Hillsborough School Board members seek clarification on hirings

TAMPA — Surrounded by reporters and television cameras, Hillsborough School Board members asked lots of questions Tuesday about the hiring process for teachers.

They wanted to know what happens when applicants lie about a criminal background or arrest. They asked about ethics training and how references are checked for employees coming from outside institutions.

School officials were ready with answers. Tuesday's specially called board meeting on "student safety and employment of teachers" was largely an affair for the media.

With four teachers arrested this school year and charged with inappropriate sexual relationships with students, school officials took a sober approach to a high-profile embarrassment.

"We're not going to tolerate this type of behavior," board member Susan Valdes said.

Taking notes on the meeting was the ex-husband of one of Hillsborough's most notorious teachers, Debra Lafave, who served no jail time after pleading guilty in 2005 to having sex with a 14-year-old student.

Owen Lafave listened while school officials discussed hiring procedures and ethics training for just over an hour. He waived his three minutes speaking time at the end of the meeting, instead making plans to meet with school officials privately.

And he granted one-on-one interviews to reporters.

"What I did find encouraging is, it sounds like there's some motivation to provide ongoing training to not only new teachers but also existing teachers," said Lafave, who has written a book.

Every teacher in Hillsborough has received ethics training since 2005, school officials said. New teachers are required to take three hours of training.

The district is considering an update this summer that will address issues such as e-mailing, texting and the use of Web sites like MySpace.

Board members were especially interested in the School District's hiring practices for applicants with criminal histories. Two of the teachers in this year's sex scandals had prior records.

Freedom High teacher Mary Jo Spack, 45, accused last month of having sex with a 17-year-old boy after buying liquor and bringing him to a motel, revealed on her employment application that she had been charged with driving with a suspended licence in 1994.

Stephanie Ragusa omitted her arrest record on her application. In a background check, school officials discovered the truth about the 29-year-old teacher, accused of having sex with a 14-year-old boy and a 15-year-old boy she met while teaching last year at Davidsen Middle.

Records show Ragusa was arrested on a driving under the influence charge in 2005, but the charge was dropped. She was arrested in 2004 in Pasco County, accused of aggravated battery, but that charge, too, was dropped.

Ragusa was hired anyway. School officials said they look at each case individually.

They review the status of the case, how long ago it happened, and whether it was an isolated incident. They check references very carefully, said Linda Kipley, the district's general manager of professional standards.

Board members discussed making it clear to teachers that lies about arrests will be caught. Once the application paperwork is crystal clear, some wouldn't tolerate any further omissions.

"If they're lying, I think that's immediate terms for dismissal," Chairwoman Jennifer Faliero said.

The board suspended Spack without pay Tuesday night, pending the outcome of an investigation. It already had taken the same action against Ragusa.

The meeting on how to respond to recent scandals ended abruptly when the allotted time ran out. No formal action was taken, but the board plans to talk more about ethics training.

>>One teacher resigns, another arrested

Teacher accused of child porn resigns

Pierce Middle School science teacher Charles Young has resigned, effective Saturday, following his arrest last week on 60 counts of possession of child pornography. That's one for each image found on his computer, discovered after Young loaned it to the school's resource officer. Young has been out of the classroom since late last year.

Ex-teacher charged in child custody case

A former Seminole High School teacher who authorities say received a massage from a female student was arrested Tuesday on a charge of interference with child custody, a third-degree felony. Thomas J. Anderson, 59, skipped class Feb. 6 with a 16-year-old student and took her to his apartment, where he had her massage his back, legs and chest, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. Anderson resigned amid allegations about the back rub last month. On Tuesday, Anderson, 12760 Indian Rocks Road, No. 1012, Largo, was booked in the Pinellas County Jail. The charge, which carries up to five years in jail, applies when someone illegally takes a minor from the custody of a public agency. His bail was set at $5,000. Anderson, who also had coached the girls basketball team, was accused of a similar offense before, according to school district records. In 1999, a student at Seminole High filed a complaint against him for rubbing her shoulders and lower back.
Times staff writers

Hillsborough School Board members seek clarification on hirings 04/15/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 10:43am]

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