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Teacher accused of bullying will return to South Tampa school

TAMPA — A private school teacher accused of bullying students will return to his job at St. John's Episcopal Parish Day School later this month.

Latin teacher D.J. Holt has been on administrative leave from the South Tampa school since January, following complaints that he slapped a student and called students demeaning nicknames that sometimes made fun of their learning and disabilities and weight.

The Florida Department of Children and Families began investigating the slapping complaint in December and closed the case in February.

On Thursday, a spokeswoman said the agency did not find evidence of abuse.

St. John's is a $10,000-a-year private school that admits students from prekindergarten through eighth grade. Holt has taught Latin at the 62-year-old school for nearly a decade and himself graduated from St. John's in 1984.

Several parents who spoke to the Tampa Bay Times in January said the school's response to their complaints was slow and inadequate.

School officials are required by state law to immediately report allegations of child abuse or neglect to the Florida Abuse Hotline, but DCF did not get a call about any alleged abuse at St. John's until mid December.

The school said it notified DCF when it had all the facts necessary to make a report.

In a written statement, school headmaster Gordon Rode said Thursday that even though the DCF report clears the teacher, St. John's is taking "proactive steps" to address empathy and emotional intelligence at the school.

He explained further in an email sent Tuesday to St. John's students' parents.

"I recognize that although this teacher was cleared, his conduct did not always meet St. John's high standards," he wrote.

Because of that, the school had Holt meet with a trainer at Frameworks of Tampa Bay Inc. to "understand and develop his emotional intelligence" — and help him learn about the social and emotional development of teens.

Frameworks is nonprofit group that helps children and teens advance their social and emotional development. The group also teaches adults.

"Emotional intelligence" is a psychological term for the types of social intelligence that don't fit in a typical IQ assessment.

St. John's will continue to watch Holt, the headmaster wrote, to make sure his growth will continue.

Rode also is setting up emotional intelligence workshops with Frameworks for the faculty, administration, students and parents.

The school also made headlines in December, when a couple of the school's board members were also the targets of threatening letters sent by mail to their homes.

"Now your children will pay the price for your actions on the BOT's. Bullying is very hard on children — now maybe you will see just how it feels," the anonymous letter read.

Some believed the threat was in retaliation for the headmaster's decision to not renew popular middle division director Michele Lambert's contract, though some said it could be referencing Holt's alleged actions.

Holt did not return a reporter's calls Thursday.

In Rode's email to parents this week, he wrote that he hopes the emotional intelligence workshops will help improve the culture of the school.

"Our students are the most important thing to us, as they are to you," Rode wrote, "and that shared love and commitment is what binds us together as a school family."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Teacher accused of bullying will return to South Tampa school 03/14/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013 11:51pm]
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