Sunday, February 18, 2018
Education

Candidates for Pinellas teachers union president come with baggage

Two students bumped into each other in a Tarpon Springs Middle School classroom last fall. Another student, seeing the collision, shouted, "You just touched her breast!" Their teacher was seventh-grade science instructor Richard Wise­miller. He responded, "How could you even find it?"

Wisemiller is the vice president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. It's a high-profile post that may make him the frontrunner in Wednesday's election for the union's presidency.

But according to Pinellas County schools documents, Wisemiller also has a decade-plus record of reprimands and suspensions for inappropriate contact and comments with his young female students. Pinellas has referred Wisemiller to the Florida Department of Education, which could choose to revoke his teaching license.

Among the events under review by the department is a science lesson last spring on the importance of opposable thumbs. According to documents, Wisemiller called a female student to the front of the classroom, taped her thumbs to her hands and told her to try to unbutton her pants. He slid his fingers into the waistband of her pants, the documents state.

"And then Mr. Wisemiller said that any guy who wouldn't want to unbutton her shirt is crazy," a student wrote in a witness statement, one of many collected by the district's Office of Professional Standards.

When confronted by administrators, Wisemiller said he was not concerned because he had been explaining an experiment. He denied making a comment about the student's shirt. "And if he was going to do something like that it wouldn't be in front of the whole class," a Tarpon assistant principal, Michael Machado, wrote to investigators.

Wisemiller was suspended for three days, and suspended again this school year for making comments about students' bodies, calling girls ugly and telling students they were "stupid." This fall, a student began crying after not finishing a test on time. Investigators found that Wise-miller told the student, "I am glad you are crying, it makes my day when you cry."

Wisemiller signed documents agreeing to the version of events investigators described. When reached by phone Monday, he said that the incidents were overblown and that an attorney for the union had advised him to sign the documents. He said he touched the girl's belt, and did not reach in her pants. "That was not 100 percent true."

He acknowledged the comment about the girl's breasts in October but said he did so to calm down the male student who bumped into her.

"He was in tears. . . . The comment was taken out of context. That's sometimes what happens. Teachers don't always have freedom of speech," said Wisemiller, who characterized the interaction as joking.

About 4,000 union members are eligible to vote in the election Wednesday to replace Kim Black, who has been its chief for seven years. The winner, who will need more than 50 percent of the vote, can serve up to two three-year terms. The president's salary is paid by the union.

The three other candidates for the union presidency also have been under investigation at various points in their careers. Most significantly, a female student was sexually assaulted by a male student in a small room off one teacher's classroom last March. Donald Manly, a math teacher at Richard L. Sanders School, a special-needs facility, was unaware of the assault and reprimanded for poor supervision.

Michael Gandolfo, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School, received a reprimand in 2007. When a female student complained that a male student was scratching his genitals, Gandolfo said, "Give him a minute, he'll find them."

Rick Bose spoke to investigators in 1998 about profanity use in front of the volleyball team he coached, and again in 2003 about a spat with a fellow teacher.

But none of the three had records as extensive as Wise­miller's, which stretches back to 2000. At Dunedin Highlands Middle School, a student accused Wisemiller of pulling her shirt and bra strap off her shoulder. The teacher denied this, saying he held her hands and said, "Watch, if I touch her hands she can't talk." The girl's parents requested that he never again have physical contact with her "even if she was falling down," according to a memo.

In 2001, Wisemiller was accused of holding up a coffee can, having girls reach for the can, then pinching their exposed midriffs. He said he was checking for dress code violations and did not pinch the students.

He also admitted that he allowed a female student to perform a dance for him while he sat on a chair. Michael Bessette, then the administrator for the Office of Professional Standards, summarized his meeting with Wisemiller about the incident: "You said that it was your birthday and that she was doing the same dance she had planned for the talent show. I shared with you that students were referring to her performance as a 'booty dance.' You admitted that it made you uncomfortable, but that you did not make her stop."

In 2004, when the Dunedin principal shared six complaints from colleagues with him, Wisemiller said he did not want to return to the school.

At Eisenhower Elementary in 2005, Wisemiller was accused of using excessive force, pushing a woman's daughter out of the way during an argument. The charge was partially substantiated.

He was at Tarpon Springs Middle by 2007, when he received a letter of caution from the assistant principal. An adult volunteer had heard Wisemiller telling students that some of them would end up in jail. He also mentioned a student who was failing by name and told another student that she said or did something because "she was blonde."

The Tampa Bay Times separately requested performance evaluations for all four union candidates but they were not immediately available Monday.

Black said that she could not comment on Wisemiller's disciplinary record because of the ongoing state investigation. She said she was endorsing Gandolfo for the presidency.

"He's a very active member of our central labor council, and he understands the issues of working families," Black said.

Bose, meanwhile, trumpeted his nearly three decades at Gibbs High School. "I believe that tough times are ahead. . . . It's going to take someone who doesn't want to retire into the sunset, but really wants to dig in, who knows the children," Bose said.

He said he had been unaware of Wisemiller's record. When briefed, Bose said, "Wow. That is disgusting."

Wisemiller was calm Monday when discussing the state's investigation. The department is backlogged, he said. "It could be another six months."

Revoking his teaching license "could be the worst consequence," he said. Or "they could say, 'Suspension was enough, you've gone to a couple classes.' "

In the meantime, he chose to focus on his campaign for president. He has served seven years as union vice president and worked for the school system 25 years. He has bargained on behalf of teachers and advocated for them up in Tallahassee.

Being under investigation, he said, is another example that proves he knows how this school district operates.

Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).

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