Saturday, January 20, 2018
Education

'Gross immorality' cited as Pinellas teachers union officer is barred from classroom

Fourteen years after he was first accused of touching a student inappropriately, the vice president of the Pinellas teachers union has been removed from the classroom and is facing sanctions against his teaching license at the behest of Florida's top education official.

Richard Wisemiller, a science teacher at Tarpon Springs Middle, told administrators he will retire in lieu of being fired, according to school system documents.

He recently acknowledged making comments about a student's breasts, signed documents saying he placed his fingers inside a girl's jeans, and was accused of touching a girl's pubic area. Parents and school officials say they are happy he no longer will teach in a Pinellas classroom.

But they question why it took more than a decade to get him out.

Just a few weeks ago, Wise­miller was running for president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association and was widely considered to be the frontrunner.

The day before the election, the Tampa Bay Times reported that he had a long history of inappropriate, sexually-charged behavior toward young female students. He lost the election to Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School teacher Mike Gandolfo, earning 13 percent of the vote.

After the Times story, another student came forward with allegations against the teacher.

Pinellas had referred Wise­miller's disciplinary record to the state for review twice over the last two years, but it wasn't until after the union election that Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart found Wisemiller "guilty of gross immorality" among other violations.

In an administrative complaint filed last week, Stewart directed the state's Education Practices Commission to go as far as to revoke Wisemiller's teaching certificate and bar him from reapplying for it.

"Please govern yourself accordingly," Stewart wrote in an April 21 letter to the teacher.

As of Monday, Wisemiller still was officially employed by the district, his retirement set to begin June 6. He also was still listed on the PCTA's website as the union's vice president. His term in that post does not expire until mid June.

Wisemiller did not return emails or answer phone calls seeking comment. He has not been in a classroom since April 10.

Reports of his misconduct began in 2000. Teaching at Dunedin Highland Middle, Wisemiller was accused of pushing a seventh-grade student's bra strap and shirt off her shoulder. Her parents requested that he never have physical contact with her again, "even if she was falling down," according to documents.

School system investigation files show that the incidents escalated over the years, to pinching midriffs and allowing a female student to perform a "booty dance" for him.

Last spring, during a lesson on the importance of opposable thumbs, Wisemiller taped a girl's thumbs to her hands and told her to unbutton her jeans. He slid his fingers into the waistband of her pants and said that "any guy who wouldn't want to unbutton her shirt is crazy," according to witness statements from students.

Robin Anderson, the girl's mother, said her daughter was traumatized. "She came home and said, 'Mommy, I feel like I was raped,' " Anderson said in an interview with the Times. "I said, 'You weren't raped, but you were violated.' She was just devastated for that man to touch her."

Anderson, whose daughter has a different last name, said she is angry that Tarpon Springs administrators did not tell her that Wisemiller had a record of this kind of behavior. Principal Susan Keller did not return a phone call seeking comment.

"Had I known, I would have tried to protect other kids in the future from him. I would have raised a bigger stink, I would have gone to the state on him," Anderson said.

This school year, Wisemiller acknowledged to investigators that he made comments in early October about a female student being flat-chested.

On March 21, he "grabbed a student on her side, touching her ribs and lower breast area as he tried to move her to throw away a piece of paper," according to documents.

On March 31, "a student came up to his desk to ask a question. Mr. Wisemiller touched the student on her pubic line as he was retracting his hand after he threw away a piece of paper."

Another student came forward, saying that in February Wisemiller "put his hand on my lower back, inching downwards." She told a friend, who told investigators, "She was scared when he touched her."

On the advice of his attorney, Wisemiller refused to discuss the February and March incidents with school investigators.

Robin Wikle, the School Board member who represents Tarpon Springs, said parents "had every right" to ask why Wisemiller was still in the classroom these last few years.

"I've asked myself, why did it take so long, when we've got an obvious person who's not doing what's best for kids," Wikle said. "We've got a process in place and sometimes when we take the time to wade through the process, it makes it difficult to terminate the employee."

Bruce Proud, the executive director of the teachers union, said he could not comment on the specifics of an ongoing case.

He said, "I don't think there's any evidence" that the district tried to fire Wisemiller but was thwarted by the union. He said, "I think the district followed their progressive discipline process."

Laurie Dart, a staff attorney for the district, said through a spokeswoman there was no financial advantage to Wisemiller retiring before he could be fired.

In Wisemiller's most recent evaluation on file, Tarpon Springs assistant principal Melissa Andress rated him "effective" or "highly effective" in every category.

"Mr. Wisemiller demonstrates the principles of professional conduct," she wrote.

She wrote, "His learning environment is student centered."

She wrote, "He takes a genuine interest in his students."

Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] You can follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.

Comments
USF leaders move to calm fears over consolidation plan

USF leaders move to calm fears over consolidation plan

ST. PETERSBURG — Holding a piece of computer paper and a microphone, the leader of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg began a Friday afternoon forum by repeating the USF administration’s new mantra.He reassured the crowd before him that t...
Updated: 10 hours ago

Crews Lake thespians overcome the odds

SPRING HILL — It’s 8:30 a.m. — "homeroom" period in school speak — when kids in the Crews Lake Middle School drama club file into an empty chorus room to begin rehearsing under the direction of language arts teacher Kristen Sykora. There’s only 25 m...
Published: 01/19/18
Cuts hit top school leaders as Hillsborough sheds three six-figure salaries

Cuts hit top school leaders as Hillsborough sheds three six-figure salaries

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins on Friday announced the first in a series of belt-tightening moves that include the elimination of three six-figure positions.Jobs now held by Wynne Tye and Larry Sykes will no longer exis...
Published: 01/19/18
Tampa Bay schools warn parents about flu activity, dangers

Tampa Bay schools warn parents about flu activity, dangers

The Florida Department of Health has reported a sharp increase in flu activity in the last several weeks, prompting area schools to send out letters warning parents about the virus. At least two districts, however, say that flu activity in their scho...
Published: 01/19/18

More than 400 apply to Pasco technical high school

School choice for 2018-19 is in full swing, and district officials said they’ve been pleased with the interest they’ve seen so far.The window for applying to the district’s magnet schools closed Jan. 12, except for applications for the new Wendell Kr...
Published: 01/18/18
Read the report on the fatal FSU frat party: ‘The most intoxicated’ they had ever been

Read the report on the fatal FSU frat party: ‘The most intoxicated’ they had ever been

"On Nov. 3, 2017, the Tallahassee Police Department responded to 1012 Buena Vista Drive … in reference to a death investigation."So begins a charging document in the case of Andrew Coffey, the 20-year-old Florida State University student who was foun...
Published: 01/18/18
In St. Petersburg, skeptics sneer at plan to concentrate USF power in Tampa

In St. Petersburg, skeptics sneer at plan to concentrate USF power in Tampa

In the state capitol on Wednesday, lawmakers breezed through the bullet points of a higher education bill. They skimmed past a hot-button proposal to consolidate the University of South Florida System into a single university without a peep of pushba...
Published: 01/18/18
Five things to know about teacher pay negotiations in Hillsborough

Five things to know about teacher pay negotiations in Hillsborough

TAMPA — They were hoping to receive between $15 million and $17 million in scheduled pay raises. But the Hillsborough County school district says it can’t afford to give its teachers anywhere near that much, while the teachers say they deserve nothin...
Published: 01/17/18
Updated: 01/18/18
Young Pasco teacher faces cancer with support of students

Young Pasco teacher faces cancer with support of students

NEW PORT RICHEY — At age 28, things were really shaping up for Joel Santos-Gonzalez. Fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a teacher, he had just completed his third year at Gulf Middle School."I always liked to talk to people on an intellectual ...
Published: 01/17/18
Updated: 01/18/18
In Pinellas and beyond, deadlines for school choice are closing in

In Pinellas and beyond, deadlines for school choice are closing in

It’s decision time in Pinellas County and other local school districts as several school choice deadlines are upon us.For Pinellas families who want to apply for a magnet, fundamental or high school career program for the 2018-19 school year, the dea...
Published: 01/17/18
Updated: 01/18/18