Editor’s note: This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, resources are available to help. Call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or chat with someone online at 988lifeline.org.
TAMPA — Until her teacher brought up her race, it had been an otherwise unremarkable American government class at Wharton High. One of Melanie Copeland’s parents was Black, the other white. Her teacher, Todd Harvey, wanted to know what she put as her race on government forms.
What she should put, he told her, was “mutt.”
Melanie struggled to process what was happening. Did her teacher really just call her a dog?
She remembers Harvey grinning, while she and other students sat stunned.
Mr. Harvey is a tall, mercurial white man who has taught in Hillsborough County Public Schools since the late ‘90s, after working as a salesman and briefly pitching in the minor leagues for the Kansas City Royals. He’s spent the bulk of his career at Wharton High, which serves mostly students of color.
The impact of Melanie’s 2017 encounter with Mr. Harvey has been lasting, proving so haunting she wrote her college admission essay about it. The summer after her high school graduation, she read a Tampa Bay Times story about Blake High mishandling sexual harassment complaints that later prompted the federal government to investigate.
Melanie emailed the Times.
“I thought I was the only one who had a serious problem with Hillsborough County trying to sweep things under the rug,” she wrote.
What she didn’t know is that students and parents had complained about Mr. Harvey since before she was born.
Harvey’s personnel records and interviews with 13 current and former students depict a teacher who has long run his classroom like a bully.
The story of a teacher who openly harassed students — to include singling out their race and gender — provides insight into the discrimination students can face within their own schools. It shows how schools can respond tepidly, choosing to tolerate a teacher like Harvey while students in formative years are left feeling unheard and without a sense of recourse.
At least twice, school officials threatened to fire Harvey. They didn’t. Instead, his behavior was allowed to continue.
The Times repeatedly tried to reach Harvey, but he did not respond to phone and email messages.
The district records detail at least 23 allegations of misconduct against him. They range from Harvey performing a Nazi salute to telling a student he planned to marry her. As early as 1999, a parent reported, “I understand it is not uncommon for this man to reduce students to tears.”
The last complaint in Harvey’s personnel file is from 2017. But all 13 students told the Times about classroom incidents not outlined in the documents — like the time he told a girl she was too big to wear shorts or said gay couples shouldn’t marry in churches.
In three cases, students who reported Harvey said he retaliated by criticizing them to their peers, records and interviews show.
Federal and state laws recognize the toll discrimination and bullying can take on a child’s education and require schools to act. For more than a decade, Florida has had an anti-bullying law that applies to students and teachers. But there’s no evidence the district has used it to investigate Harvey. There’s also no evidence the district has reported Harvey to the state, which oversees teacher licenses, for violating its educator code of ethics.
The Times described Harvey’s record to three experts in school bullying and discrimination. All were surprised that Harvey kept teaching.
“This is just astonishing,” said Nan Stein, a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women who has spent more than 40 years studying sexual harassment in schools.
She called it one of the most egregious patterns of behavior she’d seen.
For teens, one of the biggest safety risks is how they view themselves. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. LGBTQ youth are particularly vulnerable. And teenage years are also a high-risk time for developing eating disorders.
Even so, school officials didn’t always document allegations made against Harvey — in apparent violation of district policies, according to interviews and records.
Melanie’s case was one of them.
In a statement, district spokesperson Tanya Arja said complaints are generally handled at the school level, where issues might not be documented or brought to the district’s attention. Hillsborough officials did not agree to an interview but defended their handling of Harvey.
“Incidents involving Mr. Harvey were investigated, and he was disciplined in a progressive manner,” Arja said.
The district would not release data on the number of Wharton teachers fired over the past 15 years, as Harvey kept teaching. Arja also would not comment on specific incidents involving the teacher, citing student privacy laws. She indicated records kept in student files differ from the Times’ reporting but declined to provide details.
Students and families have wanted answers.
Melanie’s mom, Sharon Brown, said she wanted to know more about how the district handled Harvey. Melanie switched classes but still had the chance of running into him.
Brown said she watched her daughter, previously confident, become on edge. She noticed Melanie straightening her hair and worried she was trying to look like she wasn’t biracial.
“It just got to where the child that we were used to was no longer present,” Brown said.
Mr. Harvey, meanwhile, stayed at Wharton, teaching social studies. And according to two current students, much has remained the same.
A history of bullying
Harvey’s lengthy personnel files show that, from almost the beginning, students felt ridiculed.
In 1997, Harvey started at Walker Middle School, supervising students serving in-school suspensions. After a year, he transferred to Riverview High, where he held the same position and coached baseball.
Not long after he joined the school, complaints rolled in.
Harvey shamed kids from divorced parents and told a student he’d eventually be “flipping my burgers,” one read. He also made a student write sentences over and over — 25 times — for chewing gum, then inexplicably made her start over. Another complaint said he would single out students and pick on them throughout the day.
A father reported that Harvey called his daughter “slutty,” which the teacher admitted but characterized as a joke he regretted, the records show. Another student said Harvey told her he’d marry her when she turned 21.
Riverview’s principal warned Harvey that if he made inappropriate comments again, he’d recommend termination. That was in April 2000.
By May, there were new concerns.
A Fort Myers principal had watched one of Harvey’s baseball players hit a rival in the head with a pitch, records show. He’d asked Harvey whether it had been intentional. Harvey denied it.
But a Riverview parent later told the Fort Myers principal that Harvey instructed the pitcher to hit the player.
“Apparently, everyone on the team knows this to be true,” the principal wrote in a letter to Riverview.
It’s unclear whether Harvey faced discipline. But by the following school year, he was at Wharton.
The next documented issue came in 2006.
Wharton’s principal reprimanded Harvey for allowing students to pay him to boost their grades. That wasn’t the only issue: the principal had also talked to Harvey about inappropriate comments.
Two years later, another parent reported a concern. A student needed a test moved to observe a Jewish holiday. Harvey punished her by adding to the exam when she was absent, the complaint said.
She got a D.
“It is very out of character for me to complain,” the parent wrote. The only other time “was with this same teacher!”
It’s unclear how the school handled the complaint.
In late 2014, Harvey again fell under investigation. Parent Kathy Brothers was hosting a German exchange student who felt targeted.
Through tears, the student told a district investigator Harvey called her “Germany.” In a written statement, she said he misspelled her name, and when she corrected him said, “You are in America now! This is your American name! Deal with that!”
It wasn’t the first time Brothers had heard about Harvey.
The year before, she’d hosted another German student, who told her the teacher performed a Nazi salute directed at her. Brothers reconnected with the student, who said in an email that Harvey had asked several times if she was dating someone. Harvey, she wrote, told her, “If I were you, I’d wanna date me.” Records show Brothers gave the school the email.
As part of the inquiry, the investigator interviewed nine students. They said Harvey mocked their Latino classmates by saying they were hairy and ate rice and beans, called a transgender student a slur and remarked that one student would make the perfect ex-wife.
All but one of the students said Harvey degraded women, saying they belonged at home and not the workplace.
Two teens told the investigator Harvey kept a metal bar in his classroom that he’d slam on students’ desks if they fell asleep. More recent students told the Times they also recalled the bar. One said it made class feel “barbaric.”
Brothers and her husband met with the principal and Harvey. But when she started speaking, she told the Times, the teacher threw his chair and left. Her husband also recalled the incident in an email to the Times.
Harvey’s personnel files don’t mention that he threw a chair, but they note he became upset and left a meeting with the family. He told the investigator he got emotional because Brothers alleged he’d talked about dating a student. It’s unclear what steps the district took to investigate the allegation, but officials later determined there wasn’t evidence to support it.
Harvey admitted to calling the exchange student Germany, excusing it by saying he used nicknames to remember students, according to the investigator’s report. He also admitted to the Nazi salute but said it was part of a Holocaust lesson. He brushed off assertions that he made offensive jokes by saying he isn’t funny.
After the exchange student switched classes, Harvey mocked her, she and a classmate told the investigator. Harvey denied it.
“He could stand there and put her down,” Brothers told the Times. “There was no protection.”
Brothers said when her daughter hit middle school, the family bought a house outside the district — away from Harvey and Wharton.
After the investigation, the district suspended Harvey for five days without pay.
“It is critical that you never make disparaging comments to students and be sensitive to cultural differences,” a reprimand letter said. “If the district determines that any future incident of inappropriate interaction with your students has occurred, a recommendation will be made to terminate your employment.”
But two years later, in February 2017, Harvey again was in trouble.
The district found he’d violated Florida law designed to prevent cheating, records show. Harvey gave students a review sheet that too closely matched standardized test answers. He was reprimanded for “unprofessional conduct.”
That was the last time the district kept a record of a complaint.
On edge at school
In Melanie’s case, her mom’s report appeared to prompt action.
Soon after, Melanie and her classmates were asked to provide written statements on how Harvey had insulted her biracial identity, according to interviews with her and another student.
Melanie said she wrote her statement in the school office. She saw Mr. Harvey walk in, look at her, then leave.
Later that day, while she was in another class, a student handed her a note. It was from Mr. Harvey.
Melanie had recently cursed in Harvey’s class, and he assigned her to write a paragraph, 25 times over, about not swearing.
Harvey’s note, Melanie and her mom remember, said, “If not 25 today, then 50 tomorrow.”
Melanie shook as she read it. She texted her mom, who emailed the school.
“Clearly the note being deliver(ed) to Mel less than 2 periods after Mr Harvey saw her writing a statement in the student affairs office should be cause for concern,” Sharon Brown wrote. “I would certainly hope that an adult would not engage in behavior that could be seen as retaliation against a student.”
Melanie said she transferred to another class. She struggled to focus when each day carried the possibility of seeing Harvey. She developed circuitous routes to avoid his classroom.
Brown felt validated by school officials when she reported Harvey’s behavior, but doubt crept in. Melanie remembers Harvey getting sensitivity training; her mom recalls wanting more answers. The district’s records show no evidence that Harvey was disciplined or that he received training.
Ultimately, Brown felt the only way to save her daughter’s education and mental health was to remove her from the district that continued to enable him.
Stephanie Fredrick, the associate director of the University at Buffalo Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention, said Melanie’s report should have been retained. Documentation, she said, is critical to spot troubling patterns of behavior.
All three experts said Harvey’s case points to larger problems with how the district addresses misconduct.
“If you don’t keep the records, you’ve got all this deniability,” said Stein, the researcher at the Wellesley Centers for Women.
Melanie’s case, however, wasn’t an anomaly.
Asking for accountability
Three other students told the Times they reported Harvey, sometimes repeatedly, but seemed to get nowhere. All attended Wharton around the same time as Melanie and made complaints between 2016 and 2018. Their reports also aren’t included in Harvey’s personnel files provided to the Times.
Julia Christiansen had gone to a guidance counselor to report that Harvey complained about a suicide prevention assembly, saying people who died by suicide were selfish at a time when the school was grieving a student death.
Jenna Morales had gone to the school office to report that Harvey told the class bigger women shouldn’t wear crop tops, adding she should take note.
Tiffany Martinez had gone to the principal to report that Harvey criticized her outfit, saying girls with “thunder thighs” shouldn’t wear shorts.
No one followed up, they said.
Wharton didn’t have a revolving door of principals, unaware of Harvey’s record. The principal then was Bradley Woods, who’d been in charge since 2008.
Woods, who now works in the district’s human resources department, did not respond to emails or phone and text messages.
Later, Tiffany raised concerns about Harvey again, fearing his comments hurt a particularly vulnerable student.
In March 2017, her friend, Wes Acierno, went missing. After an extensive search, police discovered Wes had died by suicide.
His friends knew he’d made previous attempts and managed a mental illness that caused him to hear voices. The challenges were heavy. But there was joy in Wes’ life, too. If you were having a bad day, friends said, he’d make you laugh in no time. He was an avid photographer and poet. Nature left him awestruck.
According to the police investigation, Wes recently told some friends he was transgender. He still went by his birth name often, including with his parents, and wasn’t out at school. On Tumblr, he went by Wes and also used the name and male pronouns with some friends. He’d also cut his hair and stopped wearing makeup regularly.
School employees told police that Wes aced tests with ease, but his illness meant he’d missed a lot of school. His medication made him fall asleep in class. In a note he left before he went missing, Wes described himself as having “devastatingly low self-esteem” and “failing miserably in school.”
Police identified one thing that upset him on his last day at Wharton: a debate in Mr. Harvey’s class. The school psychologist and social worker told police Wes was frustrated that classmates didn’t take his side during the debate, which was about a current news topic. Investigators spoke to Harvey, who recounted the same. He said Wes had not made any alarming statements in class. All told police they believed Wes had later calmed down. The report doesn’t mention any comments Harvey made.
But Wes’ friend Allie Chenoweth told the Times that, not long before, Harvey had humiliated Wes. She recalled Wes telling her that the teacher said he looked like a “psychopath” and someone who would shoot up the school. Wes, she said, also told her he was infuriated about a Columbine shooting lesson because Harvey made offensive remarks about mental illness. The lesson spanned several classes and included a debate, she said.
Wes didn’t report Harvey because he’d heard others had complained and weren’t taken seriously, Allie said.
Allie saw Wes before his final period with Harvey. He’d planned to listen to music in the bathroom, but she encouraged him not to skip.
She talked with him again after Harvey’s class. Wes was upset but wouldn’t share details, she said.
The district would not provide information about Harvey’s teaching curriculum or answer questions about the debate.
After Wes’ death, several students told Tiffany about the shooter comment. She worried Harvey’s behavior could have contributed and asked Principal Woods for an investigation. It’s unclear if anyone followed up. None of the records provided to the Times mentions her complaint or any subsequent inquiry.
“Even if you didn’t believe me or felt like it had no merit,” Tiffany said, “that conversation still should have been documented.”
Allie hoped Tiffany’s report would prompt someone to hold Harvey accountable.
But the next school year, she had Mr. Harvey’s class. She, too, sat through the Columbine lesson. Everything Wes had told her made sense.
It’s rare for students with an abusive teacher to say anything. Even to their parents. When school officials get complaints, like the ones Wharton students made, experts say they should know they’re likely seeing “the tip of the iceberg.”
One of the main reasons students don’t report misconduct, Fredrick said, is they don’t believe anything will happen. Another reason is fear.
Six students told the Times they witnessed Harvey’s troubling behavior but didn’t speak up because they were scared or felt uncertain about reporting him. Arja, the district spokesperson, said schools teach students how to report misconduct and encourage them to do so.
Students said Harvey’s focus on picking apart identities was especially damaging.
When Zariyah “Z” Grover would walk into Harvey’s class, she braced for him to demean her. Either because she was Black, bisexual or a woman. She had his class in 2017 as a freshman.
“His remarks to the LGBTQ community were probably the most hurtful to me personally,” she said. “Because I was still questioning and trying to figure myself out.”
Two students recalled Harvey saying in class that it would be disrespectful for gay people to marry in churches.
“It was pretty disturbing,” said Krishna Lal, who also had Harvey in 2017. “I was in the closet at the time, and I didn’t have any sort of confidence in who I was.”
For Sarah Sinteff, it began to feel pointless to try in Harvey’s class.
Sarah, who graduated in 2019, said history was her favorite subject — until Harvey. She said he told her he didn’t like her dyed hair or the gauges in her ears. She said he told her she looked like a “low-life dropout” who wasn’t going anywhere. And, she said, he told her that her parents didn’t care about her.
Often, she just skipped class. Eventually, she said, she failed.
Fredrick, the bullying expert, said research has shown even students who witness bullying can have higher levels of stress and anxiety, similar to witnessing a natural disaster.
“I feel stressed for these students I know are going to his class tomorrow,” she said.
Wharton High senior Onyx Udugba’s experience in Harvey’s class over two years echoes past complaints: The teacher made negative remarks about her clothing, taunted a transgender classmate, taught that men were better than women, purposefully frightened her by slamming textbooks on her desk when she’d fallen asleep, and singled her out because of her race, she said.
Harvey knew Onyx was African, and because of her heritage, he tried to mimic an African language, she said. He would make a “tsk, tsk” sound to get her attention. “Like I was some type of dog or something,” she said.
Each time he made the noise, she said, students would stare.
She didn’t tell school officials how uncomfortable she felt. She said she needed to pass the class. And Mr. Harvey was in charge.
About this story
Reporter Bethany Barnes received a tip outlining concerns about Hillsborough County Public School’s handling of Wharton High teacher Todd Harvey after publishing an investigation in 2021 into the treatment of sexual harassment complaints at Blake High. Barnes requested Harvey’s personnel files from the school district, which spanned the late 1990s until 2017 and contained multiple accusations and reprimands. Barnes counted each time a student raised a unique issue in the records. In some cases, a single investigation or complaint contained multiple allegations. Barnes found that, over a 17-year period, at least 23 unique accusations were detailed in the district records.
Barnes interviewed 13 current and former Wharton students and obtained records from Melanie Copeland’s mother. Barnes requested and reviewed the district’s policies related to teacher complaints, harassment, bullying and discrimination. She also reviewed the case with three experts: Stephanie Fredrick, the associate director of the University at Buffalo Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention; Patrice W. Glenn Jones, the executive director of online education and programs at Alabama State University who has studied teacher bullying; and Nan Stein, a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women who has spent more than 40 years studying sexual harassment in schools.
In reporting on the death of Wes Acierno, we reviewed police records and his social media posts. The police record noted that, not long before his death, he began telling some friends he was transgender and asking them to call him Wes and to use male pronouns. On Tumblr, he used male pronouns and described himself as a transboy named Wes Acierno. At the time of his death, many who loved him knew him by his birth name and many still do. In the absence of being able to ask Wes how he wanted to be identified, the Times consulted guidelines from the Trans Journalist Association, the Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD. The Times also spoke with a trans journalist as well as people from three groups that advocate for trans rights.