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Former Deltona Elementary School employee faults principal for injury

BROOKSVILLE — From Tedd Weiser's perspective, Deltona Elementary School is unsafe and principal Betty Harper is failing to protect students and staff.

Had Harper done her job, Weiser told the School Board during a special hearing Tuesday, he wouldn't have suffered a debilitating injury after a female student kicked him in the groin at the Spring Hill school last October.

"What if this happened to a student?" said Weiser, who worked as an in-school suspension paraprofessional until his resignation on Nov. 10. "Would we be here today or would this have been handled more quickly?"

The board, however, decided not to second-guess the disciplinary action superintendent Bryan Blavatt has already taken against Harper.

The board voted unanimously to support Blavatt's decision in February to give Harper a letter of reprimand for failing to ensure that the student's Oct. 18 kicking incident was referred to law enforcement.

Only three board members were present on Tuesday. Member Dianne Bonfield was out of town, and former member Pat Fagan's seat has yet to be filled by Gov. Rick Scott.

"I have always felt when overriding the superintendent, it deals with undermining the person's authority," Chairman James Yant said. "I feel comfortable enough … following the superintendent's recommendation and moving on from that point."

Accompanied by his attorney, Weiser, 43, alleged that Harper allowed the girl to bully students and staff in the weeks leading up to his injury. His attorney, Andreas Zybell, presented the board with at least three other disciplinary reports against the girl in the weeks before the incident. The reports said the student kicked and scratched staffers, elbowed a student, threw books and chairs and overturned a desk.

The student was "out of control" and her behavior fits the district's definition of bullying, but administrators at Deltona failed to mete out discipline and delayed giving the girl "professional help," Zybell said.

After he was kicked, Weiser said he asked Harper to call authorities and finally did it himself. He filed a complaint with the district office on Oct. 25. Not satisfied with the response from assistant superintendent Sonya Jackson and Blavatt, he requested a hearing in front of the board.

Weiser said Harper retaliated against him by reassigning him, in spite of his injury, to a teacher's aide position that required him to be more active. He said other staffers at the school have similar concerns about Harper's handling of student discipline issues but he said they are afraid to come forward.

Blavatt told the board that Weiser's complaint didn't specifically address bullying or retaliation from Harper. He recommended that Weiser file a separate complaint under the bullying policy. The board ultimately agreed.

Blavatt also said the student's behavior is being addressed and the district is in compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Weiser's injury is covered by workers' compensation; Zybell said he will have to undergo surgery. Prior to Tuesday's hearing, Weiser hadn't specified what he wanted from the hearing beyond airing his concerns to the board. Earlier in the proceeding, he said, "This is all about the kids."

Asked by the board what relief he sought, Weiser left the room to confer with Zybell and returned with five requests: Harper's removal as principal; a referral of the incident to the state's Office of Professional Practices; an apology from Harper, Blavatt and Jackson; back wages through the rest of the school year; and reimbursement for attorney's fees.

The board doesn't have purview over personnel issues and has no power to award damages, board attorney Paul Carland said.

"I don't see any other option but to support the superintendent's recommendation," board member John Sweeney said.

In a rebuttal, Zybell said Weiser had in fact addressed the bullying and retaliation issues in subsequent letters to the district, which he said the board should consider to be supplemental material to his initial complaint.

After the hearing, Zybell said it was "disingenuous" for Blavatt to argue Weiser's additional concerns were not part of the complaint, but that they planned to file a new complaint under the bullying policy.

Harper was present for the hearing but did not speak. In February, she responded in writing to Blavatt's reprimand letter, saying she was disappointed in his decision and disagreed with his findings that she failed to follow the district's policy.

Harper wrote that she investigated the incident and didn't find grounds to contact law enforcement, and that Weiser never gave her any documentation of the incident before filing the formal complaint against her.

"Throughout my career, I have taken pride in following all policies and procedures to the letter," Harper wrote.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Former Deltona Elementary School employee faults principal for injury 04/19/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 19, 2011 8:18pm]
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