Thursday, June 21, 2018

Hillsborough sorts out clash of two educators with troubled pasts

VALRICO — The classroom aide had a history of conflict that sometimes brought police to her home. In one incident, a woman said she pulled a knife. In another, a man said she wielded a sword.

For two years ending last spring at Buckhorn Elementary School, she worked alongside a teacher who came to suspect she took out her anger on the kids. Four times the aide was accused of either mistreating special- needs children or saying she did.

But the teacher, who played a role in some of the accusations, had baggage, too. Her record included run-ins with administrators and charges of forgery and identity theft that she didn't reveal to the school district.

The two employees developed a toxic relationship that made it difficult for officials to determine whether any children were harmed. A yearlong series of investigations continue today.

As the Hillsborough County School District works to raise standards in exceptional student education, the story of the aide and the teacher raises questions about how officials vet and monitor those who work with the system's most vulnerable students.

Buckhorn principal Tamara Brooks says the bad blood between the aide, Michelle Brown, 49, and teacher Jodi Myers, 41, did not affect students. But others aren't so sure.

Ernest Ward said the situation was frustrating because his 8-year-old son, now at another school, has autism and cannot talk. "I was afraid to send him to school," he said. "I didn't trust the principal. I didn't trust anything that was going on."

• • •

By the time she was 30, Brown, the teachers' aide, had been arrested on charges of aggravated assault with a weapon and battery with great bodily harm, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

She was not convicted in these cases, nor in a 2002 arrest on a domestic battery charge.

District records dating to 1999 show she worked as a bus attendant. Her evaluations showed "needs improvement" marks she was told to bring up. But, overall, she had satisfactory ratings, the highest on a four-point scale.

In 2006, Brown became a classroom attendant, helping disabled children eat and use the restroom, and seeing to their health and safety needs. Told at first she worked well with students, she later was marked down for missing work, bringing personal problems to school, and arguing with co-workers.

During a divorce in 2008, her husband told the courts that she went looking for a gun as they exchanged words, but didn't find it. She wasn't arrested.

Despite 11 "needs improvement" marks in 2009, Brown kept her satisfactory rating. Buckhorn was her third school.

Sometimes police came to her Plant City home to settle disputes with neighbors and relatives. In a 2012 report, Brown was said to have "brandished a knife" as she and another woman were "arguing over a guy." A man in a separate incident said Brown "put a sword to his face."

She also quarreled with six foster children she cared for. Brown and the children's mother traded domestic violence petitions. Served with a court document at school, she ripped up the papers in front of a process server.

Brown declined to speak with the Tampa Bay Times.

District spokesman Stephen Hegarty said the reports are concerning, but Brown has not been found guilty of a crime. "She has worked for the district for several years and has done a good job working with students," he said.

Her reviews remained satisfactory, although the Buckhorn principal suggested in 2012 she seek training on autism.

Not until this year did anyone accuse Brown of abuse.

In May, records say someone accused the aide of spanking and grabbing a child, leaving scratches on the back of his neck. Myers, the teacher, provided a photo that appeared to show Brown looming over him.

The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office and its civilian Child Protective Investigations unit, known as CPI, could not find proof that anything happened.

Brown also was accused of telling co-workers she spanked the child. A letter from district officials says she admitted saying it only as a joke.

Brown was reprimanded and sent to training in August, along with all the district's exceptional student education aides.

• • •

Myers, who initially contacted the Times to discuss problems at Buckhorn, also has known turmoil in her personal life.

A district employee since late 2008, she moved from Pennsylvania after a falling-out with her family over money that disappeared when she worked at her father's medical office.

The family sued her. Later, after Myers moved to Hillsborough, Pennsylvania prosecutors brought criminal charges of forgery and identity theft, alleging she misappropriated insurance checks. Myers pleaded no contest and was put on probation.

In the lawsuit, she said her father treated her for an injury she suffered outside work, and fired her when she questioned his treatment. She wrote she was entitled to the money.

But she never informed the school district about the criminal case, as required. District officials said they are looking into it.

Buckhorn also was Myers' third school, and she said she built up its autism program.

But in early 2013, the principal questioned her judgment. She complained about Myers' cellphone use, said she didn't use the school walkie-talkie, and said she had students' photos on Facebook.

Meanwhile, things heated up between the teacher and the aide.

Myers "went off on" Brown one day at breakfast, says a note describing a call from the principal. Brown said she felt excluded in Myers' class; Myers filed a bullying report.

Myers told the Times Brown threatened her in the cafeteria. "She got her muscles up and she got in my face," Myers said. "And she told me that she hopes the devil comes after me and gets me and my kids and takes us to hell."

The principal moved Brown to another class.

Then in April, Myers was reprimanded for not following proper procedures for communicating with the school office when a student suffered seizures.

Myers defended herself vigorously to district and union leaders. She met with School Board member Stacy White, who found the matter so complex, he referred it to human resources. A Buckhorn parent who knew the staff, White said some of what Myers said "just didn't add up."

As for Brown's personal life, White said, "That certainly makes you ask, 'Gee whiz, why is this person working in a school?' " But employees have rights, he said. "The legal issues can be so tricky."

Myers also lodged complaints about Brooks, accusing the principal of humiliating her and mishandling situations involving special-needs students. The district opened an investigation.

But Myers said administrators told her "you're a joke" and nobody reads her emails.

• • •

When school resumed in August, Myers was moved to a co-teaching position. She said she was told to stay away from Brown.

One day, Myers said, she saw one of her former autistic students, a 9-year-old girl, looking distraught and avoiding eye contact. She had seen the girl with Brown. She shared her concerns with Maria Padilla, the girl's grandmother.

Padilla said that she also noticed a change in the girl, and that her bus driver did, too. She said when she questioned the girl, she said she had "boo-boos" on her arm and the back of her head. Padilla said she saw no marks.

Later, she said, the child told her the aide did it.

Padilla contacted the school on Sept. 9 and was referred to CPI. Brown was moved briefly to the media center. Padilla and her husband wondered why she wasn't sent home as Myers had been during her investigation.

But when investigators visited, they did not get a clear statement from the child, Padilla said.

And a district document suggests the principal was suspicious of the teacher. "Grandparents are friends with Jodi Myers … and Ms. Brooks believes Ms. Myers is behind this," says an investigator's note.

After another complaint came in about Brown on Sept. 10, she was given a temporary office job outside the school. She will remain there until both cases are closed, said Hegarty, the district spokesman.

The investigation of the principal was closed on Oct. 17 with no evidence of wrongdoing.

Officials say Myers is a good teacher and they are pleased with her work this year.

Padilla considers her the best teacher her granddaughter ever had. Donna Ward, whose son was in the class last year, called her "devoted and loving."

Both families said they are troubled by the way the school handled the investigations. Brooks said in a statement that the series of conflicts had been a distraction, but that students have not been affected.

"Buckhorn is a friendly, caring environment where we are focused on learning," she said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

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