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Harassed teacher brings lawsuit

A Hernando County elementary school teacher is suing the School Board for failing to appropriately discipline a colleague she accused of sexual harassment and then not protecting her from retaliation.

A civil lawsuit filed by Linda Goebel, 25, Thursday claims that she was "subjected to ongoing sexual harassment" for months by Douglas Latta, 50, when they both worked at Deltona Elementary School. She now works at another school in the district.

The lawsuit also claims that Goebel was fired from her job as a prekindergarten teacher at Deltona because of her complaints about the harassment.

School board attorney Karen Gaffney said she could not comment since she had not yet been served with the lawsuit. Latta also declined to comment. He said he would be leaving soon for military service abroad.

The district's personnel files show that Latta arrived at Hernando in 2000. He taught in Pasco County between 1992 and 1994, when he left for a job in Sumter County.

While teaching in Sumter, he was accused of inappropriately touching and talking to a female student and downloading pictures of women in bathing suits onto his classroom computer, records show.

Latta was exonerated of the charges involving the student in both a criminal proceeding and an administrative hearing, but he was not reappointed to his instructor's job. A supervisor in Sumter informed Hernando officials on a reference form that he would not "recommend/rehire this person for employment as a teacher."

Latta had positive references and experience as an intelligence analyst with the Navy. In a 2001 interview with the St. Petersburg Times, he noted that he was the pastor of a small "Bible-believing" Methodist church in Sumter County.

After a year at Powell Middle School, Latta went to Deltona Elementary.

According to Hernando district files, the harassment of Goebel began in the summer of 2003 and continued for months. Latta frequently made lewd remarks about Goebel's figure, put his arm around her, and persisted in such conduct even after she told him in a loud voice to "never touch me, do not be within an arm's distance of me."

In spring 2004, Goebel filed a formal complaint with the district, after attempting to seek a solution with her superiors. Several of Latta's colleagues at Deltona wrote letters of support on his behalf after the harassment charges. Other employees praised principal Janet Dunleavy, one of the people Goebel approached, according to district files.

But the district investigation prompted by Goebel's harassment complaint sparked similar complaints and brought old ones to the surface.

For instance, in October 2003, another Deltona employee complained to her supervisor about lewd comments Latta had made about her physique.

After Goebel came forward with her complaint in spring 2004, "staff began to talk" and officials learned that "Doug Latta has done this to others," according to a memorandum that then-personnel director Barbara Kidder and Gaffney wrote in May after conducting an investigation.

That investigation also found that Latta had a reputation among staffers for "making inappropriate comments."

Gaffney and Kidder recommended that Dunleavy should be reprimanded for failing to treat Goebel's complaint "with enough seriousness." Goebel told district officials that she filed the formal harassment charge partly because she felt Dunleavy was not treating her fairly.

After the investigation, Latta signed a last-chance agreement with the school district in May acknowledging the complaints against his conduct. As part of that agreement, he was suspended with pay for 22 days, put on probation for a year and agreed to complete a sexual harassment course. One clause in the agreement noted he could be terminated for any violations of school board policies or Florida law while on probation.

But district files show that a few weeks after the start of the current school year, a school psychologist at Deltona accused him of harassment. In an affidavit, Mary-Grace Surrena wrote that while Latta now refrained from making "overtly sexual" remarks, he "continued to try to intimidate me deliberately and overtly" through sarcastic remarks and stares.

"I am trying my best to ignore you . . . I would appreciate it if you do not speak to me or come into my office when I am there," she wrote.

District officials did not fire Latta. Instead, superintendent Wendy L. Tellone and Dunleavy issued him a formal letter of reprimand this fall, barred him from leadership roles and extended his probation for another year.

While Latta did return to Deltona this school year, Goebel did not. Both she and her attorney, James Thompson, said that her contract was not renewed at Deltona because she had filed a complaint against a colleague considered to be a favorite of the principal.

"No one likes to be told they can't come back to their job," said Goebel Tuesday.

District officials said at the time that Goebel wasn't properly certified. But Goebel said she had become fully certified for her job, and she refused to sign the form that marked her termination from Deltona in late May.

Goebel had received glowing reviews from her supervisors at Deltona, according to her personnel file. She now teaches kindergarten at J. D. Floyd Elementary School.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathansptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

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