Saturday, November 18, 2017
Education

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

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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.

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