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    Students testify in teacher's hearing

    Charges have been dropped, but Tarpon ex-teacher Michael Grayer still faces allegations of impropriety.

    By KELLEY BENHAM
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 22, 2002


    TARPON SPRINGS -- With criminal charges behind him, a former Tarpon Springs High School teacher is beginning the battle to regain his reputation and restart his career.

    Michael Grayer was suspended from his job after being arrested in January for sexual battery on a student. Prosecutors dismissed the charge in July.

    Grayer, 30, faced two teenage accusers Monday at an administrative hearing to decide whether he is due back pay of about $3,000 for the weeks he was suspended.

    But the hearing is not about money, said Grayer and his lawyer.

    "This is about his future, his reputation and his ability to teach in the state," said Grayer's attorney, Michael Herdman.

    Grayer, a basketball coach and teacher in a dropout prevention program, taught in the county for two years on an annual contract.

    He has been unemployed since his suspension, he said. He believes the allegations are ruining his career.

    The school district's attorney said Monday that even without the sexual battery allegations, the district had reason to remove Grayer from the classroom and not allow him back.

    "Mr. Grayer should not be teaching students," said Jackie Spoto Bircher in her opening statement.

    In an emotional first day of testimony, Grayer faced two former students as they alleged a loose teaching style, flirtatious comments and separate intimate encounters in his classroom office.

    The first girl to testify, a senior last year, cried when she said Grayer kissed her and fondled her.

    The second girl, a freshman last year, said Grayer kissed her in the office after school one day, and later told her he loved her.

    Both students described classes in which students watched videos, chatted and generally avoided efforts at instruction. Grayer's office was sometimes a hangout for students skipping other classes, they said. They described Grayer as popular and an easy grader.

    The first girl, now 18, said Grayer once told her she smelled "good enough to eat." She also testified that he told her: "How about next time you go to a club, you wear a white T-shirt and I'll throw beer on it."

    But the girl said she did not dislike him until she sought him out to ask about exempting an exam. That's when he kissed and molested her, she said.

    The girl said that incident occurred while Grayer was under investigation for making inappropriate comments and in the process of losing his coaching position.

    That makes the allegation even more absurd, Herdman said.

    "He'd have to be a fool to go down that road at that point," Herdman said.

    The second girl, now 15, said she liked Grayer and thought he was cute, but she did not have a crush on him. She was surprised when he kissed her, but she didn't tell anyone for about a month, she said.

    "He was like a good friend to me," she said. "But then he wasn't, because he was different than what I thought."

    The girls came forward reluctantly and independently, Spoto Bircher said.

    Herdman hammered the girls for inconsistencies among the police report, their depositions and their statements Monday.

    "These stories don't hold," Herdman said. "Almost everything changes."

    Both girls had trouble remembering dates and previous testimony.

    The older girl said she tried to block the incident out of her mind. The younger girl grew frustrated. "I don't know when the freaking kiss occurred," she said at one point.

    That girl's father became outraged and used profanity during the cross examination. He shouted threats at Grayer's attorney and left the room.

    The hearing is expected to last several days. The presiding judge, Robert Meale of Tallahassee, will make a recommendation to the school board.

    Grayer has applied for about 100 jobs with no success, he said. He said he has not applied for teaching jobs because he wants to clear up these allegations first.

    "I'm just looking for a little justice right now."

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