After teacher leaves, few standards for helping students

Shawn Siede, 42, resigned.
Shawn Siede, 42, resigned.
Published Mar. 29, 2013

LARGO — The teacher's career ended with the chicken-scratch of young teens, with spelling errors, awkward sentences and crooked, crossed-out words:

"There have been times Mr. Siede has called me stupid at times."

Another: "He says … that we are going to fail 8th grade."

Another: "He pushes us into the wall when we go into his room. He will call us Jerks. He will go and push our stuff off our desk. Sometimes when we are writing he will bump into us so it ruins the word we are writting."

Pinellas County Schools collected these and other witness statements for an investigation that ended last month when history teacher Shawn Siede resigned from Osceola Middle School. Thirteen- and 14-year-old students told the investigator that Siede, 42, was physically and emotionally abusive toward them.

Much has been said about removing bad teachers from schools: It's too difficult, it's too easy. But there is a protocol.

Almost no one has charted territory on how to make sure the children they taught are okay.

• • •

The teacher's career began with letters of recommendation: tidy, typed paragraphs on the letterhead of educators who vouched for his "sensitivity" and thought him "committed to excellence."

In the spring of 2004, Siede was a student-teacher at Southside Fundamental Middle School. "Mr. Siede exudes 'with-itness,' the ability to relate to students in their teen years," his supervising teacher wrote.

Pinellas County Schools hired Siede that fall, and over the course of nearly a decade he taught hundreds of students at Lealman Intermediate School, Gibbs High School and finally Osceola Middle.

His evaluations show that he mostly met expectations for fostering "openness" and "respect" in his classroom.

But in a May 2010 evaluation, the Gibbs assistant principal said Siede had made "abrasive comments" to students in his intensive math class.

That summer, Siede received an involuntary transfer to Osceola Middle. According to documents from Osceola students and administrators spanning three school years, this is what it was like to be in Shawn Siede's class:

He pinched and squeezed shoulders and would sometimes push children's heads onto their desks. He pushed them when they walked into class and tripped them in the halls. He would put an elbow in their backs or chase them until they fell. He would knock things off their desks, or the pencils out of their hands.

He would call the children stupid, say they were jerks. He would say that they were going to fail out of school. He would tell them that all they'd ever achieve would be a job at McDonald's.

In January, an assistant principal heard him screaming through the walls: "Everyone should freaking know this!" The administrator sent Siede an email telling him that Osceola Middle strives for a "3 to 1 positive to negative ratio."

Reached on his cellphone this week, Siede declined to comment. "It's not worth it," he said.

Siede resigned amid the district's investigation. But his students are still there, still in the eighth grade.

For all its policies and protocols for removing a toxic teacher, Pinellas does not have explicit standards for what support it offers students mistreated by those same teachers.

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But this is not a lapse on the part of Pinellas. The Times contacted half a dozen education and policy experts who said few if any national standards exist — but should.

"Something like this can make the student left wondering if what the teacher is doing or saying to them has some truth," says Eric Storch, a professor of psychology in the University of South Florida's Department of Pediatrics. "I liken it to being traumatized: You have the perception that the world is a safe place, and then that perception gets shattered."

Eric Sparks, assistant director of the American School Counselor Association, said schools make individual decisions after an abusive teacher leaves the classroom. While he said counselors make good judgements about children's needs, Sparks allowed that the reaction can be inconsistent from school to school.

Osceola Middle principal Susan Arsenault declined to be interviewed for this story. In a statement, she said the school prioritized academics after Siede resigned.

"We focused on maintaining instructional momentum for the students," she said, adding that the school made a guidance counselor available "to address any of their concerns" about Siede.

• • •

There had been times during the school year when students tried to leave Siede's class. Their parents called the first month of school, upset about the way he treated their children.

But the kids couldn't get out.

An assistant principal told Siede in an email that other teachers' classes would get too big if children transferred. He asked Siede to call the parents, to work through their concerns.

Five months later, the teacher passed out paper to the students in his class. It was days before he would resign. He told the children to write down one of two words: "stay" or "go." This was all hypothetical, he told them. But, if given the chance, would they want to be in someone else's history class?

Some wrote that they would like to stay, adding drawings, smiles and hearts, exclamation points.

The other children — the ones who wanted to leave — didn't spend energy on such decorations. They just wrote that they wanted to go.