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Sexual harassment accusations pile up for Pasco school worker

LAND O'LAKES — Plant manager David A. Simpson got a 10-day unpaid suspension and a transfer out of Wiregrass Ranch High School in 2008 after he was caught on video having sex with a subordinate employee in the school cafeteria.

Less than a year later, Simpson received a reprimand for making inappropriate and sexually suggestive statements to more than one female co-worker at his new school, Land O'Lakes High.

After each incident, Simpson, 49, got a warning: Stop, or lose your job.

District officials say he didn't stop. And superintendent Heather Fiorentino is ready to make good on her threat.

Following an investigation into a complaint that Simpson sexually harassed a different female co-worker at Land O'Lakes High, Fiorentino wrote a letter recommending his dismissal.

"While you may not believe your conduct to be unwelcome or suggestive, the evidence clearly indicated that others continue to perceive it that way," she wrote in her Sept. 14 letter, accusing him of violating district policies on harassment and professional conduct.

Simpson is not accepting firing quietly.

Rather, he has hired prominent First Amendment lawyer Luke Lirot to fight the recommendation and asked for a public hearing before the Pasco County School Board. District employee relations director Kevin Shibley said Simpson has indicated he wants to keep his job.

"I'm not really sure what the theory of the case will be," Shibley said, adding that he looked forward to hearing the arguments.

Lirot told Bay News 9 that "the accusations are unsubstantiated, not valid," though he declined to discuss specifics.

Simpson has denied to district officials that he did anything wrong, offering explanations for each of the complaints he has faced since his 2008 suspension. Shibley said the statements made by school employees and students outweighed Simpson's denials.

"We just really don't feel like the district can continue his employment at this point," Shibley said.

Simpson's pattern of behavior since joining the Pasco school district in 2006 warrants dismissal, Fiorentino added. He had no such complaints in his employee file for Hillsborough County schools, where he worked as a custodian from 1993 through mid 2006.

The first case occurred at Wiregrass Ranch High. According to district records, Simpson received a warning in March 2008 that he was spending an excessive amount of time at work with a female employee, and that he agreed to avoid being in her work area without work-related reasons.

In July 2008, the administration confronted Simpson with an allegation that he had a "sexual encounter" with the woman inside the school cafeteria, where new surveillance cameras had recently been installed. No employees were supposed to be in the area.

He admitted it about two weeks later.

"You showed extremely poor judgment in this matter, particularly considering this employee was in a subordinate position to you," then-employee relations director Terry Rhum wrote.

But officials gave him another chance. Simpson was suspended without pay for 10 days, and transferred to Land O'Lakes High. The same or similar behavior would lead to a recommendation for dismissal, Rhum warned.

In April 2009 he got another reprimand. District records show that a Land O'Lakes coach and several of her students complained that Simpson entered the coach's office while she was changing clothing, even as she shouted to stay out. Once inside the office, the report states, Simpson "suggestively asked her and two of her student athletes if they had a (competition) that afternoon because you wanted to watch them in their uniforms."

A week later, the report continues, Simpson made another comment about the coach's appearance. After that, she "has had to take steps to avoid you. She also has avoided her office out of fear of another encounter with you."

Shortly afterward, district officials received a separate complaint from another teacher who said Simpson had made suggestive comments to her.

The teacher had approached Simpson to ask for a table with wheels he was throwing away, according to the report. He asked why she wanted it, and she said she liked anything with wheels on it. Simpson responded that he had skates in his office and would be right back.

Shibley wrote to Simpson that his behavior needed to change. Failure to do so would result in termination. Simpson refused to sign the letter.

The last straw came in September. Simpson faced another accusation of inappropriate behavior, with a different female teacher.

This teacher told district officials that Simpson frequently visited her classroom, invited her to join him for meals, requested hugs and other physical contact, and made statements about her appearance. The report said he called her "mamacita," for instance, and told her she would "look sexy in shorts and a T-shirt."

The teacher said she told Simpson she was married and not interested, and that his actions were unwelcome. But, she said, he did not stop.

District records show that other staff members also reported that Simpson made inappropriate comments about the physical appearance and attributes of school teachers, students and parents.

Simpson told officials that he meant no harm, and denied wrongdoing. He again refused to sign the district letter of findings.

Fiorentino said enough was enough.

"The employee has been disciplined for past behavior and received ample warning that further violations of Board policies would result in termination. His inappropriate behavior continued, which demonstrated a pattern of violating policies," Fiorentino said. "Our district has an obligation to ensure a safe and harassment-free workplace for all employees, and my decision in this case was necessary in order to uphold this paramount responsibility."

Lirot and School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso are set to meet about the proceedings next week. No hearing date has been set.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Sexual harassment accusations pile up for Pasco school worker 10/27/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 27, 2010 10:30pm]
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