A sizzling new novel about Florida hit bookstores this month. No, I'm not talking about Carl Hiaasen's Bad Monkey (but that one's pretty good). I'm talking about Tampa, by Alissa Nutting.
In Nutting's book, a 26-year-old teacher recounts her elaborate seduction of a 14-year-old student. It's based on a Florida case involving a teacher who, according to Nutting, had been one of her classmates at Bloomingdale High School in Valrico years ago.
Nutting's ex-classmate was Debra Lafave, a 23-year-old reading teacher at Greco Middle School whose blond hair and blue eyes made her into a media darling in 2004 even as she faced charges of lewd and lascivious battery on a 14-year-old student. Her pouty-lipped picture became a fixture on front pages and TV screens around the country. Her attorney said she was too pretty for prison, but her look was just right for a chat with Matt Lauer. There was talk of an insanity defense, but she wound up pleading guilty to two felonies and serving probation, to the copious disgust of TV host Nancy Grace.
Lafave has been out of the headlines for a while, but you should expect to see her name pop up all over again thanks to Nutting's book. So while she's back in the news, I have a proposal. Florida already honors a Teacher of the Year, so I propose we hand out an annual Debra Lafave Bad Teacher Award, too.
The competition is likely to be fierce.
Bad teachers are notoriously hard to fire in Florida. Still, we have had teachers fired for having a second career as a bikini model or for having a past career in gay porn. We have had teachers who got in trouble for tapping a student on the head with a banana and for making some kids wear a "cone of shame" dog collar as seen in the Pixar movie Up.
We have had some teachers who made headlines because they didn't get along with their students - say, mocking them as both stupid and ugly ("Honey, you look bad every day. Pages will be turning in the yearbook and mirrors will be smashing.") We had others who made headlines by getting along with their students a little too well. In one case, we had a couple of teachers who clearly had trouble getting along with each other (to the point one went looking for a hitman).
I know 2013 is only half over, but I think we've already got a clear winner for this year's Debra Lafave Bad Teacher Award. I think it should go to the first-grade teacher from Polk County who claimed she was dying just so she could skip class. She kept it up for a whole school year - and probably would've gotten away with it except she then claimed another teacher was trying to kill her.
Now, let me add that many of Florida's teachers are dedicated, passionate, overworked and underpaid educators doing their level best to reach students who are transient, distracted or uninterested. Meanwhile folks in Tallahassee are constantly breathing down their necks, and everyone's grappling with the dreaded Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, or FCAT for short.
Because this is Florida, some people have tried to game the test - for instance, the principal and three assistants at Cocoa High who moved 54 disabled children to a different grade (on paper), so their FCAT scores wouldn't drag down the whole school.
The FCAT itself has had problems. Some of the people hired by a contractor to grade the tests turned out to be "janitors, homemakers, and store clerks" with no experience in education.
More recently a science teacher discovered some of the official answers were either wrong or there was more than one right answer for the multiple choice questions. The Happy Scientist, as Robert Krampf is known, tried to warn the state about the problem, but Department of Education officials dismissed his concerns and dawdled about making changes.
It turns out the only thing harder to do than fire a bad teacher in Florida is to fix a problem with the test that governs the fate of everything in the educational system.
Craig Pittman is a native Floridian and an award-winning reporter who covers environmental issues for the Tampa Bay Times. The column originally appeared in Slate.