Parents say teacher emotionally, physically abused students at St. John's Episcopal school

Parents say St. John’s Episcopal Day School in Tampa was too slow to respond to allegations that a teacher was abusive.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Parents say St. John’s Episcopal Day School in Tampa was too slow to respond to allegations that a teacher was abusive.

TAMPA — Inside a $10,000-a-year private school in South Tampa, accusations of a teacher's abuse have stirred the wrath of parents.

A Latin teacher at St. John's Episcopal Parish Day School slapped a student in April and referred to students by demeaning nicknames that sometimes made fun of their learning disabilities and weight, according to nine parents who spoke to the Tampa Bay Times this week.

And the school did not address the allegations for months, the parents say.

An email dated Dec. 10 from board of trustees secretary Greg Hearing states that he met with three parents and another board member in September.

At that meeting, the parents told Hearing they believed Latin teacher D.J. Holt had "physically harmed" a child, according to the email. They said the middle division director, Michele Lambert, told headmaster Gordon Rode about the incident.

School officials are required by state law to immediately report allegations of child abuse or neglect to the Florida Abuse Hotline. The Department of Children and Families did not get a call about any alleged abuse at St. John's until either Dec. 18 or 19, the agency's records show.

The school's spokeswoman, Lisa Brock, says DCF was notified "when it was appropriate and we had the facts that are necessary to make such a report." Months ago, the school did not have the information it has now, she said.

Holt, 41, declined to comment for this report.

These accusations come from the same school that made news last week after two board of trustees members received letters that appear to threaten the men's children.

"Now your children will pay the price for your actions on the BOT's. Bullying is very hard on children — now maybe you will see just how it feels," the anonymous letter read.

Some believed the threat was in retaliation for the headmaster's decision to not renew popular middle division director Michele Lambert's contract, though some say it could be referencing Holt's alleged actions.

While several of the parents declined to be quoted using their names, for fear of retribution from the school, their statements are corroborated by others who did speak on the record. Emails between parents and school officials also describe accusations of emotional and physical abuse.

Holt, who taught middle school-aged children, was put on administrative leave last week. DCF's investigation is still open.

He has taught Latin at the 62-year-old school since 2003 and himself graduated from St. John's in 1984. In 2009, he won a regional award for Latin teachers.

Several parents say Holt often joked and may not have meant to offend.

"He definitely called (the students) nicknames, pertaining to their height, their lack of height, their brightness, their lack of brightness," said Georgia Vrionis, who had three children attend St. John's. "He always said it jokingly, but the question is how the kids took it."

Some said it rose to the level of bullying and expressed worry about the long-term effects of the nicknames.

"I'm concerned that it will have emotional impact on the children's self-esteem and influence them negatively in their later years," said Warren Sponsler, another parent who heard of the abuse allegations.

Brock, the school's spokeswoman, said St. John's hired an "external auditor" several weeks ago to review the school's actions and make recommendations for improvements, if needed. That auditor is Tampa labor and employment law attorney Alysa Ward.

According to Brock, the attorney is wrapping up her review and has concluded that Holt's actions do not meet the school's high standards and thus warrant "corrective action."

Without disclosing the details, Brock said Holt was apologetic, never indicated intent to harm and displayed a willingness to correct his behavior.

When considering its response, the school must take into account his entire 10-year career at St. John's. "This is an accomplished teacher," Brock said.

The school is waiting for DCF to conclude its investigation. If Holt is cleared, the school will likely allow the teacher to return to St. John's, Brock said.

Hiring and firing is the headmaster's decision. Through Brock, headmaster Rode declined to comment for this report. The spokeswoman said school officials understand that personnel decisions are "not universally accepted."

"And they are difficult," she said. "But it is the job of the headmaster."

The parents who spoke to the Times say their main issue with the school is the delay in response.

"It could have been resolved a long time ago," parent Angel Pullara said.

"It's too bad it wasn't handled differently or more quickly," said another, Matt Danahy.

An email from headmaster Rode sent Jan. 6 states that a middle division teacher was put on administrative leave and that the school started a review relating to "information recently brought to our attention."

The parents dispute the word "recently."

"Multiple people have been bullied by this teacher. The headmaster has known about it and he's done nothing about it," said one parent, Ginny Wilkinson.

One of the church's priests also spoke to Rode about this issue in September, according to an email sent from the priest to a parent.

According to the priest's email, Rode replied at the time that he understands Holt jokes with the kids and sometimes goes too far, but that Holt does not mean any harm.

Wilkinson said she thinks the headmaster's handling of the issues has been "reprehensible."

"The board should hold him accountable," she said.

The school has invited parents to a meeting this evening to discuss some of these issues, Brock said. Many of the parents who spoke to the Times plan to attend.

"If one child is bullied, it's one too many," Wilkinson said. "And the sad thing is there have been many students."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Parents say teacher emotionally, physically abused students at St. John's Episcopal school 01/16/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 16, 2013 11:57pm]

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