Hillsborough reprimands Wharton High teacher accused of decades of bullying

The school district launched an investigation after a Times story. It has kept educator Todd Harvey in the classroom.
A yearbook photo of Wharton High School teacher Todd Harvey.
A yearbook photo of Wharton High School teacher Todd Harvey. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]
Published Nov. 4|Updated Nov. 4

Hillsborough County Public Schools reprimanded a veteran Wharton High teacher after conducting an internal review in response to a Tampa Bay Times investigation that detailed how he ridiculed students for decades.

Todd Harvey remained in the classroom while a district investigator looked into allegations that the teacher made racist, sexist and homophobic remarks.

In a September letter, the district informed Harvey that its inquiry found “a perception existed” among some students that he would “interject personal commentary” that made them uncomfortable.

“I cautioned you that perceptions are important, and you must create an environment conducive to learning for all students,” wrote Kelly King, executive officer for Hillsborough Schools professional standards. “Further, it is critical that personal views are kept separate from classroom instruction.”

The district’s investigation, King wrote, also found that Harvey had “used poor judgment” by hitting the desks of sleeping students with objects to wake them up.

Ultimately, Harvey faced few consequences: The district required him to complete an ethics training course in September.

The 22-page investigative report will be sent to the Florida Department of Education’s Professional Practices Services, which regulates teacher licenses and reviews instructor discipline cases.

The Times’ investigation, published earlier this year, found that Harvey’s personnel records documented at least 23 allegations against him, including that he performed a Nazi salute, mocked Latino students and called a transgender student a slur. School officials threatened to fire Harvey if his behavior continued, but he remained in the classroom.

The newsroom also found that Hillsborough kept incomplete records of complaints against the teacher. After the initial story, more former students came forward and said they reported Harvey’s behavior, but their complaints weren’t included in the personnel records provided to the Times.

The stories revealed that several students witnessed Harvey’s troubling behavior but didn’t speak up because they were scared or felt uncertain about reporting him — which, experts told the Times, is common.

The district’s investigator could not substantiate several of the allegations included in the Times’ stories because some students couldn’t be reached for interviews or could not remember exactly to whom they reported Harvey’s behavior, according to the letter.

Additionally, some records of complaints — such as written statements — no longer existed in the district’s files, the letter said. The investigative report doesn’t include any findings about the district’s reporting or records retention system.

Tanya Arja, a district spokesperson, defended the district’s record-keeping and its handling of Harvey in a statement to the Times. Arja said the report found “many discrepancies and some outright contradictions” with the Times’ stories. But Arja wouldn’t provide specifics, and the district’s report doesn’t outline inaccuracies in the newsroom’s reporting.

Arja said that Wharton faculty members who had close relationships with students relayed that “none of the students ever came to them with concerns about Mr. Harvey.”

Hillsborough’s investigation spanned five months and included 18 interviews with parents, current and former students, administrators, school staff and Harvey. The district collected seven written statements from other school staff who said they hadn’t heard about any issues with Harvey.

Former students who spoke out about Harvey expressed frustration with the district’s investigation and what they described as a lack of meaningful accountability. They said they wished the investigation had also probed the district’s handling of complaints.

“Even though we did come forward, I feel like they’re blaming us,” said Austen Peffley, a former Wharton student.

Peffley, 19, said they had Harvey’s class in 2020 and that he had fixated on their body and made homophobic comments. The investigator didn’t reach out to Peffley but noted details of their experience in the report. Arja said the investigator instead tried unsuccessfully to reach Peffley’s “legal guardians.”

Austen Peffley spoke out about their experience with Wharton High teacher Todd Harvey after a Tampa Bay Times investigation into similar complaints.
Austen Peffley spoke out about their experience with Wharton High teacher Todd Harvey after a Tampa Bay Times investigation into similar complaints. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Peffley said they wrote a statement about Harvey’s behavior, but Hillsborough has no record of it — an experience reflected by at least five other students in the district’s report who said they made verbal or written complaints about the teacher.

Their allegations included: Harvey putting his hand up a girl’s skirt and yanking it down to show she wasn’t following dress code; Harvey saying “girls with fat asses can’t run”; and Harvey telling a biracial student who broke her nose to consider the injury a free nose job so she could “look like the race you claim to be.”

Parent Sharon Brown told the investigator that in 2017 her family formally complained that Harvey insulted her daughter’s biracial identity in front of the class by calling her a “mutt.” She provided emails she sent the school at the time, which mention that her daughter wrote a statement. A former classmate also recalled writing a statement, the report says.

The district told the Times it doesn’t have copies of the records. The investigator found that Harvey completed a training course on social and emotional development around the time of the complaint, but it was unclear if the training was related.

Melanie Copeland felt unheard as a freshman at Wharton High after she reported a racist incident involving her teacher.
Melanie Copeland felt unheard as a freshman at Wharton High after she reported a racist incident involving her teacher. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]

The district’s investigation also included current students who said they had had negative experiences with Harvey.

One emailed a school counselor after reading the Times’ stories and said, “I have been a victim of his cruel and standoffish nature.”

Another student told the district investigator Harvey made derogatory comments about her clothing, singled her out because of her race and taunted a transgender student. She said she didn’t report Harvey because she feared doing so would affect her grade.

In an interview with the investigator, Harvey denied the numerous allegations, saying statements were taken out of context or untrue. Asked about allegations regarding how he treated transgender students, Harvey said “he did not understand or know what transgender was,” the report said.

“I’ve seen everything in 25 years,” Harvey told the investigator. “I don’t care what you are, who you are.”

He estimated 7,500 students had gone through his classroom.