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Hernando teacher faces firing for rough handling of students

BROOKSVILLE — Lisa Studer had already been warned.

Back in January, Eastside Elementary principal Bev Chapin met with Studer and a handful of other teachers at the school after a substitute teacher reported seeing Studer place her hand on a student's face and move the child toward her.

"I talked to the group about not putting our hands on students, and never to manhandle them," Chapin would later recall. "It was my understanding they all understood."

Studer's actions since then have belied any understanding she may have had, according to a Hernando County School District investigation report released Monday.

During the investigation that ended April 29, teachers and staffers told school officials that Studer, a 45-year-old exceptional education teacher who co-teaches inclusion classes, has become more aggressive in her handling of students in recent months. Studer often pulled on the arms and clothing of children who would not follow directions, witnesses said. In one case, according to a teacher, Studer pulled the shirt collar of a student who put his head down on his desk.

Studer, who was suspended with pay on May 10, denies the allegations.

"I would never touch a student," she told school officials in an interview earlier this month. "It's not in my nature."

Studer now faces a fight if she wants to keep her job. Superintendent Bryan Blavatt is recommending the School Board terminate Studer for violating district policy and the state's code of professional conduct.

"I don't take these things lightly, and we need to be very concerned about students and their well-being," Blavatt said.

• • •

One day last month, a troubled parent came to see Chapin. The woman said that her son, a first-grade student with learning disabilities, came home and told her that his teacher, Studer, "pulled the chair out from under him" and "pulls him by the shirt," Chapin wrote in the report.

Chapin began to interview teachers, staffers and children. Michelle Wilson, who co-teaches with Studer, turned over a log of what she considered to be Studer's inappropriate contact with students.

"I finally had my breaking point," Wilson told officials, explaining why she started the log in March, retroactively filling in events she recalled from previous months. "That's when I said I just couldn't take it anymore."

In October, Wilson saw Studer "aggressively pull" a student back to his desk, according to the log. In December and January, Studer pulled on two students' shirt collars. "This happened when Mrs. Studer became upset with the students (sic) choices," Wilson wrote.

In March, Wilson confronted Studer about pulling the collar of the student who put his head down on his desk.

"Her response was, 'I only use my pinkies,' " Wilson wrote.

At the end March, Wilson went to the assistant principal. Two weeks later, Wilson said she once again confronted Studer about "yanking, tugging and pulling on the kids."

"I told her I am looking out for the safety of the kids, and it's not acceptable," Wilson wrote.

According to Wilson, Studer apologized and said her other school was more hands-on, and that she would put her hands behind her back from that point.

A week later, on April 20, the parent of the first-grade student came to visit Chapin, who asked her to put her allegations in writing. Another of Studer's co-teachers would later report seeing Studer grab a student on the very same day.

"The student did not want to go to the table and work, so Mrs. Studer grabbed student's arm and dragged him back to the table from across the room," AnnMarie Cagnina told investigators.

Cagnina said she saw Studer squeeze a child's face and yell at him to look at her.

"I told her never to do that again," Cagnina told investigators.

The teachers said Studer yells at students with her face just inches from theirs and bangs loudly on tables. Two secretaries reported seeing Studer grab a student by the wrist and pull him from the school clinic.

One student told investigators that Studer had grabbed her arms and shoulders to the point of inflicting pain. Four other students said they witnessed Studer putting hands on students, while others said they never had, according to the investigation report.

Studer told school officials she redirects students only with verbal cues and that she couldn't understand why teachers and staffers would fabricate allegations, but she acknowledged that things had been rough between her, Cagnina and Wilson.

"It's just personalities," she said. "Some people click, and some don't."

The Hernando County Sheriff's Office determined the allegations did not rise to the level of criminal abuse. The state Department of Children and Families is conducting its own investigation.

The School Board will consider Studer's case at a special hearing on June 1. Studer can ask for a hearing in front of an administrative law judge, who would review the facts in the case and then make a nonbinding recommendation to the district on whether there is just cause for firing Studer.

Studer, who started with the district in 1999, was given a letter of reprimand last year for failing to properly use crisis prevention intervention restraints while at Deltona Elementary in Spring Hill, and for failing to inform administrators when students were restrained. She transferred to Eastside, in the Hill 'n Dale subdivision, a few weeks later.

Hernando teacher faces firing for rough handling of students 05/24/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 24, 2010 10:21pm]
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