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Ex-principal's sick leave stalls inquiry

Officials have interviewed more than 20 people in an extensive investigation of former Pinellas middle school principal Maureen Thornton.

But officials have been unable to get the final piece of that investigation — an interview with Thornton herself — because she has gone on medical leave.

Thornton, 50, was appointed principal of John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg in 2005. But in an unusual midyear move, the district placed her on administrative leave Dec. 4, announced that she was the subject of an investigation and installed a new principal the next day — a Friday.

Thornton requested medical leave the following Monday and is under a doctor's care, district officials disclosed Monday.

The district won't say what prompted the investigation until it is complete.

Meanwhile, Thornton has yet to be questioned by the district's Office of Professional Standards because of a long-standing practice of not interviewing employees who are the focus of investigations while they are on medical leave, said Valerie Brimm, an administrator in the office.

One reason for the practice is so the district cannot be accused of worsening an employee's medical condition by adding stress, Brimm said.

Another reason: It avoids situations where employees can use a medical condition to recant statements to investigators, she said.

"It just makes it muddy for us," Brimm said of medical leaves.

Over the last year, she said, six or seven district employees have been in the same situation. She also said the district can't conclude investigations until employees "receive due process," meaning they are given the chance to answer allegations made against them.

Referring to the number of people interviewed so far, Brimm called the investigation "quite extensive."

Thornton has 31 days of paid sick leave. The investigation could resume when those days are used up in late January, Brimm said.

Another possibility is that Thornton could apply for an unpaid extension of her medical leave, in which case the investigation would be delayed again.

If she were to avoid being interviewed after her medical leave expires, she would be considered absent without leave and termination proceedings would begin, Brimm said.

Thornton moved to Pinellas in 2003 after 19 years as an educator in the St. Louis area. She left a job as an assistant principal in Missouri and came to work at John Hopkins, first as a special-education teacher and then as a behavior specialist.

She rose quickly, becoming an assistant principal at Safety Harbor Middle before then-superintendent Clayton Wilcox appointed her principal at John Hopkins.

Recently, however, Thornton has been dogged by financial issues.

In September she filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, reporting assets of $340,415 and liabilities of $468,758. A judge granted her a discharge in December that eliminates her legal obligation to pay most debts and prohibits creditors from contacting her.

In addition, a home she owns is in foreclosure, and relatives are suing her in St. Louis over a property dispute.

Also, according to records, members of the Parent Teacher Student Association at John Hopkins raised questions in 2007 about Thornton's use of $300 in PTSA funds to attend a conference.

Ex-principal's sick leave stalls inquiry 01/05/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 3:56pm]
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