Investigator Arden Farley breaks ranks with Okaloosa County School District to tell his story following arrest on felony charges related to alleged child abuse at Kenwood Elementary.

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FORT WALTON BEACH — Arden Farley refuses to "be a scapegoat" in the child abuse controversy swirling in the Okaloosa County School District.

In wide-ranging interviews Thursday, the district trainer and School Board candidate said he should not be held accountable for failure to report alleged child abuse of a special needs non-verbal student.

"My position is that I'm not going to be a scapegoat for administration not doing what I handed them," Farley said. "Everything I did was in accordance to School Board policy."

One day prior to Farley, 70, of Niceville, choosing to break ranks with the district and "tell the truth," he was arrested on four counts of felony failure to report child abuse in connection with a June 2016 child abuse investigation at Kenwood Elementary School.

Farley, the lead investigator in the case, confirmed former Kenwood teacher Marlynn Stillions acted inappropriately toward students, including then 4-year-old special needs student Noah Perillo.

In his official findings, Farley confirmed allegations that Stillions used a bottle to spray students with vinegar, videotaped a student and used her foot to push Noah along a lunchroom aisle. It also was confirmed she withheld food from students, including Noah, ate the food herself and also took the students' meals home.

READ the investigative report >>

Farley said at the time of the investigation, however, while taking both negative and positive accounts of Stillions into consideration, he "truly thought it was a code of ethics violation" and not child abuse.

"I understand child abuse because I teach it," Farley said. "In the definition of child abuse ... it says the intent to harm or hurt or whatever. Now, this is just my interpretation of what they're saying. What we have here is a teacher who appears not to have the intent, but still is out of bounds with how she is interacting with these kids."

Who's accountable?

Chapter 827 of the 2016 Florida Statutes states neglect of a child includes "a caregiver's failure or omission to provide a child with the care, supervision, and services necessary to maintain the child's physical and mental health, including, but not limited to, food, nutrition ... "

State law requires School District employees to report any suspected child abuse or neglect to the Department of Children and Families Florida Abuse Hotline.

"In hindsight, going back and looking at it now, divorcing myself of all the information given to me, I think a contact (with the hotline) should have been made," Farley said. "It doesn't hurt."

Farley said he still does not believe he is the one responsible for no disciplinary action being taken against Stillions.

He said because he presented the official investigation, including his disciplinary recommendations, to his direct supervisor, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Stacie Smith, he conformed to School Board policy.

"The process that I have is that I’m asked to look into something to make a determination," Farley said. "That’s my role. That’s my only role. Then I turn that over ... to the next level."

School district officials were sent a list of questions from the Daily News by email Friday morning. Late in the afternoon Henry Kelley, the district's spokesman and program director for community affairs, said in an email that there was no planned response from the school district before Monday.

In Farley's official investigation, 19 people related to Kenwood Elementary witnessed firsthand or were aware of Stillions' "inappropriate behavior." None of them was reported to have contacted the Florida Abuse Hotline.

Farley said it begs the question of how many School District employees are responsible for failure to report the suspected child abuse or neglect.

"If you're going to charge someone, and I can justify what I did, who all are you going to charge as mandated reporters?" he asked.

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'It was nauseating'

In addition to Farley's arrest Wednesday, the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office arrested two others in connection with the alleged abuse. 

Stillions, 59, of Destin, was charged with four counts of felony child cruelty. Former Kenwood principal Angelyn Vaughan, 61, of Fort Walton Beach, was charged with three counts of felony failure to report suspected child abuse.

The Sheriff’s Office launched its official investigation in May after Noah’s father, Eddie Perillo, brought the “Investigative Summary Report” to law enforcement. At that time, Perillo, along with Noah's mother Harvest Perillo, said they had no idea Noah was the subject of the child abuse investigation the previous year. The parents are divorced with the father holding full custodial rights.

In a twist of events, Harvest Perillo lived with Stillions one week in July 2016. Around that time, Harvest said Stillions confided in her that she was fired from Kenwood because of a child abuse allegation.

Harvest said she had no idea the child was her son. 

“It was nauseating (when I found out),” Harvest said. “It really ripped at my soul.”

Harvest said she looked to Stillions as a mother figure and even had Stillions tutor Noah in the Perillo's home while the parents were still married. Both parents were always in the home at the time of the tutoring sessions, according to Harvest.

"I trusted that woman," she said. "I confided in her. She'd always say she loved my son. I don't think you can love someone and abuse them like that."

The Sheriff’s Office presented additional warrants to the State Attorney’s Office but they have not been signed.

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A 'timely' defense

In a rebuttal letter to Smith after Farley's final report was filed, Stillions defended herself by stating Farley's investigation did not abide by the Master Contract between the School Board and Okaloosa County Education Association (teachers' union).

Stillions said she was not notified, as the Master Contract instructs, within five working days when an official investigation was launched.

If true, the Master Contract states " ... no official actions can be taken nor official record kept, or referred to at a later time."

Stillions also said the official investigation extended past the 30-day period, with no agreement from both parties for it to be extended. Again, a breach of contract.

READ Stillion's response to the investigation >>

Farley admitted Thursday the investigation extended past that period. However, he said Stillions' Master Contract claims do not stand because, when the investigation began, she chose to abide by School Board policy and not by her union contract.

Farley added for clarity, that because the case actually began as a mediation or intervention (conflict resolution) conducted under School Board policy between two union workers — Stillions and her teacher's aide, Gina Mercer — the Master Contract is "nullified." Mercer's allegations of abuse by Stillions during mediation is what triggered Farley to change the scope to an investigation. Mercer is listed as the grievant in the Investigative Summary Report filed by Farley, not Stillions.

'It's just nonsense'

Smith said in a school district email dated Aug. 1, 2016, that the investigation was not consistent with the terms of the Master Contract. She said the file would not be included in Stillions' personnel record and is not considered an official part of the personnel record.

The email was printed on School District of Okaloosa County letterhead that listed a School Board member, Tim Bryant, who had not yet won election for his seat.

READ Smith's email >>

According to School Board policy, Smith had 10 calendar days after receiving Stillions' report to hold a conference with the Mercer and/or Stillions to hear the appeals.

Farley said the conference never took place.

"If that step in the process was done ... I honestly believe we would not be here today," Farley said. "There's never been a case where timelines have stopped someone from taking action. It's just nonsense."

'It is just unconscionable' 

In the days since he was charged, Farley has been looking for legal representation not tainted by small-town politics.

He holds the school district administration responsible for the entire situation.

Farley's report states the alleged abuse had been going on for years at Kenwood before he was asked to mediate the conflict between Stillions and her teacher's aide. When it became obvious that Mercer's allegations extended past the boundaries of mediation, he began the official investigation.

When his investigation concluded that there were problems, his recommendations were not implemented and Stillions was transferred to Silver Sands School, which serves special needs students.

He said he remained silent when Stillions was successful with a Master Contract defense and then moved to Silver Sands because he was concerned about reprisal from the administration.

"I think they're looking for some type of fall guy and nobody is talking to Farley," he said, referring to himself in the third person. "(They) just want Farley to take the fall for this. I think it is just unconscionable."