LAND O'LAKES — It has been three years since Pasco schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino first tried to fire teacher Patti Withers for trying to commit suicide at Pasco High School.
The School Board wouldn't let Fiorentino do it. And now the Florida Education Practices Commission is set to deny Fiorentino's effort too.
When it meets this morning, the agency charged with judging teacher discipline will take up a state hearing officer's recommendation that Withers be placed on two years of monitored probation rather than lose her job and have her teaching license revoked.
Withers did fail to use "reasonable caution" to protect students from harm, administrative law judge R. Bruce McKibben wrote in his 18-page recommended order.
"First, there is no guarantee students could not have come into the classroom, even if the door was locked," he wrote. "Second, it is extremely likely that students would become aware of the fact of her death (had she been successful) and would have had to deal with that fact while taking final exams. Third, any students who used that classroom might have some difficulty being in a room where a person had died."
But no one provided any proof that Withers, who now works at Wiregrass Ranch High School, was guilty of "gross immorality" or "moral turpitude" in her actions, McKibben stated. She has not been convicted of any crime, nor has she clearly been shown to have violated community morals, he wrote.
Therefore, he concluded, the penalty should not be as severe as the superintendent and the commissioner of education had requested.
Wither's attorney, Melissa Mihok, said McKibben's findings were "pretty straightforward" with little open to contest. Still, Mihok said she does take exception to some portions of the order and will argue for the commission to revisit it before acting.
Most notably, Mihok contends that McKibben found that Withers was guilty of misconduct without Withers having been charged with misconduct. Even if it was alleged, she continued, misconduct was not established on the record with evidence.
"The DOE has no authority to sanction (Withers') teaching certificate based upon an alleged violation of the Code of Ethics," Mihok wrote.
The hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. in Tallahassee. The Education Practices Commission generally makes its rulings on the same day as the hearings.
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.