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School Board reassigns employees involved in classroom brawl

Posted on Tuesday, January 21, 2014 at 10:01 pm

By Ken Jackson
Staff Writer

The Osceola County School Board voted Tuesday night to reassign with pay two classroom assistants who are alleged to have allowed a situation to escalate into a beating inside a classroom last week.

After voting down the initial motion by a 3-2 vote to suspend without pay, the board passed an amended motion to reassign, 4-1, with Jay Wheeler casting the dissenting vote.

Kristie Gilmore and Mona Sagar will face a termination hearing on Feb. 16, and they still face charges from Osceola County Sheriff’s Office of child neglect. The two paraprofessionals were present at Tuesday’s meeting, but because of that pending litigation, left without making any comment.

A handful of teachers, wearing buttons with the question, “Am I next?” also attended to support Gilmore and Sagar. Osceola County Educators Association president Apryle Jackson also made an embattled plea in their defense to the board.

According to the Sheriff’s Office report, deputies responded Jan. 10 to reports of an incident in an Exceptional Student Education (ESE) classroom the day prior at Discovery Intermediate School in Kissimmee that a student recorded on her cell phone. Detectives obtained videos of a male student kicking another male student and said to the victim, “I will stomp your chest in and kill you.”

Based on the video, deputies determined Gilmore and Sagar were assigned to supervise the class and observed the incident without taking action. After detectives said the two “refused to cooperate with the investigation,” they were arrested on child neglect charges.

Prior to arrest, Gilmore and Sagar were removed from the school, and based on the investigation recommended suspension without pay, something Jackson said happened without due process.

“In the paraprofessional contract, there are steps that lead up to termination,” Jackson said. “These are not the first teachers who have been falsely accused. Our request is for due process.”

She said that teachers in ESE classrooms with students with emotional disabilities are often in danger in those classrooms, especially when the teacher or one of their assistants are not in attendance.

“I’ve been talking about this for three years. Student safety doesn’t exist in those conditions,” Jackson said. “And policy is that unless you are in eminent danger, you can’t restrain a student. We have 47 cases of violence where teachers could not restrain.”

She said that by the time Sagar had reached her radio to report the incident, it was over, something that Sagar, who stands barely 5 feet tall, reiterated in her comments to the Board.

“I did tell them to stop,” she said. “Understand that violence is an everyday occurrence. We call, and sometimes administrators don’t respond.”

Gilmore said using the student’s cell phone video as the only evidence would be a lacking investigation.

“What you see on the tape is not all of what this student is capable of doing,” she said to the Board.

Tammy Cope-Otterson, School District director of human resources, reported to the board that the Sheriff’s Office saw the evidence and chose to press child neglect charges. That, along with the evidence, represented “gross misconduct,” which led to Superintendent Melba Luciano to recommend suspension without pay.

But Board Member Tom Long said the action was being recommended after most people had only seen a portion of the video shown by the media.

“We don’t have all the facts. We have a partial video clip made by a student who was encouraging it on,” he said. “Being in expulsion hearings where things seem cut and dry and they aren’t, I don’t see the harm in offering the due process of a complete investigation.”

Board Member Barbara Horn asked aloud why the student was allowed to stay in that classroom after hearing OCEA Executive Director Michelle Vanderley report the student in question had nearly 30 incidents requiring administrative intervention, including 10 reports of physical violence.

“We have failed these two employees,” she said after voting against suspension with Long and Board Chairman Tim Weisheyer.

Wheeler voted for the suspension and against the later motion to reassign Gilmore and Sagar with pay, noting that the Sheriff’s Department saw fit to file child neglect charges, a rare occurrence. But he nonetheless asked fellow board members to be thorough during next month’s termination hearing.

“I want to see the video, and I encourage every board member to do so,” he said.