The Duval County School Board recently approved suspending or firing several teachers and other school employees, including an art teacher suspended for allegedly pulling a girl’s wrist across a desk and a physical education teacher who had a misdemeanor battery charge as a juvenile.
The actions are part of the district’s ongoing efforts to uphold quality standards in the classroom and around the district, officials said.
In total, the district has fired or terminated 26 teachers since the start of the school year. At least 15 of those teachers were on probation, which lasts a full school year, and six other teachers had abandoned their jobs, which means they didn’t show up for work for at least three consecutive days.
The district hires about 1,200 teachers a year and employs about 8,400 classroom teachers total, so the 26 are a small fraction, said Sonita Young, assistant superintendent of human resources. Duval has about about 100 open teaching positions.
A district committee and Young’s department look into each discipline or departure, in part to ensure would-be teachers are given a chance to improve before dismissal, Young said.
“The reality is there are challenges to filling teacher vacancies,” she said. “But we are not in the business of just dismissing teachers without providing support for them.”
Among the most recent disciplinary cases is Mary Haeberle, an art teacher at Cedar Hills Elementary accused of grabbing a fifth-grade girl’s hand and dragging her partially across a desk.
Haeberle told district investigators that in May she was trying to get the girl to stop playing with a game. She tried to move the game’s container, but the girl still held it, so Haeberle took the girl’s hand off the game and moved it down the table.
But the girl’s grandmother and at least one other student said the girl was pulled across the table. The student told a district investigator that afterward, the girl was holding her wrist as if she had been hurt.
Haeberle said the girl was unhurt and was soon playing and participating in class.
Police and the Department of Children and Families investigated but didn’t file charges. The School Board voted without comment to suspend Haeberle for five days without pay.
This is the fourth time Haeberle was disciplined in two years for her reactions to students misbehaving.
In April 2016 she was reprimanded for putting hands on a student’s mouth. The following September she was reprimanded for taking a child’s arm and moving him from one chair to another, and last February she was reprimanded for taking a student’s wrist to move her from one chair to another.
Haeberle did not return calls for comment this week.
In another, unrelated case, an adaptive physical education teacher was removed from Ribault Middle School in October after the state said his juvenile record makes him unqualified to be a teacher.
Arminius Patterson, 27, had only been a teacher for a few months when school officials told him he could no longer lead PE for students with special needs.
When he was 14, Patterson pleaded guilty to a juvenile misdemeanor charge of battery against a minor. At the time, he was an eighth-grader who had thrown a balled up piece of paper at a female classmate.
He pleaded guilty to the charge and served 45 days in an “outward bound” facility, believing the charge would be expunged, Patterson said this week.
Florida statutes prohibit schools from hiring instructional personnel who have been convicted of certain felonies or misdemeanor offenses, including misdemeanor battery on a minor, Young said.
Young said Patterson made the appropriate disclosures to the district about his juvenile charge, so he is not being punished for withholding information.
Also, she said, he can continue working at Team Up, a district after-school program, because there he is supervised by Communities in Schools. He has held that job for more than two years.
Patterson said he appealed to the state and is awaiting word on whether he can return to teaching special needs students. He said he wants to continue being a positive role model, especially for boys.
“I chose to apply at Ribault,” he said. “I have some of the same issues as these kids, and I can relate to their struggles and hardships.”
Denise Smith Amos: (904) 359-4083