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Hillsborough School Board will discuss teacher sex scandals

TAMPA — Four Hillsborough teachers. Four arrests on charges of having sexual relationships with students.

With 2007-08 shaping up as the Year of the Teacher Sex Scandal, Hillsborough School Board members are meeting today to address a growing embarrassment.

Don't expect a silver bullet.

One board member wants to make it absolutely clear that prospective teachers have to report arrests on employment applications.

Another is pushing for fairness in how teachers who have sex with students are punished. Remember Debra Lafave, the Greco Middle School teacher whose lawyer declared her "too pretty for prison"?

Still another seeks clearer lines for teacher interactions with students and parents. Sex should be an obvious no-no. But e-mail, text-messaging and even casual conversations can cause trouble, too.

If nothing else, board members will publicly vet their hiring procedures and the ethics training provided to teachers.

"It's not just PR," board member Doretha Edgecomb said. "I think we're probably going to come out with more questions than answers, but I think we are going to get at least an overview of what we are doing now."

And what's not working.

School Board Chairwoman Jennifer Faliero is concerned about teachers omitting past arrests when they apply for jobs. Such was the case with Stephanie Ragusa, the 28-year-old former Davidsen Middle School teacher recently accused of having sex with a 14-year-old boy.

School officials generally catch the arrests when conducting background checks, Faliero said. They did with Ragusa but hired her anyway.

Such situations are sticky to navigate.

"What's happing is they're not telling the truth, or they're under the impression that they don't have to list it as an arrest because the charges have been dropped," Faliero said. "We're going to be looking at some language changes that make it very, very clear."

Another area to review is the "professional barrier" between students and teachers, said board member Candy Olson.

"I would go beyond sex," said Olson, who wants to make sure teachers understand when they are interfering with a parent and a student. "I don't think it's appropriate for a teacher to say to a kid, 'I don't think your parent should make you take that class.' "

Board members are quick to say the vast majority of teachers are doing the right thing every day and don't need reminders.

And public perceptions of right and wrong may be at play. Teachers who cross the line and have sex with students aren't always held to the same standard.

Board member April Griffin is troubled by the disparity. Lafave, for example, served no jail time after pleading guilty to having sex with a 14-year-old boy.

But former Wharton High School teacher and coach Jaymee Wallace was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to a sexual relationship with a student on her girls basketball team.

Griffin wants to talk about that with representatives of the Hillsborough state attorney and public defender's offices, who have been invited to today's meeting. It starts at 1 p.m. in the boardroom at 901 E Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa.

Boundary changes

School Board members are scheduled to approve boundary changes for the following schools during their regular meeting today, which begins at 3 p.m.

• Adjusting boundaries between Hunter's Green and Shaw elementary, and Clark and Witter elementary schools in the north county. Also, changing the boundary between Ruskin and Cypress Creek elementary schools in the south county.

• Setting the boundaries for new elementary schools — one in Temple Heights and Doris Ross Reddick, opening in south Hillsborough.

• Establishing a boundary for Sgt. Paul Smith Middle School in the northwest county, with accompanying changes for Martinez, Davidsen, Farnell, Walker and Webb middle schools.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

>>Fast facts

Teacher sex scandals in 2007-08:

Oct. 23, 2007: Christina Butler, 33, a special education teacher at Tampa's Middleton High School, is arrested, accused of having sex up to a dozen times with a 16-year-old boy.

Jan. 31, 2008: Newsome High coach Ronald Lewis is arrested on seven counts of unlawful sex with a minor girl student.

March 13, 2008: Stephanie Ragusa is arrested on charges of having sex with a male student whom she met while working at Davidsen Middle school last year.

March 20, 2008: Freedom High teacher Mary Jo Spack is arrested on charges of having sex with a male student.

Hillsborough School Board will discuss teacher sex scandals 04/14/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 10:00am]
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