TAMPA — A Tampa Day School principal admitted in a recorded phone call to fondling a 14-year-old male student he had befriended, authorities said, and has been arrested on a felony charge.
James Jerome Larkin, 63, was the middle school principal at the private school near Citrus Park, which specializes in teaching children with mild to moderate learning disabilities, dyslexia, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Before taking that post, he spent more than 30 years as headmaster of St. John Greek Orthodox Day School in South Tampa.
He was arrested at his home Thursday and faces a charge of lewd or lascivious molestation on a child 12 or older, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said.
According to an arrest report, Larkin befriended the student and acted as a surrogate father after the boy's father died. He accompanied the child to recreational activities, the report states.
A Sheriff's Office spokesman said Larkin babysat the teen and his siblings while the student's mother was out of town March 7.
About 10 p.m. that day, Larkin entered the boy's room, began to rub his leg and put his hands down the boy's pants, the arrest report shows. The teen told Larkin he wanted him to stop, and Larkin left the room, according to the Sheriff's Office.
Day School officials and the Sheriff's Office said they were not made aware of the incident until this week. Shortly after the student reported the incident to authorities, investigators set up a recorded call between Larkin and the boy.
During the call, which took place Thursday, Larkin admitted to the allegation and said that his action was "inappropriate," according to the Sheriff's Office.
Larkin was released from jail early Friday on $7,500 bail.
His attorney, Eddie Suarez, pointed to what he called a "distinguished career and spotless reputation" and said Larkin's family stands behind him.
"He looks forward to the opportunity to clear his name," Suarez said.
Larkin had never been arrested before in the state, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records.
In a prepared statement, Tampa Day School head Lois Delaney said that Larkin was fired Friday. He had been on administrative leave since early this week, when Delaney learned of the investigation, according to the statement.
"At this time, it appears that this is an isolated incident and that no other students are involved and none of the alleged inappropriate behavior occurred at the school," Delaney stated.
Larkin started at the school in August 2009, she said.
"We do a thorough background check — we have to," Delaney said in an interview. "Nothing has ever come up; there's been nothing before this."
Larkin previously was the headmaster of St. John Greek Orthodox Day School and left in 2009, a St. John Greek Orthodox Church spokeswoman said.
"As far as I know and as far as we know, we had no incidents," church spokeswoman Catherine Mitseas said Friday.
Mitseas said the church assessed the financial implications of running a school around the time Larkin left. The school is now operated by a private charter company.
Tampa resident Carmen Anrecio's son attended St. John Greek Orthodox Day School for kindergarten through fifth grade, beginning around 2000. She was shocked to hear news of Larkin's arrest.
"Jim was an institution. He was St. John Greek," she said. "He kept that place going."
The school felt like family with Larkin at the helm, she said. He would get up at 2 a.m. each year to cook turkeys for the school's Thanksgiving dinner, she said.
"It's hard to believe, that's why I'm not convinced," she said. "Jim was a very honest individual. You could count on him for the truth. He didn't sugar coat anything."
In 2009, Larkin told the Times he retired from St. John because "I need change and the school needs fresh ideas."
He said in an interview then that he ultimately wanted to run a school for boys.
"Boys and girls process information differently," Larkin said at the time. "Fascinating new information is coming out on brain-based teaching. I think the education system has dropped the ball for boys for many years."
About the time of his departure, state corporate records show, Larkin filed papers to form the "Florida Independent School for Boys," listing his South Tampa home as the address for the entity. But it appears no such business came to fruition.
Larkin's departure from St. John prompted an outcry from parents who wanted him to remain at the school, Mitseas said.
"There is a group of people who love and admire him through his 30 years at the school," she said.
Times staff writer Keeley Sheehan and news researchers Carolyn Edds and John Martin contributed to this report. Claire Wiseman can be reached at (727) 893-8804.