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Hernando school employee Betty Harper settles bias complaint

BROOKSVILLE — A veteran Hernando school administrator has dropped a discrimination complaint against the school district and will take a job in the district office as part of a settlement agreement.

Betty Harper, most recently an assistant principal at West Hernando Middle School, is taking the position of student services coordinator, superintendent Bryan Blavatt said this week. Harper, 59, starts her new job Monday.

The developments are a result of mediation talks between Harper and the district to address the discrimination complaint she filed in June with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Harper filed the complaint after Blavatt moved her from the principal's post at Deltona Elementary to West Hernando Middle.

Complaints filed with the EEOC are not public record, so the details of Harper's grievance are not known. Harper and Blavatt have declined to comment about the complaint, and both refused this week to discuss details of the settlement.

Employees can file a complaint if they suspect they have been discriminated against because of race, color, religion, gender, national origin, disability or age. Complaints are often addressed in mediation. If not, or if mediation fails, an EEOC investigator will take the case, according to the commission's website.

"The process worked," Blavatt said. "I think it's a solution that everyone can live with."

"I'm satisfied," Harper said. "I'm just glad it's over."

Blavatt said in June that concerns about stagnant student performance at Deltona prompted his decision to reassign Harper. He also acknowledged that a personnel issue involving a paraprofessional at the school factored in the decision. The paraprofessional complained that Harper failed to notify law enforcement officials when a student kicked him in the groin.

Blavatt wrote a reprimand letter to Harper for failing to follow policy. In a written response, Harper said she investigated the incident and didn't find grounds to contact authorities.

"I guess the operative term is leadership, and leadership involves moving things forward," Blavatt told the St. Petersburg Times in June when asked why he moved Harper.

Harper took an $11,000 pay cut in the reassignment from Deltona to West Hernando, her annual salary dropping from $82,859.47 to $71,725.00.

Her new salary as student services coordinator: $70,317.60.

Harper has a master's degree in social work and an education specialist degree in education leadership.

In a way, her career in Hernando has come full circle.

She was a school social worker in Queens, N.Y., for seven years before moving to Florida in 1990. She worked two years as a social worker at Pasco Middle School, then took a social worker position in the Hernando district, working for the student services division.

After five years in the central office, Harper served for a year as a school social worker at Moton Elementary. She took an assistant principal's post at Central High in 1998, and in 2003 was tapped by then-superintendent Wendy Tellone for the top job at Hernando High.

At that point, Hernando High had a C grade in the state's accountability system based on Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores. The school dropped to a D the next year and kept that grade through the remaining four years Harper served as principal.

Up to that point, Harper received positive, even glowing, reviews. For the 2007-08 school year, then-superintendent Wayne Alexander gave her a "satisfactory" rating and moved her to Deltona for the start of the next school year. Alexander rated her performance as "satisfactory" for the 2008-09 school year, the most recent evaluation available under public records law.

Harper said this week that West Hernando has welcomed her warmly and it will be bittersweet to leave the school setting for the student services division.

"I'm excited to start this new chapter in my life," she said. "It's really like returning home."

One of her co-workers in student services in the 1990s was Mary-Grace Surrena, a school psychologist assigned to the same schools as Harper. Surrena remained in the department and took the student services coordinator position last year. She has been groomed to take over for division director Jim Knight, who is retiring.

As coordinator, Harper will work directly with social workers, school health workers and attendance specialists.

"We had an excellent working relationship," Surrena said of Harper. "She does what's right for students, and that's of course what's important."

Harper has been one of two assistant principals at West Hernando. The application period for the open position closes Tuesday.

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

Hernando school employee Betty Harper settles bias complaint 09/16/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 16, 2011 5:51pm]
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