Editorial: For too long, district failed to remove teacher

Published April 30, 2014

It should not take 14 years, the state education commissioner and a public shaming to force out a Pinellas County teacher who routinely groped students and made sexually suggestive comments. Richard Wisemiller, a science teacher at Tarpon Springs Middle School, should have been fired years ago. It is inconceivable that so many girls experienced or knew about this abuse and that every teacher and administrator was blind to it. There should be no tolerance for such exploitation, and the school district should re-examine this gross failure of supervision and leadership.

Wisemiller was considered the front-runner to be the next president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association until the Tampa Bay Times' Lisa Gartner reported his long history of aggressive, sexually charged behavior toward female students. He lost the union election, the state is finally going after his teaching certificate and Wisemiller is out of the classroom and plans to retire. Frankly, that sounds too good for him.

The record shows this man spent years using his position of authority as a middle school teacher to grope and fondle young girls. As far back as 2000 at Dunedin Highland Middle School, Wisemiller was accused of pushing a seventh-grader's bra strap and shirt off her shoulder. Among the other incidents that continued through March and are listed in school district documents: pinching midriffs, sliding his fingers into the waistband of pants, touching breasts and lower backs. This man had no business being in a classroom or around children in any environment.

Yet Wisemiller was poised to head the teachers' union and received positive job evaluations. The union ought to be embarrassed for not checking his background, and the school district owes an explanation to parents. It should question how a Tarpon Springs Middle School assistant principal could write in the last evaluation that "Mr. Wisemiller demonstrates the principles of professional conduct" and, "He takes a genuine interest in his students.'' Public education policy emphasizes honest job evaluations and accountability, and this situation flunks both standards.

What does it take to fire a teacher in Pinellas County? How many times does the state have to review a disciplinary record this long and this egregious before it moves to revoke a teaching certificate? In this case, it took three times and a newspaper report.

Imagine being a parent of one of the girls who were exploited and abused by Wisemiller. Imagine being a parent of a girl in any of his classes over the years and wondering now what might have happened. The Pinellas school district has more than 100,000 students and 7,700 teachers. Among the many good teachers, there will be those who perform poorly, act inappropriately or break the law. But this sexual misconduct occurred for years, and a vigorous system of evaluations and supervision should have rooted this problem out long ago. The failure by the district and the state to act sooner resulted in more middle school girls being groped and traumatized, and Pinellas families deserve better.