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John Hopkins Middle ex-principal Maureen Thornton is criticized in report

Former John Hopkins Middle School principal Maureen Thornton created a hostile work environment, practiced sloppy bookkeeping and used her position for personal gain, according to documents released Friday by the Pinellas school district.

Additionally, she blurred the lines between church and state by hiring her minister to work at the school, allowing her church to use the school for a revival at which she preached, and praying over a school employee in the cafeteria.

One witness described the latter incident as a "casting out of demons." Another called it an "exorcism." Thornton , an ordained minister, told the district she merely was having "a word of prayer" with the woman.

The district released both the allegations and the findings in a 349-page report. Thornton rebutted the allegations and most of the findings in a two-and-a-half hour interview with district officials on March 11.

She could not be reached for comment for this story.

Among the report's conclusions:

• Thornton hired her minister, William Anderson, as a teacher assistant, but Anderson was never assigned to a teacher.

• She used Parent Teacher Student Association funds inappropriately and failed to properly document funds raised by allowing people to park at the school during World Series games at nearby Tropicana Field.

• She allowed several organizations, including her church, to use the school without charge and without an approved lease agreement.

The district investigated other allegations, including the claim that Thornton requested a plant operator to wash her car during work hours, that she used her authority in an intimidating manner — in one case, making a teacher cry — and that she announced to the staff that school decisions often were predicated upon her dreams.

Thornton dismissed many of the allegations, such as the hiring of Anderson, by saying she thought she was doing what was best for her school. In some cases, such as collecting money for parking, she said she didn't realize she was not following district procedure.

In regard to the charges of bullying and harassment, she acknowledged that she might need to reassess her approach to people.

"I have never intentionally set out to embarrass, intimidate, bully," she told an administrator in the Office of Professional Standards during the March interview. "I just don't operate in that manner. But I do know that my personality is strong."

The district began its investigation of Thornton, 50, in November after receiving a packet of complaints from school staff and parents. Thornton was removed as principal in December and placed on administrative leave.

Superintendent Julie Janssen has made a determination as to whether Thornton will remain employed by the district, but officials said the decision won't be public record until Thornton has had a chance to review it.

Thornton moved to Pinellas in 2003 after 19 years as an educator in the St. Louis area. She worked as assistant principal at Safety Harbor Middle School before then-superintendent Clayton Wilcox appointed her principal at John Hopkins in 2005.

She was in the news in February 2008 when her estranged husband, Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton, was killed by police after he went on a shooting rampage in Kirkwood, Mo., near St. Louis, killing five people and injuring two others during a city council meeting.

John Hopkins Middle ex-principal Maureen Thornton is criticized in report 03/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 30, 2009 9:31am]
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