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School district faces calls for investigation as more accuse Tampa teacher of bullying

Former students, parents and the NAACP ask for scrutiny on how Hillsborough schools document complaints.
 
Austen Peffley is speaking out about disturbing comments made by a Wharton High teacher after a Tampa Bay Times investigation into similar complaints.
Austen Peffley is speaking out about disturbing comments made by a Wharton High teacher after a Tampa Bay Times investigation into similar complaints. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published March 25, 2023|Updated March 25, 2023

The Hillsborough County NAACP and Wharton High community members are calling for an investigation after a Tampa Bay Times story detailed how a teacher ridiculed students for decades.

Parents and students took to social media, wrote messages to school officials and attended the latest school board meeting to express outrage over Hillsborough County Public Schools’ handling of complaints against Wharton High social studies teacher Todd Harvey.

Several are sharing their stories publicly for the first time to demand accountability, including an 18-year-old who had Harvey’s class in 2020 and said it contributed to the teen developing an eating disorder.

The Times reviewed Harvey’s personnel records and found that they contained at least 23 allegations against him, including that he performed a Nazi salute, mocked Latino students and called a transgender student a slur. Over the years, school officials threatened to fire Harvey. But they didn’t and his behavior continued.

He remains in the classroom at Wharton.

Related: A Tampa teen was racially harassed by her teacher. He’s bullied students for years.

The Times also found that Hillsborough kept spotty records of complaints. And since the story published, more former students have come forward and said they also reported comments that Harvey made about their race, bodies and identities — sometimes repeatedly — but their complaints weren’t included in his personnel records provided to the Times.

Failing to properly document serious concerns, like racism, signals to students, “You don’t matter,” said Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP branch.

Lewis said that school officials should have zero tolerance for racism and that the district needs to investigate to ensure what happened to Harvey’s students doesn’t happen again.

“The school district that we have just doesn’t take this seriously enough,” Lewis said. “It’s trauma.”

Publicly, district leaders have been silent. All seven school board members either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to comment for this story. Superintendent Addison Davis did not respond to interview requests. Harvey also did not respond to a request for comment.

Parent Sharon Brown attended Tuesday’s school board meeting to demand that the district act. Her daughter, Melanie Copeland, detailed in the Times investigation how Harvey insulted her biracial identity.

“He didn’t just call her a mutt,” Brown said during emotional testimony to the board. “He harassed her.”

Parent Sharon Brown speaks at a school board meeting about how her daughter, Melanie Copeland, was racially harassed by her teacher.
Parent Sharon Brown speaks at a school board meeting about how her daughter, Melanie Copeland, was racially harassed by her teacher. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Brown and her daughter said they reported Harvey’s actions at the time and now want answers about why the district did not retain records of the complaint.

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“I’m not going to stop until somebody is held accountable,” Brown told the board.

Others called for action on social media. Someone started an online petition to demand Harvey’s firing and an outside investigation into the district. Current and former students, whose circumstances were not chronicled in the Times story, also shared their experiences. “He just called me stupid,” one post on Instagram read. “I SUFFERED WITH THIS MAN FOR YEARS,” read another.

Skyler Martinez, a sophomore who is currently in Harvey’s class, urged classmates on Instagram to protest.

“What I definitely want is the school district to remove him from all classrooms,” Martinez said. “Students shouldn’t have to deal with all that.”

The emotional toll, former students say, is long-lasting.

Bridgette Pilgrim, who graduated from Wharton in 2008, said she has very few memories from high school. But she remembers Harvey.

A yearbook photo of Wharton High social studies teacher Todd Harvey.
A yearbook photo of Wharton High social studies teacher Todd Harvey. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]

During one class, Harvey had students play a game and spell a racial slur, then pointed to Pilgrim and laughed, she said. Another time in private conversation, she said, he told her she was worthless but attractive, so she could marry rich or become a prostitute.

“It’s been 15 years, but this is something that is literally stained in my memory,” Pilgrim said. “I’ll never forget how it felt.”

She said she was too scared to speak out as a teenager but wanted to add her voice to the demand for change.

“I was literally so shocked to see he was still doing this,” Pilgrim said. “There’s way too many people complaining and nothing being done.”

Three former students and a parent contacted the Times after the story ran and said they also reported Harvey but their complaints aren’t documented in the records that the district provided to the newsroom. The parent said she had her daughter transferred out of Harvey’s class around 2006 after he embarrassed her in front of her peers. A 2021 graduate said she tracked Harvey’s offensive comments in a notebook that she gave the principal her freshman year.

“I know I reported him at least three times,” said Sydney Grant, a 2018 Wharton graduate.

Sydney Grant, a 2018 Wharton High graduate, said she reported her teacher Todd Harvey multiple times.
Sydney Grant, a 2018 Wharton High graduate, said she reported her teacher Todd Harvey multiple times. [ Courtesy of Sydney Grant ]

Grant said Harvey repeatedly asked inappropriate questions about the fact that one of her parents was Black and the other was white. After she broke her nose playing softball, she said, he remarked that it was a “free nose job” and she would look more like her race.

Grant said she reported Harvey for racial harassment. Separately, she said, she also filled out a witness statement about a time she saw Harvey put his hand up a girl’s skirt and yank it down to demonstrate that she didn’t meet dress code. She said she never heard back.

“It not being documented is a big slap in our faces,” she said.

Austen Peffley, who took Harvey’s class in 2020, said they also made multiple reports about the teacher.

Peffley said they were angry when they read the Times investigation and realized their complaints apparently weren’t part of Harvey’s records.

Each day, Peffley said, they’d dreaded Harvey’s comments about their body. Peffley said Harvey told them they looked like a model. Once, Peffley said, Harvey added that if they were less skinny, “guys would be happy to have you.”

“When he was talking about my weight, all I wanted to do was to get skinnier, so he’d stop looking at me,” Peffley said. The teacher’s focus on their body, they said, helped trigger an eating disorder that they still struggle to manage.

“Before Harvey, I was perfectly fine with my body.” Peffley said. “But after Harvey, that’s when I realized that people are noticing me. Older men are noticing me, and they think I look weird.”

Austen Peffley, 18, is angry Todd Harvey is still teaching and wants to know why their repeated complaints weren’t documented in personnel records provided to the Times.
Austen Peffley, 18, is angry Todd Harvey is still teaching and wants to know why their repeated complaints weren’t documented in personnel records provided to the Times. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

And then there were Harvey’s comments degrading the LGBTQ+ community, Peffley said.

“I was heavily in the closet both in my gender and in my sexuality,” said Peffley, who is nonbinary. “I started cutting class.”

They said they reported Harvey’s homophobic comments and remarks about their body — complaints that seemed to go nowhere.

“They said we’ll talk about it later,” Peffley said. “And then, they never did.”