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Company in charge of Hillsborough substitute teachers weighs in on problem cases

Kelly Educational Staffing, the company that fills substitute teacher shifts for the Hillsborough County school system, says it works to get to the bottom of allegations against employees, treat them fairly and address problems. [istockphoto.com]
Published May 25, 2018

TAMPA — The company hired by the Hillsborough County School District to fill more than 170,000 substitute teaching shifts every year is defending its record, saying it works to get to the bottom of allegations against employees, treat them fairly and address problems.

"When we bring somebody in, I think it's important to get the objective facts," said Nicola Soares, vice president and managing director of Kelly Educational Staffing.

"Then decisions are made. Is this employee counseled, coached or terminated? And then we go from there."

Her comments came during an interview with Kelly officials this week, the company's first since a Tampa Bay Times report in January that detailed problems with hundreds of substitutes accused of everything from sleeping in class to making sexually suggestive comments to students.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Napping, name-calling and stealing: Who's subbing for your kids' teachers in Hillsborough?

The problems had been documented in "Do Not Use" forms in which principals complained about individual substitute teachers and requested that they not be assigned again to their schools. Some parents and students also accused the substitutes of physical violence, neglect, and bizarre behavior that included weeping and outbursts of temper.

In the fallout that followed, school superintendent Jeff Eakins flagged 38 substitutes whose performance or behavior had raised particular concern. Records provided by Kelly and the district show that all but eight of those teachers were no longer working in district schools.

Fourteen were no longer taking assignments when the company answered a demand letter from school district attorney Jeff Gibson in December. Of the remaining 24, two were hired as district teachers after they were cleared of the allegations against them. And six are still active substitutes, having logged than 1,000 work days among them without incident.

"The subs that continue on do so because they love it," said Janelle Weaver, Kelly's area manager based in Tampa.

The substitutes, who earn little more than minimum wage, are recruited, trained and supervised by the labor firm, which charges a 33 percent markup to pay for its services.

District officials, since 2014, have found it is much easier to fill vacancies with the outsourcing arrangement than under the previous system of using their own employees. The cost: about $13 million a year.

Eakins, after a closed-door meeting with the company on May 4, emerged satisfied that the district's relationship with Kelly is on a better footing than a year ago, when allegations against a Shields Middle School substitute made it clear that officials needed to pay closer attention to these more than 2,000 contracted employees.

Students accused the Shields substitute of masturbating in class. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office did not charge him, after inconsistent statements from the students they interviewed.

But district leaders acknowledged they needed to be aware and involved much sooner when problems such as these arise.

Among the changes: The district now retains copies of the "Do Not Use" forms filled out by principals. The forms have fewer details than they used to, however. After completing a checklist, the principals are now encouraged to call Kelly's local office directly and discuss the details.

The new system has less written documentation, so it cuts back on what the public can find out about problems with substitute teachers. But district leaders say much is accomplished through regular phone calls between the district's human resources manager, Dena Collins, and the staff at Kelly.

"Sometimes they'll call us first, then we're calling Kelly; sometimes Janelle will call us and give us a heads up," Collins said.

After a complaint comes in about a substitute, "we deactivate them immediately," Weaver said. "We take them out of the system, we take them out of any future assignments until we can do our investigation. It's probably a week or two weeks. They're without income."

Even if they are cleared, Weaver and Soares said, they are not sent back to the school where the complaint originated.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: After months, no action on Hillsborough's substitute teacher problem

In the interview, Kelly provided a rundown of the 24 substitutes who were returned to duty after they were accused of wrongdoing between 2015 and 2017.

Six resigned, Kelly officials said. Nine were fired. Of those nine, five had not worked within 150 days, a company requirement to avoid having to put an employee through a new round of background screenings; and four were dismissed for performance issues.

One case, involving a substitute accused of refusing to cover some classes during his work day, is still under investigation.

Those fired included a substitute described as smiling and "touching himself" while looking at his phone at Burnett Middle School. That specific allegation was ruled unfounded, but the teacher also was allowing his cell phone to ring in class and had "classroom management issues."

Kelly also fired a substitute who was described as being confrontational and sleeping on the job at Alonso High School, and a substitute who was caught sleeping and was accused of making his students pray at Davidsen Middle School.

In the last case, the substitute vehemently denied making students pray, but said he had them stand for a moment of silence.

There were cases in which the substitutes wrote long letters in their defense.

A substitute who is still active defended his decision to throw a student's bag of Skittles on the floor at Tampa Bay Technical High School, saying the student was throwing the candies at him while he tried to teach. Kelly counseled the teacher about touching the students' personal belongings, and since then he has worked successfully at 30 schools.

There were also conflicting stories when two female students at Sickles High School accused a male substitute of trying to contact them on social media after making a suggestive remark in class.

The teacher denied trying to contact them on social media, and there was no proof. He acknowledged that he asked one of the girls to stop dancing in class, telling her it could be distracting and that he, too, could get in trouble if she continued.

He said he later realized how his statement could be misinterpreted, and that he meant she was distracting the other students from their work.

The substitute was counseled and reminded of a policy about social media. He was later fired because of the 150-day policy.

Kelly has maintained that the vast majority of its employees are successful on the job. And, Soares said, those who are cleared after an investigation typically go on to work hundreds of shifts without incident.

She credited the company's "counseling and the coaching, the communication, the tightness of that. Maybe it's a clarification of something and we get their attention on it, and that's obviously part of our process. If it's an incident that's very egregious, they are terminated."

The district also provided updates on five former teachers who resigned while under investigation for wrongdoing, and later returned to the classroom through the Kelly system.

Of those five, two are still working as substitutes. The other three either were fired or left the company.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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