BROOKSVILLE — One boy pushed, the second boy punched, and the teacher swatted both of their bottoms without thinking about it.
That is how Pine Grove Elementary School teacher Vicki Laster later recounted an Oct. 12 incident on the playground that has earned her a formal letter of reprimand from superintendent Bryan Blavatt, according to district investigation documents.
Laster, 50, has agreed to take unpaid leave for at least the rest of the semester. She can begin applying for other teaching positions outside of exceptional education starting in January. She also must take a course in crisis prevention intervention techniques.
Spanking the boys for fighting was a violation of the state's code of ethics and professional conduct, which obliges teachers to protect students' physical and mental health, Blavatt wrote to Laster.
Laster, who joined the district five years ago, will get another chance because her actions weren't malicious, Blavatt told the Times. Her disciplinary record is clean, and her performance evaluations have been satisfactory.
"She deserves another opportunity to find a niche where she can work effectively," Blavatt said.
Laster, of Hudson, declined an interview request from the Times.
Though she held a certification in exceptional education, Laster realized at the start of school year that her assignment to a self-contained exceptional education classroom required skills beyond her training, said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.
"These are very high-stress positions," Vitalo said. "She immediately recognized it was not a good fit."
The two boys — a kindergartner and a first-grader — had been punching and hitting each other all morning, Laster told school officials during a predetermination hearing held eight days after the incident, according to summary notes of the hearing. She tried to redirect their behavior multiple times. One boy is autistic, and the other is developmentally delayed.
One of the boys was playing in the sandbox during recess, Laster said, when the other pushed him, causing him to fall. He got up and hit the other boy.
"Without even thinking about it I just grabbed them" — at this point in the hearing Laster made a swatting motion — "and I put them on the picnic table in time out," she said.
Laster recalled spanking each boy twice. The students appeared surprised, she said.
The boys were not injured and did not cry, said Vitalo, who drew a distinction between a light "swatting" and a more forceful spanking.
The district notified the students' parents and the Florida Department of Children and Families. The department decided Laster's actions did not rise to the level of abuse.
Laster had served as a general education teacher for fourth- and fifth-graders until this year, when she was assigned to lead the self-contained ESE class with the support of paraprofessionals. She had some experience with exceptional students as a long-term substitute in Pinellas County, but had never worked with autistic children or other students with severe developmental delays as the lead teacher in a self-contained setting, where the same students stay with one teacher most of the day.
Laster had told Pine Grove principal Earl Deen she didn't feel prepared and sought a reassignment. But the district only allows teachers to apply for open positions. She filed to take extended personal leave, but delayed her departure because she was told she wouldn't be able to apply for another position while on leave, Laster said later. She also said she did not want to leave her students without a certified teacher.
"I just kept telling myself I could do it a little longer, that I would find another job," she told school officials.
Laster said she started to attend counseling in September because of the stress of the job. Vitalo declined to say if Laster has children of her own.
"I'm just so frustrated," she said during her hearing. "I cry all the time. I'm not happy. My husband says I'm not the same."
Laster has dropped her ESE certification. If she does not find a position next semester, the district will place her in an open post starting next school year.
Corporal punishment is not officially banned in the Hernando County schools, but it might as well be. The practice has not been used in years and is discouraged, Blavatt said. Even if paddling were still a means of discipline, however, there would be an administrative process to follow. Teachers are not allowed to mete out punishment on the spot.
To Vitalo, Laster's case is an example of the need for the state to divide ESE certifications into subcategories for co-teachers and lead teachers in the more intense self-contained setting.
"She might not have been in this situation," he said.
The state Department of Education will conduct its own review to decide whether some action should be taken against Laster's teaching certificate.
In a statement submitted to the district last month, Laster wrote she is eager to return to a general education classroom.
"It is my hope," she wrote, "that I will be able to keep my overall certification and will be able to work again at the job I love, teaching students."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Connect with him on Facebook by searching for "Hernando Education Beat — Tampa Bay Times."