1. Hernando

Amid allegations that she yelled at students and calls for her firing, Hernando school tells teacher to watch her tone

SPRING HILL — A kindergarten teacher who came under fire after parents say they secretly recorded audio of her yelling at students has received instructions from administrators to watch her tone and volume, according to disciplinary records released Monday.

But an investigation by the school did not suggest that Pine Grove Elementary School teacher Carmela Duncan should be disciplined any further.

Duncan, who has taught kindergarten at Pine Grove for 15 years, drew public ire earlier this month when a Facebook post, with attached audio, accused her of bullying and verbally abusing her students. Tomas Valerio, the father of one of Duncan's students, wrote that after his daughter came home from school crying several times, he and his wife hid a recording device in their daughter's hair.

A WFTS television story about the parents' frustration was picked up by ABC's national news. An online petition calling for Duncan's firing has more than 1,500 signatures.

After the parents presented their concerns to the school, school officials agreed to investigate the incident, according to the record. But they did not review the audio, the report said, because the surreptitious recording violated Hernando County School Board and student code of conduct policies. Valerio wrote in a Facebook post that Hernando County Sheriff's Office officials told him and his wife that the recording would not violate the state's two-party consent law, because the school is a public place.

Sheriff's Office spokesperson Denise Moloney said that Laici Valerio, the girl's mother, called in March asking to speak with a deputy. A deputy answered a question based on "extremely limited information," Moloney said, and the agency asks that people with such questions contact the school district about its policies before asking law enforcement.

Tomas Valerio said Monday that his family is taking a break from speaking to the media, but he spoke during the public comment period in Tuesday night's school board meeting. He said the recording came out of a feeling that his family didn't have other options.

"I watched my daughter change," he said. "She didn't want to come today because she was scared Ms. Duncan was going to be here."

Valerio tried to reach out to district officials and felt brushed off, he said. But School Board chairwoman Susan Duval said he could have done more.

"I certainly wish that you had contacted additional staff at the district level or at the school board before you did something as drastic as you did," she said. "If you had sent us something, I guarantee you we would have become involved in it, and it would have never gotten to this point."

In a memo sent to School Board members and obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, board attorney Dennis Alphonso wrote that the classroom recording was a violation of School Board policy and the code of student conduct, and it may also be a violation of criminal law.

At Tuesday's board meeting, he said he gave relevant information to the Sheriff's Office and the State Attorney's Office.

Valerio said he didn't want Duncan fired, but wanted her removed from "student-facing" positions. Duncan did not respond to a message from the Times left for her at the school.

The school's investigation included interviews with students and testimonials from other teachers. Savannah Holloway, an exceptional student education inclusion teacher who co-taught with Duncan this school year, wrote that she wished her son had Duncan as a teacher.

"She corrects/re-directs students when needed and is firm, but fair in her discipline," Holloway wrote. "Because of this, her classroom runs like a well-oiled machine. She cares about her students and wants them all to succeed."

Most students interviewed by the school said they liked Duncan, though some said she sometimes yelled.

In response to the question "Is she nice to all the students?," one student responded, "Yes. But when someone (is) bad, she yells at them."

In a summary of the investigation, Pine Grove principal Nancy Johnson wrote that she warned Duncan about her word choice regarding allegations that she asked a student, "Are you deaf?" But Johnson said she was more concerned with Duncan's tone than her words.

"She states that she is from New York and has always spoken that way, but I do feel that we need to speak in a soft tone, even when it is in a disciplinary action, especially with kindergarten students," Johnson wrote. "I believe that her intention was to keep an orderly classroom where instruction can be at its best but I do not feel that her delivery is appropriate. In the past, I have heard her being loud and signaled her to quiet down, but I have never observed her being mean to children."

In a statement included in the investigative file, Duncan wrote that she aimed not only to help students build a foundation for academics, but also social and life skills.

"I am tickled beyond compare when former students, now grown, come back and visit me," she wrote. "They unequivocally say that my class was challenging, but I was always kind, fair and supportive as I encouraged their success."

The only other record in Duncan's disciplinary file is a 2014 investigation related to testing discrepancies. Those concerns were deemed unfounded. In 2013, she was a nominee for the school district's Teacher of the Year award.

It's unclear whether any legal action will result from the recordings.

Valerio said his daughter already is feeling better after changing schools.

"She is a complete 180," he told the school board. "She wakes up excited to go to school again."

Correction: The television report on this dispute that made national news was by WFTS. An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the station.

Contact Jack Evans at Follow @JackHEvans