, shouldn’t have been allowed on campus.
According to a lawsuit filed last week, what happened next cost Vaultonburg her job. She told the school principal, LaKisha Falana, that she wanted to report the incident to the Florida Department of Children and Families. But a few hours after Vaultonburg made the call, the behavior specialist was told she was out of a job.
“I was told that it was my opinion that it was abuse,” she said. “By the end of the day, they had fired me.”
District spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said Thursday that the district had received the lawsuit and will “respond in court appropriately.” She said district officials won’t comment on reports of abuse or neglect, but any school employee who has “reasonable cause” to suspect child abuse should immediately call the abuse hotline for the department of children and families. Such calls are confidential.
Vaultonburg, who was hired as a behavior specialist this school year, said the bathroom beating occurred around 9:30 a.m. Sept. 27 and that she called the hotline around noon. According to the lawsuit, Falana told her at 2:30 p.m. the same day that her employment was ending and that she was to report to district administration on Sept. 29. District records confirm that Vaultonburg’s last day on the job was Sept. 29.
Vaultonburg said that she previously had raised concerns about a “culture of aggression” at Maximo. She said teachers and employees regularly scream at the children. She said her concerns were dismissed.
Under Falana’s leadership, Maximo earned a C last year after five consecutive F grades.
About three years ago, a front office clerk resigned from Campbell Park Elementary after an investigation that she beat a child with a belt in the school clinic’s bathroom. At the time, a district spokeswoman said that corporal punishment was against School Board policy and any reported cases would be “taken very seriously.”
After the incident at Maximo, Vaultonburg said she asked the boy for more details about what happened in the bathroom. She said that the child had marks from his back to his legs.
“I was in tears that day hearing that child scream,” Vaultonburg said. “They told me I was being overly emotional.”
Wolf said that felons can be on school campuses, depending on what crime they have been convicted of. Visitors must sign in at the front desk, where they are screened by staff, she said.
Vaultonburg previously had worked as a teacher in the school system for about seven years, but left first for maternity leave and then to care for an aging family member. She was hired at Maximo this year on a probationary contract, which means her employment can be terminated, at any time, without cause for one year.
If an employee is let go during the school year, they can’t seek full-time employment with the district until the following year. They can, however, work as a substitute teacher or “hourly teacher” without health benefits.
Vaultonburg said that, as a single mother, she can’t live on substitute wages.
The lawsuit, filed Jan. 4, alleges that Falana retaliated against Vaultonburg for reporting child abuse, and that Vaultonburg has “sustained damages to her career and reputation” as a result.