TAMPA — It wasn't unusual for King High School students to be called to assistant principal Olayinka Alege's office when their grades slipped.
But when some boys with lagging scores left his office this spring, they reported a punishment that can only be described as unusual.
Alege squeezed their toes.
Five boys told Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies that Alege asked them on numerous occasions to take off a shoe and sock behind closed doors and allow him to "pop" their toes. They said it didn't hurt, but they didn't like it, either. One called it a "weird type of punishment."
Alege told the St. Petersburg Times it was all in good fun.
"I think the gist of it was me and the kids I was mentoring were just playing around," he said. "It was one of those playful things, just playing around with the kids so they felt more comfortable."
Though deputies and an assistant state attorney concluded the punishment didn't amount to battery, a child protective services investigator with the Sheriff's Office said he saw "some indicators" of abuse.
Out of five parents contacted about the incidents, only one wanted to pursue criminal charges, according to district records.
But the school district has not disciplined Alege, and considers the matter closed.
"Since there was no dispute of the facts of the case, our professional standards office did not need to conduct another investigation," said spokesman Stephen Hegarty. "It was determined that there was no harm intended, and that the students involved did not perceive any harm."
He said principal Carla Bruning spoke with Alege "and let him know that his actions could be misinterpreted, which appears to be what occurred here. Mr. Alege has a great rapport with students at King High and acts as a mentor to several of them."
Records show child protective investigator Arturo Auza of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office was summoned to the school May 7 in response to an anonymous call to the state's child abuse hotline. He called the school resource deputy, Robin Hymes, who interviewed four of the five boys.
One student said Alege "popped" his toes about 20 times, including the previous day. Once the toe-pulling was accompanied by a scolding for not staying after school to help set something up. It happened so frequently, he said, that he often just offered his foot upon entering the office.
Another said Alege popped toes by "pulling them out and bending them down." He said Alege told him he "could not hit … so the toe-popping was a form of punishment."
None of the boys — whose names were blacked out in the Sheriff's Office report — said the discipline hurt.
One student called it weird; another said it made him feel uncomfortable. A third said he'd laughed about the situation with another student. A fourth said he was never hurt in the three times it happened, but asked Alege to stop.
For his part, Alege said he had occasionally pulled toes since his arrival at the school in 2007, but it was "absolutely not" a form of punishment.
Born in Dallas, Alege lived in Nigeria as a young child before attending and graduating from Hillsborough County schools, according to a biographical statement on his school's Web site.
His personnel file shows glowing evaluations and a reputation for focusing on academic achievement. He was hired in 2003 to teach English at King before becoming assistant principal at Middleton High in 2005. He returned to King in 2007 as the assistant principal in charge of curriculum.
Alege said he was a relatively large man, and some students might feel intimidated to come to his office. But at no point did he hurt students or threaten to do so, he said.
"There wasn't a person who felt bad that they had been punished," Alege said. "Not a single kid will tell me they were unhappy coming to school because they felt they were going to be punished. They felt comfortable coming to my office, and that's the tone I tried to set."
In her report, Deputy Hymes said she reported the incidents to the State Attorney's Office, which "felt as though the facts of this case do not meet the criteria for a battery charge and that this would be better handled through the School Board." No criminal charges were filed.
Auza, the child protective investigator, closed his case with a finding of "some indicators" of threatened harm or abuse. In a June 23 letter, the Sheriff's Office reported that finding to the school district's office of professional standards.
The same day, professional standards director Linda Kipley signed off on the district's report with the notation "no further action."
Spokesman Hegarty said the district did not consider Alege's toe-pulling to be corporal punishment — which is specifically permitted under district policy — and that Alege neither harmed students nor threatened to do so.
Still, he said, Alege's principal told him to cut it out.
"She certainly told him not to do this any more," Hegarty said. "And he agreed."
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.