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    Ruling recommends teacher's firing

    An administrative law judge didn't believe the most serious allegations, but says the Tarpon Springs teacher's actions added up to sexual harassment of a student.

    By RICHARD DANIELSON, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 20, 2003

    Former Tarpon Springs High School teacher and coach Michael Grayer should be fired for sexually harassing one student, making sexually charged remarks to others and lying during investigations into his conduct.

    That's the conclusion of a state administrative law judge who held four days of hearings at the high school in October.

    Grayer, 30, of Clearwater sexually harassed a junior by asking her what she thought of a man his age dating an 18-year-old and telling her that, "If I were still in high school, I'd be climbing in your window at night."

    Also, when another student asked why the junior got a good grade, Grayer said it was because he had "an agreement" with her. During a fitness class, Grayer stared so much at the student that she switched her gym outfit from stretch pants to baggies.

    Those actions add up to sexual harassment, the administrative law judge, Robert E. Meale, wrote in a 29-page recommended order filed in Tallahassee last week.

    In addition, he wrote, two other factors justify firing Grayer. First, he had a record of making sexually inappropriate comments and, in one case, a gesture, to other students. Second, in the face of credible evidence, he denied making virtually all of those remarks.

    "The aggravating factor that warrants dismissal is (Grayer's) unprofessional attempt to deny responsibility for his actions and, even worse, accuse the students whom he mistreated of lying," Meale wrote. Grayer "still seems not to understand the professional responsibilities of a teacher toward his students."

    Both sides have 15 days to file written objections to any part of Meale's ruling. Grayer's attorney, Mark Herdman of Palm Harbor, did not return two calls Wednesday, and Grayer could not be reached for comment. Jackie Spoto Bircher, a staff attorney for the School Board, said she has no plans now to challenge the ruling.

    "We would have liked some of the factual rulings (to go) the other way, yes, but ultimately, we got what we wanted," Bircher said.

    In reaching his conclusions, Meale said the School Board did not prove several more serious allegations, including that Grayer had sexually assaulted one student and kissed another. Those accusers were not credible, he said, partly because they made their accusations only after Grayer had done something to anger each of them.

    But both girls were "doubtlessly aware" of Grayer's tendencies and they struck back at him from a "sexually charged atmosphere" that he helped create "by making sexual allegations," Meale wrote.

    To the School Board, it didn't matter that those allegations did not hold up.

    "Even considering a finding that those (offenses) didn't occur, we thought the other conduct was sufficiently egregious for a teacher to be terminated," Bircher said. The investigation into Grayer's conduct had already begun, based on a complaint made by another student, before the two girls who accused Grayer of kissing and molesting them stepped forward, she said.

    In January 2002, Pinellas County sheriff's detectives arrested Grayer on campus after school, and he spent nine days in jail on a charge of sexual battery on a 17-year-old student. Prosecutors dropped the charge six months later without any explanation except to say "the facts and circumstances revealed do not warrant prosecution at this time."

    Meanwhile, school administrators concluded that Grayer was unfit to teach and decided not to renew his contract. His appeal of that decision led to the administrative hearing. He is currently suspended without pay, and the School Board now will consider Meale's recommended order that he be terminated, Bircher said.

    From his arrest through last October's hearings, Grayer has consistently denied the allegations against him.

    "I did not do this," he said during the hearing. Likewise, he denied telling a girl he was in love with her, commenting on pornographic movies and oral sex and the idea of pouring beer on a girl's T-shirt.

    But Meale cited a half-dozen instances in which Grayer's behavior embarrassed female students. Grayer alluded to the size of one student's breasts and used his hands to frame them while telling her that her shirt violated the school dress code. After hearing that another student had surgically implanted rods in her back, he said he wanted to have sex with her. He told a third she could get any guy she wanted.

    Meale said that although two students mentioned Grayer's remarks to adults, only one teacher at Tarpon Springs High School ever talked to him to say that he should watch what he said, and by then it was too late.

    But that's no excuse, the judge added.

    "Perhaps (Grayer) was not fully aware that his comments, gesture and behavior were sexually charged and did not realize (their) effects . . . on his students, as some teachers may not be fully aware of their sarcasm and its effect on their students," Meale wrote. "As a teacher, (Grayer) remains responsible for determining the effect of his interaction upon his students and ultimately must bear the consequences if he fails to identify the problem."

    Administrative law judge Robert E. Meale said that although two students mentioned Michael Grayer's remarks to adults, only one teacher at Tarpon Springs High ever talked to him to say that he should watch what he said, and by then it was too late.

    Meale decided that the two students who made the most serious allegations against Grayer should not be believed. One, a sophomore who said Grayer kissed her, appeared to be infatuated with him and could have been jealous. The second, a senior, said that he kissed and molested her in his office.

    Grayer was hired by the Pinellas County school district in August 2000 and taught at Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg, where he also coached boys junior varsity basketball, before transferring to Tarpon Springs High School in 2001.

    At Tarpon Springs, he taught peer counseling and personal fitness in the GOALS program, which stands for Graduation Options -- Alternatives to Leaving School. It is a dropout prevention program for unmotivated students who have fallen behind.

    Grayer also coached boys varsity basketball but resigned 12 games into the season for personal reasons unrelated to the investigation. The Spongers were 1-11 at the time.

    -- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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