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The key questions -- and answers

By Times staff reports
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2002

Q. Who is Joseph Gatti?

A. Gatti, 41, is the current technology coordinator and a former science teacher at Powell Middle School. In December 1996, he was arrested and accused of molesting three male students, acts alleged to have taken place both at school and numerous places off campus. He is still battling to clear his name. In 1998, Gatti made an unsuccessful run for a seat on the School Board.

Q. What happened to the criminal charges against Gatti?

A. Judge William Law dropped some charges when state prosecutors weren't ready to go to trial. He threw out another charge that Gatti purposely brushed a boy's crotch, in part because the boy first told police it was an accident. By the end of 1997, prosecutors had decided to drop the other charges. Anthony Tatti, the lead prosecutor in Hernando County, said the case could not be won -- that the boys had changed their stories too often and there was evidence the testimony of a key witness had been coached by his stepmother.

Q. Gatti won another victory in court a few years ago. What was that about?

A. The Hernando County School Board investigated Gatti to see if he did anything to warrant his firing. Since Gatti and his accusers had different stories, the board asked an administrative law judge in 1998 to decide the facts. After a seven-day hearing, the judge ruled in Gatti's favor.

Q. If Gatti was cleared of any crimes and if he won the 1998 hearing, why is he back in court again?

A. The state Department of Education, alleging the same misconduct as presented in 1998, is challenging Gatti's teaching license on the basis that he violated the teacher code of ethics.

Q. Why isn't the Education Department satisfied with earlier rulings?

A. In pretrial documents, the department said allegations of Gatti's interference with parental custody have not previously been presented. In a sworn deposition, the department's lead investigator said facts such as Gatti's purchase of a beeper for student Coy Burge and Gatti's picking up the boy when he ran away from a runaway shelter were not emphasized enough at the first hearing. Education officials said this week they would not discuss their reasons for bringing back the sexual allegations.

Q. Given that he still faces these charges, is Gatti currently restricted from being around children?

A. No. Gatti returned to Powell in October 1998 to the same job he held the day he was arrested. As a technology coordinator, he doesn't have his own classroom. But he is frequently assisting other teachers with children. In addition, he is the school's yearbook adviser and production assistant. Both duties require meeting with students after school. He has even been a chaperone on overnight field trips.

Q. Gatti's case is 5 years old. How much longer could it go on?

A. The hearing that begins Monday is expected to last up to 10 days. The administrative law judge may need a month more to rule on it. If she rules against Gatti, the judge would recommend to the Education Practices Commission some action against his teacher's license, be it a suspension or revocation. Gatti would almost certainly appeal any unfavorable ruling to the state Court of Appeal. But if Gatti wins, he is finally in the clear.

Q. What will happen to Gatti if he loses his teaching license?

A. He would no longer be able to teach in Florida or hold any position that requires a teaching certificate, including jobs as a school principal or certain district-level jobs.

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