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Hillsborough school district probes Wharton High teacher allegations

The inquiry follows a Times story that showed Todd Harvey bullied students for decades.
 
Melanie Copeland reported Wharton High teacher Todd Harvey for racial harassment in 2017. Years later, after a Times story brought to light that the district didn't retain her complaint, an investigator is asking about the allegations.
Melanie Copeland reported Wharton High teacher Todd Harvey for racial harassment in 2017. Years later, after a Times story brought to light that the district didn't retain her complaint, an investigator is asking about the allegations. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]
Published May 24, 2023|Updated May 24, 2023

Hillsborough County Public Schools is investigating allegations related to a Wharton High teacher after a Tampa Bay Times story revealed he’d ridiculed students for decades.

Five former Wharton students and parents told the Tampa Bay Times they’ve been interviewed by a district investigator about allegations they made against social studies teacher Todd Harvey. The investigation comes after the Hillsborough County NAACP and Wharton High community members demanded action and accountability in response to the Times story.

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

The district has not publicly acknowledged the investigation and its scope is unclear.

School board member Jessica Vaughn said she couldn’t comment on any investigation. But she said she has asked for clarity on district policies to make sure all reports are documented and taken seriously.

“I am extremely frustrated that (there) may be students who filed reports which were not handled correctly, and I will work to make sure that doesn’t happen going forward,” Vaughn said in an email statement. “If other people, students, parents, or community members have concerns, they can contact me directly and I will follow up with them.”

Tanya Arja, a Hillsborough schools spokesperson, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Superintendent Addison Davis and all six of the other school board members also did not respond to inquiries from the Times. The district investigator declined to comment when reached by phone.

Hillsborough has previously defended its handling of Harvey and indicated records in student files contradicted the Times’ reporting.

The district’s public response has frustrated former students and parents who reported issues with Harvey and shared their stories with the Times. But privately, over the past several weeks, a district investigator has contacted them, asking about their experiences and whether there should be any written documentation of their complaints.

Parent Sharon Brown is among those who have been interviewed. Brown’s daughter Melanie Copeland was featured in the Times’ initial story and detailed how Harvey insulted her biracial identity in 2017. Copeland reported Harvey, but the district didn’t retain records related to her complaint.

Brown spoke at a school board meeting in March, imploring the district to take action and investigate not only Harvey but its own handling of the teacher. She said the district’s history of fumbling complaints makes it difficult to trust the current investigation — especially when officials have not publicly expressed concern about the allegations. Brown said the investigator told her to make a public records request if she wanted to know the outcome of the investigation.

“I don’t know if they’re just doing it to say, ‘Well, we did what you asked, now go away,’” Brown said.

Sydney Grant, a 2018 Wharton graduate who was also interviewed by the investigator, said the district should validate students who’ve complained by publicly acknowledging the investigation. Not doing so fuels the belief that students aren’t taken seriously, she said.

Grant spoke out about her own experiences after the initial Times story. She said she reported Harvey multiple times, including for racial harassment, but her complaints appeared to go nowhere. They also were not included in Harvey’s files.

Grant said the district needs to rebuild public trust by being transparent.

“Coming out publicly and saying there is an investigation being done,” Grant said, “would say, ‘We are taking this matter seriously.’”