Lawyer: Jackson knew of abuse

Tom McLaughlin

In a bench memorandum presented to Special Master Dudley Goodlette outlining his case against suspended Okaloosa County School Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson, an attorney for the governor argues that Jackson was well aware of child abuse going on in the district she headed for six years.

Read the memo from the Governor's office >>

It claims Jackson not only knew about a report filed in June of 2016 implicating Kenwood Elementary School special education teacher Marlynn Stillions in the abuse of an autistic child in her care, but also knew and did little about abuse committed by Silver Sands teacher Roy Frazier.

Since the Stillions’ report was made public in August of 2017, after the father of the autistic victim of her abuse recovered it through a public records request, Jackson has consistently denied knowledge of its existence.

“Jackson’s entire case rests upon one premise — she never knew the full extent of the child abuse/neglect allegations … The evidence will show that she did know about the allegations but covered it up because she was facing re-election,” wrote Nicholas Primrose, general counsel for Gov. Ron DeSantis. “Jackson did not take any action until the press uncovered the issues over one year later.”

For the first time since allegations of child abuse against Stillions were made public in August of 2017, the sworn testimony of Stacie Smith, Jackson’s former assistant superintendent of human resources, has been presented as evidence Jackson knew of the abuse and reports documenting it.

“Smith testified that it was Jackson who decided no action would be taken against teacher Stillions,” Primrose said in the bench memorandum.

Smith’s statements were made during an undated interview with Assistant State Attorney Bill Bishop. The memo said Greg Butler, the executive director of Okaloosa County’s teachers’ union, was in the office with Stillions when Smith announced Jackson’s directive not to pursue investigative findings that Stillions had abused children. The reason given for closing the Stillions' investigation was that School District Investigator Arden Farley had failed to follow union requirements for conducting the inquiry.

Jackson was re-elected a month after the decision on Stillions was made, and the report was filed away.

Smith was arrested in January of 2018 in connection with the Stillions' case. She was charged with failure to report child abuse and took a plea for one year's probation. She was asked in the Bishop interview what she recalled telling Jackson about the Farley report.

“I know I told her or that she and I discussed what (Farley) had confirmed. I know (with) 100 percent certainty we had that discussion,” Smith said.

Smith also recalled speaking with Jackson regarding certain aspects of Farley’s findings and “where in the code of ethics they fall.”

Asked what decisions were made following the discussion, Smith replied “that no disciplinary action would be brought before the (School) Board.”

DeSantis suspended Jackson Jan. 11, stating she had failed in her duties to protect the health, safety and well-being of children in the school district.

Jackson has appealed the suspension to the Florida Senate, and, according to Primrose, “the sole question” the Senate needs to consider in deciding whether she should be retained or permanently removed from office is whether she was negligent in her duty or incompetent in its performance.

It states that as superintendent Jackson bore statutory duties and responsibilities that cannot and should not have been delegated to anyone else.

Jackson’s “acts/omissions” as superintendent can be traced back to the 2015-16 school year, the memo states, and continued through the date she was suspended.

The memo says Farley was made aware of allegations against Frazier in February of 2016 and found “sufficient evidence” Frazier had violated the Code of Ethics and Principals of Professional Conduct by, among other things, swinging a student with muscular dystrophy and hitting the child’s head on the floor.

Presented those findings, Jackson suspended Frazier for three days based on his failure to follow a student’s behavior intervention plan and presented her decision to do so to the Okaloosa County School Board for consideration. She also presented her findings to the Florida Department of Education, it said.

The School Board accepted the recommendation. A year later, after Frazier retired, the DOE revoked his teaching certification.

Farley filed the report regarding Stillions’ classroom behavior in June of 2016, the memo states. It stated the teacher used her feet to direct an autistic child, sprayed students with vinegar and “inappropriately picked up a student by his waistband and the back collar of his shirt.”

Primrose states that no evidence exists that Stillions was suspended or reassigned after the allegations were confirmed by Farley. It states some School District personnel recalled her being placed on administrative leave, but no evidence of that action, which could only have been approved by Jackson, exists.

It states Stillions was reassigned to another ESE class at a different school for the 2017-18 school year and she was suspended without pay on Sept. 13, 2017, a year after the abuse findings were documented and the day she was arrested by the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office on child abuse charges.

The report faults Jackson for failing to provide the Okaloosa County School Board a “full understanding” of why Stillions was being transferred to Silver Sands School.

“Jackson … failed in how she handled the disciplining of her employees after findings of Code of Ethics violations that directly impacted the health, safety and welfare of students,” the memo states.

Jackson’s attorney will present a memorandum of his own next week. Primrose noted he expects an argument to be made that the Florida Department of Children and Families had investigated Stillions and found no probable cause to follow up.

“Jackson failed to have a proper policy of confirming DCF was notified, as statutorily required, and demanding that DCF be immediately notified,” the memo states in argument to the defense.

Jackson also failed to report allegations of abuse by Frazier and Stillions to the Sheriff’s Office “until months after the investigations were completed by Okaloosa Schools," the memo states, and failed to report findings to the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Professional Practices.

“Jackson will argue that the policies have been changed to require better reporting and sharing of information post-Teacher Stillions’ incident becoming public knowledge,” the memo states. “That does not absolve her of negligence and incompetence.”

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