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Sanctioned twice by state, Hillsborough teacher draws both praise and concern

TAMPA — Judging from his files, there are two sides to Hillsborough County teacher Todd Setter.

He has glowing evaluations and a recommendation for merit pay. He teaches in the hard-to-fill specialties of math and science, and his bosses have promoted him into leadership roles.

But he was also threatened with firing on three separate occasions between 2000 and 2006, and sanctioned twice by the state, for allegedly making inappropriate comments or physical contact with middle school boys. There were complaints he talked privately with one about sex, hugged and pinched others, or voiced hopes he could adopt one, according to district records.

Over his 13-year career in Hillsborough, Setter has presented officials with a rare dilemma: the star teacher with behavioral problems. In a county where less than 2 percent of the district's 16,300 teachers and classroom aides have a disciplinary case each year, he stands out.

In September, the Florida Education Practices Commission issued its second reprimand, based on 2004 and 2006 incidents. Under the terms of a settlement agreement, Setter, 43, must pay a $500 fine and undergo his second psychological evaluation. He declined to comment for this story.

Still, his discipline file shows no complaints since 2006. And Hillsborough officials said they saw no reason to remove Setter from the classroom.

"We don't believe that children are in danger, and that he is a very good teacher," said spokeswoman Linda Cobbe.

• • •

Setter's career got off to a rocky start in Pasco County, where he taught emotionally disturbed students beginning in 1993.

Administrators said Setter made inappropriate comments and showed "overly aggressive" behavior toward students and colleagues. One principal said he wouldn't rehire him.

But Hillsborough investigators didn't learn of those problems until the fall of 2000, four years after Setter's transfer to the district, after an incident at Young Middle School.

A parent had complained that Setter held a private conversation with her son at school. The boy said Setter had invited him to play tennis after school, asked him whether he knew about safe sex practices, and recommended masturbation as an alternative to intercourse.

Setter told investigators that the topic of masturbation came up but said he didn't recall how.

Two psychologists said Setter posed no threat to children.

"Mr. Setter is a bright man, gregarious, friendly, trusting, and even naive," said one, Sidney J. Merin.

But the incident prompted reprimands from the district and state. Assistant superintendent David Binnie ordered Setter not to tutor students or come into any contact with them outside school.

"Failure to heed these directives will be viewed as insubordination and will have serious negative impact on your continued employment," he said.

But in 2004, there were new complaints.

A teacher at Dowdell Middle School told investigators that students had complained Setter was "messing" with them. They said he pulled the hair on their arms, hugged them and rubbed their necks or backs.

One student said Setter was a "very nice man," but said the hugging and other physical contact made him feel very uncomfortable. Another said he had asked Setter to stop, and the attention ceased.

Police investigated and found no grounds to file criminal charges. But the district discovered Setter was again tutoring students after school. He got a second reprimand, and was suspended for two days without pay.

"Any further incidents of poor judgment regarding your interactions with students that the district determines to be inappropriate will result in a recommendation that your employment as a teacher be terminated," warned professional standards director Linda Kipley.

Two years later, in 2006, four teachers at Dowdell Middle reported seeing Setter hugging or tickling sixth-grade boys, records show.

One said she saw him give a student a "bear hug from behind," and overheard him say twice, "I would love to adopt you." Another said she saw him tickle a student, but felt he was a "good teacher that made a bad judgment."

Again, the district threatened Setter with firing.

"As I told you during our meeting, it is rare that I meet with a teacher for disciplinary purposes," wrote deputy superintendent Dan Valdez in a 2006 letter. "There will not be another opportunity for use of your poor judgment, and you are out of opportunities."

• • •

Through it all, Setter has continued to earn mostly positive reviews for his teaching.

In 2004 he served as a grade-level team leader. "Thanks for the professionalism you bring to the team and the children you serve," wrote Dowdell principal Robert Lawson.

In 2005 he earned one "needs improvement" mark; Lawson commented that Setter "had a difference with one staff member." But in 2008 he earned a perfect score, and Lawson recommended him for merit pay.

Last August, Setter began a new job as a math resource teacher at McLane Middle School, helping train other teachers and raise the school's math performance.

In September, the state finally concluded its review of the 2004 and 2006 incidents.

"The case shouldn't have taken that long," said Department of Education spokesman Tom Butler. "They readily admit that."

Deputy superintendent Valdez referred all queries to Kipley, the director of professional standards. She declined to discuss Setter's history in detail, or explain why the district didn't follow through on its promise to fire him when problems recurred in 2006.

"Though we've written those documents, it's not uncommon to not move directly to termination," she said, adding that Setter's strong instructional performance played a role in the decision to keep him in the classroom.

Cobbe, the district spokeswoman, said Setter's lapses were generally followed by periods of solid performance.

"He's fine for a couple years, and then he gets called back," she said.

And since 2006, he hasn't been called back.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Sanctioned twice by state, Hillsborough teacher draws both praise and concern 11/15/09 [Last modified: Sunday, November 15, 2009 9:21pm]
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