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Hernando schools to clarify discipline policy

BROOKSVILLE — Over 14 months, a high school teacher is twice threatened with dismissal before he's arrested on sex charges. But the central office learns about only one of the disciplinary incidents.

Hernando school officials are now calling that a missed signal that could have prompted a closer look at the actions of Tim Brightbill, who pleaded not guilty last week to two charges of unlawful sexual activity with a minor.

The district is also taking steps to clarify a principal's role in reporting teacher misconduct, less than a year after superintendent Wayne Alexander closed the office of professional standards and pushed many of those responsibilities from the central office to schools.

"I don't think the district does any less (investigating) now than we did before," said business services director Heather Martin, who is responsible for overseeing employee discipline. "But if we had more resources, would we do more? Of course, as anyone would."

Brightbill, a 42-year-old former band teacher at Nature Coast Technical High, was arrested Dec. 31 after he was found lying atop a 17-year-old female student in nothing but his underwear, according to police reports. Deputies say he and the girl admitted to engaging in sex acts on two occasions, and Brightbill later resigned.

Little more than a year before Brightbill's arrest, his principal had told him to remove inappropriate photos from his MySpace page, and to consider changing settings to restrict student access.

"Failure to do so will result in further disciplinary action up to and including a recommendation for termination," wrote principal Margaret "Tizzy" Schoelles in a 2007 letter.

But the human resources office heard nothing about the incident.

Looking into Brightbill's personnel file after the arrest, Martin saw only a November reprimand for allowing an unauthorized fundraiser and failing to properly document receipts. Brightbill was told that similar conduct could lead to his firing.

"The (MySpace) letter was not copied to his personnel file," Martin said. "Had this been in, that's two disciplines. Sometimes you look a little deeper."

Schoelles could not be reached for comment. But her failure to send the note to Brightbill's central office file was not a policy violation, Martin said.

"It's always recommended," she added.

Board attorney J. Paul Carland initially said the same thing, but later revised his comments.

"It's the district's policy that all disciplinary letters come to the district office," he said.

"Is that (MySpace letter) disciplinary per se or not?" Carland added. " I don't know. That may be a factor as to why it didn't make it to the district office."

But he acknowledged the district could do more to clarify such issues. At a School Board workshop today, he will introduce modified policies requiring administrators to immediately report cases of employee misconduct or ethical violations to the superintendent or his designee.

"That may be something that could be cleared up, what exactly is the expectation for such documents," Carland said.

The confusion comes amid broad changes in the way the district handles initial investigations of teacher misconduct.

Under former superintendent Wendy Tellone, employee disciplinary investigations were conducted by the office of professional standards.

"Dr. Tellone was maybe a bit more hands on with that; she wanted it all done with (director) Barbara Kidder," Martin said.

That changed with the July 2007 arrival of Alexander, who later closed the office and put Kidder in charge of staff development as part of a cost-cutting reorganization.

Martin was given responsibility for overseeing employee discipline, and last fall Alexander put principals in charge of initiating investigations and gathering evidence. They were given training at a fall principals meeting, Martin said.

"I think we have pushed some discipline to the principals, because obviously I can't do every one that comes up," she said.

Martin said her office continued to take proactive steps to investigate teachers with potential problems.

"We've had many occasions where (security director) Barry Crowley has put in an extra camera, or he's pulled tapes from a camera, or we've put a camera in a classroom," Martin said. "I can tell you numerous substitutes that we have terminated, revoked their card, for having inappropriate stuff on their MySpace account."

Teachers union president Joe Vitalo said putting principals in charge of investigations isn't necessarily a problem for the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, but "consistency and training needs to be worked on."

And the change could have the effect of increasing the district's legal liability, if overworked principals are given a new responsibility without sufficient time or training to do it well, said Phil Rosenberg, a consultant and former head of human resources for Broward County.

"What seems to be the issue is you add to your liability if you have the files centralized but the conduct of the investigation is decentralized," Rosenberg said. "Are these folks properly trained in how to do good professional standards investigations?"

Cutting back on professional standards budgets and training can be a foolhardy way to save money, he said, if doing so produces flawed investigations or poor employee monitoring, and exposes the district to costly lawsuits later.

"In the name of budget cutting, in the name of short-term looking good, things may fall apart," Rosenberg said.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando schools to clarify discipline policy 02/02/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 2, 2009 8:52pm]

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