LAND O'LAKES — Jeffrey Bush, a teacher at the Irvin Education Center, stood accused of choking a student who made a crude crack about his wife.
It was clearly inappropriate, school officials said — but was that moment enough to end the career of a teacher with an otherwise unblemished record?
The Pasco School Board didn't think so.
After a daylong hearing on the altercation, the School Board on Friday unanimously rejected the recommendation of superintendent Heather Fiorentino to fire Bush. Board members concluded Bush, 40, was trying to control his classroom, and they told Fiorentino to come back with a lesser penalty.
The altercation happened during class time in November 2008 at the alternative school in Dade City. Bush and the students provided different details about the beginning of the exchange, but it involved student Daniel Santos making a comment about having sexual relations with Bush's wife. A couple of students said Bush joked with Santos about "hoes," and Santos responded that if Bush's wife was a ho, he could "get" her.
In either instance, Bush told Santos to stop talking about his wife.
Lawyers for Bush said Santos responded with an obscenity. Not everyone remembered it that way.
But Bush, who was the only adult in the room and trying to maintain order, lost his temper.
Bush's attorneys say he grabbed the boy by the shirt and pulled him out of his chair to take him to the office.
Other students testified that Bush grabbed Santos by the throat, flipped his desk over and then grabbed Santos again, daring the boy to hit him.
Irvin principal Rick Saylor testified that Bush crossed the line.
"I've been threatened by kids, called all sorts of names," Saylor said. "But you know they're kids."
Bush's actions seemed out of character, Saylor acknowledged. He said Bush had a good rapport with students, and frequently went out of his way to help them.
The idea that Bush might joke about hoes with students did not jibe with the teacher he knew, Saylor added. Other students testified they were surprised by the conversation.
But Saylor, along with school resource officer Eric Brown, said their investigations revealed that Bush had inappropriately manhandled the student.
Santos had been in trouble in the past for using profanity at school, Saylor said. But district officials argued the student's conduct was no excuse for the teacher's behavior.
"There was one adult involved in this situation, and that was Jeffrey Bush," said administration lawyer Tammy Rattray.
Bush's lawyers suggested the student witnesses might have falsified or exaggerated their stories to make the teacher look bad — even if only to avoid getting in further trouble themselves.
Even as they worked to discredit the students' stories, Bush's lawyers aimed to paint him in the most positive light.
He was a lifetime Pasco resident, dedicated to helping youth, they said. Several character witnesses testified to their knowledge of him as a good person, and a psychiatrist testified Bush does not have a propensity for violence.
"He will tell you it was not his finest moment," lawyer Mark Herdman said. "But … he acted with basic human emotion."
The incident was "a one-time event in an unblemished career," Herdman said. "Not a reason to end a career."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.