Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Teacher accused of seeking hit man also had problems at other high schools


TAMPA — From the looks of the letter, James Pepe was out of control.

During teacher training at Tampa Bay Technical High School in 2001, he railed about the administration. He was "hostile," "aggressive" and "extremely volatile." A colleague said she was concerned for her safety.

"They can't get me," Pepe had bragged. He called his principal a "pathological liar" when she addressed him. Coming after 10 years of erratic behavior, this seemed like the last straw.

But instead of firing Pepe, as then-Hillsborough County superintendent Earl Lennard recommended, the district sent Pepe to anger management classes and reassigned him to Gaither High School.

From there he moved on to three more high schools. At one, he accused the principal, faculty and maintenance staff of loading him up with the worst students, denying him equipment and deliberately cutting off the air-conditioning in his room.

Now Pepe, 55, is in jail, facing charges that he tried to hire a hit man to murder Robert Meredith, a former coworker at Strawberry Crest High School.

How could he have kept teaching this long?

"Apparently he was a very good teacher," said district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe.

"There is no complaint that we are aware of from the students. It seems that his issues were with other adults."

Pepe is now suspended with pay, pending action by the School Board.

District records show he was educated in Buffalo, N.Y., and hired in 1984 to teach social studies at Brandon High School. He transferred in 1985 to Tampa Bay Tech, where he taught social studies, history and psychology for 16 years. His evaluations showed mostly perfect ratings until 2001. That was the year of the training blowup and the disciplinary letter that described him as hostile and aggressive.

Pepe was placed on a seven-month leave before he moved to Gaither. He got another excellent evaluation. He took about a year off.

At Durant High, he impressed principal Pamela Bowden in his first two years. She recommended him for performance pay based on his outstanding rating.

But in 2009 Bowden marked Pepe down in the area of professional behavior, not unlike the Tampa Bay Tech principal had in 2001. In addition, she noted that grades in his government classes were below the district average.

The assessment cost Pepe his merit bonus, he wrote in a blistering six-page response.

He blamed Bowden. He blamed his fellow teachers. He blamed the maintenance staff, although he suggested they were doing Bowden's bidding.

He was not issued a laptop computer or projector, he wrote. The school technology employee "did, however, have time to spend entire days voting for some radio station" to win a helicopter visit for a pep rally.

He believed the school deliberately assigned misbehaving, truant and emotionally unstable students to his classes.

"How can a teacher be evaluated as deficient instructionally when the classes you teach are purposely being profiled with the aforementioned student population?" he wrote, suggesting they were kept in mainstream classes to punish him.

"The idea that a student's needs would be superseded just to harass a teacher is truly unconscionable," he wrote.

He filed two grievances over a closed air-conditioning vent. "The room was 95 degrees and caused me to get sick," he wrote.

"The classroom at the opposite end of the hall suddenly was less than 67 degrees. This is an indication that the air flow was once again redirected purposefully."

Co-workers spoke disparagingly about him, he continued, and Bowden paired him deliberately with one of the offenders. Someone stole a box of belongings from his locked classroom.

Bowden did not return a call seeking comment.

Pepe was moved to Strawberry Crest High School in Dover, where he got a perfect review in his first year. But in his second evaluation, under the new Empowering Effective Teachers system, he scored 49 points out of a possible 100.

His peer and principal found his lessons lacked structure, students were confused and he was not getting parents involved to solve discipline issues.

Again, Pepe responded defensively: "I have been harassed and slandered by some of my colleagues in the department."

He told the Sheriff's Office in April that a former co-worker might have stolen videotapes of a school project from his apartment. "He then stated the apartment's maintenance men always give him strange looks and act suspicious around him when he goes into the office to pay his rent," the report states.

It is unclear what Pepe's issue was with Meredith, the 49-year-old economics teacher he is accused of trying to have killed.

The two no longer worked together this year, as Pepe had transferred to Bloomingdale High School. Meredith's lawyer, Jim Guarnieri, said the two were never friends.

Pepe is scheduled for a bail hearing Saturday. Guarnieri said he'll be there.

"My client feels he would be in danger if Mr. Pepe were to be released," he said. "And if he comes to a school in the middle of the day, when he knows my client will be there, he will put others in danger as well."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3356. Staff writers Jessica Vander Velde and Keeley Sheehan contributed to this report.

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