Don Gaetz: “I can tell you a complaint one-fourth as serious as this complaint would come to the attention of the superintendent of schools. If the civil rights or safety of a child had been violated, the superintendent needs to know, must know and must act.”
Speaking at a public workshop Thursday, Okaloosa County Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson appeared to say she had no, or at the least very little, knowledge concerning a 2016 school district investigation of a Kenwood Elementary special education teacher that included allegations of child abuse against a non-verbal autistic child.
“… When all of this broke in the news I asked, and I have an email and a text to prove, that on Aug. 6, 2017 (I asked) to see this report because I had never looked at it,” Jackson told members of the Okaloosa County School Board.
Former Okaloosa County Schools superintendent Don Gaetz had anticipated such a response.
“What did the superintendent know, when did she know it and what did she do about it?” Gaetz asked in a Wednesday text message. “If the end result of all this is the top of the school administration didn’t know anything about this, well that’s even worse.”
Even worse, Gaetz said, than knowing and failing to act in a case where serious code of ethics violations were discovered, violations that have since led to child abuse charges being filed against the teacher in question, Marlynn Stillions.
The charges followed an investigation by the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office this summer that include allegations Stillions kneed a child in the chin and stuck out her foot to trip a child, according to an arrest report. Stillions surrendered Sept. 13 to authorities in Escambia County on a warrant for four felony counts of child abuse without great bodily harm. Arrested that same day was school district investigator Arden Farley and former Kenwood principal Angelyn Vaughan on multiple felony counts for failure to report suspected child abuse.
“If I, as superintendent, would have known, if there had been proof a teacher had done what this teacher is accused of, that teacher would be off the school grounds that day and law enforcement would have been contacted that day. We would not have waited for law enforcement to catch up to us,” Gaetz said.
The story of what happened to Noah Perillo, a now 6-year-old non-verbal autistic boy, might never have been heard had his father, Eddie Perillo, not noticed changes in his son’s behavior and learned from an acquaintance that Stillions had been investigated based on allegations she’d treated his son inappropriately.
That's because for more than a year incriminating findings reported by Farley, the school district investigator in the case, had been declared invalid and stowed away somewhere within the bowels of the district's Human Resources Department.
'I messed up'
In May, Perillo made a public records request and obtained the final version of the report Farley had turned in to Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Stacie Smith on June 17, 2016. Farley’s investigation, which he said focused on finding code of ethics violations and not child abuse, documented physical mistreatment, but nothing to the extent uncovered by the Sheriff’s Office.
Perillo took what he was given and provided copies to the Northwest Florida Daily News and the Sheriff’s Office.
There have been three arrests to this juncture — Stillions, Farley and Vaughan — but the criminal investigation remains open.
The entire scandal surrounding the Stillions investigation has raised questions for former school leaders about Jackson’s leadership.
Farley said Jackson has told him that Smith operates her department basically without oversight. Jackson seemed to confirm that in comments made at the Thursday workshop.
Jackson followed her statement that she had very limited knowledge of the investigation report filed in the Stillions case with a second, contradictory statement. Jackson said Smith had called her in 2016 announcing she had decided to close the case.
“I asked to review it at that point so I could see for myself exactly what was said in that report,” Jackson told the school board. “If something is crazy out there, Stacie calls me. And when she called me on this, and that was a year ago I believe when we had this conversation, she had thoroughly investigated this and spent a great deal of time getting the other side of the story.”
Jackson said she relies heavily on the people around her.
“That’s exactly how we’ve done business for as long as I’ve been in this district. I trust my staff, these people are smart people and they have everyone’s interest at heart,” she said.
Jackson did contact the Daily News on Friday morning to clarify the contradiction during the workshop.
“What I didn’t say, and what I should have said ... is Stacie Smith called me in 2016 to discuss that she was closing the report,” Jackson said. “I messed up in my statement. You didn’t (the Daily News story), I did. I made it sound like I saw the report when I talked to Stacie.”
'I was greatly surprised'
Both Gaetz (2000-2006) and Dr. Alexis Tibbetts (2006-2012), who served as superintendent of schools before Jackson was elected to the position in 2012, confirmed that when they were in charge, they were aware of major investigations and relied on their chief human resources officer, Mike Foxworthy, for guidance, but not to make final decisions.
“I can tell you a complaint one-fourth as serious as this complaint would come to the attention of the superintendent of schools,” Gaetz said. “If the civil rights or safety of a child had been violated, the superintendent needs to know, must know and must act.”
While superintendent in 2012, Tibbetts noted that Farley conducted an investigation into an incident in which a complaint had been lodged against a Crestview football coach accused of choking a student-athlete.
Foxworthy, the chief officer of human resources at the time, might have advised Farley about a suitable punishment for the coach if charges were upheld, but he also purposely stayed an arm's length from the investigation because it was his job to hear an appeal if one were filed.
Tibbetts said she also stayed out of Farley’s way during an active investigation, but was aware of what was going on and communicated with the school board.
"I was aware of the investigation but allowed Mr. Farley to ascertain the facts without involvement or influence from outside parties," Tibbetts said. "In any investigation of abuse or neglect of a child by an employee, it is critical that the school board, superintendent, parents, and Department of children and family services be informed."
At Thursday’s workshop, four of the five sitting board members acknowledged never having been told an investigation of a special education teacher that involved possible child abuse was underway. Board member Rodney Walker said he had been told, but did not elaborate on how he acquired the information.
Cathy Thigpen, who served on the school board for 16 years before stepping down last year, was chairwoman when Farley took his findings in the Stillions case to his superiors.
“I was greatly surprised,” to learn of the investigation, Thigpen said. “The district I knew and I worked for for 16 years was up front, with a clear understanding of what was in the best interest of the children.”
Gaetz, who acknowledged that he knew he had made mistakes during his six years at the helm of the school district, said expectations were far different when he held the position.
“If there were a matter half as big as this it would go to the superintendent. At the very least the school board chairman and the attorney would have knowledge,” he said. “The superintendent would know and be on the phone with the school board chairman if there was anything that could result in a termination or could end up in a criminal investigation. I would call and say, ‘Mr. Chairman, I have something that could come before the school board for action and I’d first like to ask your counsel and second inform you that this is something that could come before you.’ ”
Walker, who served as school board chair for five of the six years Gaetz was in office, acknowledged the close relationship he and Gaetz enjoyed.
"He ran a really tight ship," Walker said. "We had a very good, close working relationship and I think we accomplished a lot."
Lamar White, the sitting school board chairman, proposed Thursday establishing a policy whereby the superintendent would be required to immediately inform the school board chair when an investigation report confirming a child was a victim of cruelty, abuse or harassment is filed.
Investigation 'morally offensive'
Major questions still surround the Stillions investigation though, including:
Why Smith, the assistant superintendent, was given sole authority to decide to close the case. What role local union officials might have played in convincing her to do so. Why only one school board member was apparently ever told about the investigation. Why Smith accepted Stillions’ union “master contract” rebuttal to close an investigation Farley contends was conducted under school board policy guidelines. Perhaps the most important question still lingering over the Stillions investigation, though, is why Noah Perillo’s parents, Eddie and his ex-wife Harvest Perillo, were never informed that a teacher was being investigated for possibly hurting their child.
The school district and its attorney, Jeff McInnis, have been mostly unresponsive to these questions about the case, citing an active criminal investigation.
Local union officials have also failed to answer key questions. Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, to which the Okaloosa teachers' union reports, stopped returning phone calls to the Daily News after offering a short answer to a single question.
“We’re getting into high grass and I’m afraid of snakes,” Pudlow quipped after promising to get answers to questions about union complaint guidelines being utilized to determine the outcome of the Stillions investigation.
The Florida Association of District School Superintendents, headed by state Sen. Bill Montford, has also declined to address questions about the Okaloosa County case.
Gaetz said he found the entire controversy surrounding the Stillions investigation “morally offensive.”
“Of all the things in a day that comes before the superintendent to act upon, what is more important than a violation of the civil rights and physical safety of a child?” he asked.