When Stephanie Ragusa allegedly began having sex with a student, she was teaching in a school where half the students were low-income. When Debra Lafave was arrested for the same thing, she was teaching in a school where more than 60 percent were low-income.
But Pinellas and Hillsborough teachers punished by the state for serious misconduct appear more likely to have been working in high-poverty schools, a St. Petersburg Times review shows.
Since 2000, for example, Dixie Hollins High School and Riviera Middle School each have had five teachers sanctioned by the state — the most in Pinellas.
Dixie Hollins has been one of the highest poverty high schools in Pinellas for years. And until it closed last year, Riviera had been one of the county's poorest middle schools.
"It's surprising," said Ron Stone, the associate superintendent in Pinellas in charge of human resources. The teachers in those and other high-poverty schools "have been credentialed the same way and screened the same way" as their peers in more affluent schools.
Four teacher quality experts contacted by the Times said they knew of no studies that looked at the distribution of teacher misconduct. But none was surprised by the results, given a growing body of research that suggests a trend rarely reported or discussed at the district level: the likelihood that high-poverty schools have more inexperienced or subpar teachers or both.
Some of the experts speculated the same factors might be in play in this case, including a steady stream of veterans leaving high-poverty schools and a phenomenon called "passing the trash," where problem teachers are quietly moved from one school to another instead of being fired.
Sherman Dorn, an education professor at the University of South Florida, said high poverty schools might not have greater rates of teacher misconduct. But because of higher turnover, they have more teachers over time, perhaps leading to higher raw numbers.
"You have enough fresh faces there that it's more likely to happen," Dorn said.
The review looked at 143 cases posted on myfloridateacher.com, a Web site unveiled by the Florida Department of Education last year so the public can track teacher misconduct. The Times limited the review to sanctions since 2000.
In some cases, the teachers are still working in the same schools. In others, they resigned or relocated. State sanctions range from a letter of reprimand to revocation of a teaching certificate.
State cases reflect a small fraction of all disciplinary actions against teachers. But they tend to be the most troubling cases, ranging from DUIs and shoplifting to excessive force in the classroom and sex with students.
The review found:
• State-sanctioned Pinellas teachers were 25 percent more likely to be in high-poverty schools if they were elementary school teachers, 35 percent more likely if they were middle school teachers and 67 percent more likely if they were high school teachers.
• In Hillsborough, the corresponding rates were 14 percent, 30 percent and 26 percent.
• After Dixie Hollins and Riviera, the schools that have had the most state-sanctioned teachers in Pinellas were Pinellas Park High, Northeast High and Tarpon Springs High. Pinellas Park and Northeast have also been among the district's poorest schools.
• In Hillsborough, Davidsen Middle has had more state-sanctioned teachers than any other, with four. (That number does not include Ragusa, whose case has been forwarded to state education officials for investigation.) Following Davidsen: Blake, Chamberlain and Hillsborough high schools, all among the district's poorest high schools.
The review also looked at one urban district beyond Tampa Bay.
State-sanctioned teachers in Orange County were, overall, no more likely than other teachers to be in high-poverty schools. But while two-thirds of Orange County elementary schools are high poverty, 28 of 30 state-sanctioned elementary teachers were in high-poverty schools when they came under state scrutiny.
The Times review has shortcomings. The volume of local teachers in the database is small, making it unreasonable to draw strong conclusions. Also, the review only used the most recent demographic data, assuming schools that are high poverty now were as relatively high in poverty several years ago.
The findings should also be kept in context. The number of Tampa Bay teachers punished by the state is a tiny slice of the 8,000 teachers in Pinellas and 15,000 in Hillsborough.
"Does this send a message to the public that for some reason Dixie Hollins has bad teachers?" said Stone, the associate superintendent. "I don't think that's fair."
There appears to be little research examining the links between teacher misconduct and academic performance. Some state-sanctioned teachers have personnel files riddled with reprimands. Others have glowing evaluations and strong support from their principals.
"While plausible, I have no evidence to support (a correlation) and I have not seen anyone link the two," Tim Sass, a Florida State University economics professor who has researched teacher quality and teacher mobility, wrote in an e-mail.
That being said, experts say the issue warrants a closer look.
Last year, after a 50-state review, the Associated Press reported finding more than 2,500 cases of teacher sexual misconduct in the past five years. The investigation did not look at school demographics.
In Florida, the fast-growing myfloridateacher.com site now lists 2,300 cases of all types.
The National Council on Teacher Quality criticized the site last year as being akin to a "public lynching." But council president Kate Walsh said the Times findings are "giving us second thoughts."
"For some reason," she said, "we're more willing to tolerate much more when it comes to kids who are poor or minority."
Times researcher Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.