Charges against teacher shock friends
Students and colleagues know the educator and coach as a woman dedicated to her job and young people.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published November 6, 2005
NEW TAMPA - Friends and students of former Wharton High School teacher Jaymee Wallace easily recognized her picture when it flashed across the evening news last week.
But the description that Tampa police gave of Wallace, that of an educator and coach who had a lengthy affair with a female student, bore little resemblance to the woman who had been listed in the school yearbook as Wharton's teacher with the best personality.
"I never had that impression of her at all," said 16-year-old Amanda Johnson, referring to the police charges. Johnson, now a junior, was one of Wallace's students in Johnson's freshman year. "She was such a good teacher."
It's not that the story came as news to Johnson or her schoolmates. Rumors had swirled around campus since last spring, and were only fueled when Wallace did not return to her classroom in August.
They were just rumors, though.
"People were talking about it last year and it was like, "It can't be true,' " said sophomore Saya Arakawa, 15. "I had her for math. She actually knew what she was talking about."
Even after the police gave weight to the claims by arresting Wallace, 28, the tale seemed hard to swallow.
"Her whole life is teaching," said former Wharton colleague Kim Slagle, who now teaches at a charter school. "She's just a really good, honest person who is very dependable, no one who you would ever seriously expect to be accused" of inappropriate relations with a student.
Still, Slagle and others saw how Wallace's activities with students might leave her vulnerable to such accusations. Wallace would give her spare time to help students, said April Williams, a friend and Wallace's college basketball teammate at the University of Tampa.
She would stay after school to tutor students, run the basketball program even during the off season, give students rides when they needed them.
"I was like, wow, I really feel for her, because it could have happened to any coach in this county," said Williams, a teacher and coach at Blake High. "I'm sure every coach has taken a player home. All it takes is for you to be in the car too long and someone to say something about it, and your career is over."
Williams called Wallace a "phenomenal person" who always worked extra hard to succeed.
"She came in usually the shortest player on the court," she said of the 5-foot-2, 100-pound Wallace. "She just sort of outworked everybody."
They formed a lasting bond.
As coaches for opposing high school teams, the two would talk regularly and share ideas. But Wallace was so competitive, her Wharton girls team made the playoffs twice in two years, that when they got on the court, "you would think we didn't even know each other."
Afterward, they'd hug and go out for coffee.
Mitch Muley hired Wallace at Wharton, where she was an intern and substitute teacher while attending the University of Tampa. The retired principal said he never had a doubt about employing her, and he never heard a complaint about her.
"This took me by surprise and shock," Muley said. "She was an excellent teacher. ... I always thought she was very cheerful and good with kids."
Current principal George Gaffney, who declined to comment, bolstered that view in his spring 2004 evaluation of Wallace. He gave her top ratings in all categories and wrote that Wallace "does a great job" as a teacher and coach.
Students generally agreed.
Many viewed her as the "cool teacher" and angled to get into her classes, said junior Jennifer Cardenas, 16.
"She got along with everybody," said Cardenas, whom Wallace tutored two years ago.
After hearing the news reports, former Wharton student Jennifer Mendelsohn, 21, rose to Wallace's defense.
As a sophomore, Mendelsohn took Wallace's geometry class. She then became Wallace's classroom teaching assistant and, later, her friend.
She said Wallace was unlike any other teacher she had before or since.
"Many teachers could care less if students pass or fail. Not Jaymee," Mendelsohn, now a college student, wrote in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. "She did everything in her power to help her students succeed. Math was and still is my very worst subject. I struggled in Algebra 1 and 2 and Jaymee took the time to explain the concepts to me in a way that I would understand them."
Mendelsohn took a dance class from her teacher, helped her grade papers, even helped her look through bridal magazines for a wedding dress. Wallace, Jaymee Hennings at the time, married a fellow math teacher in 2003.
Mendelsohn found Wallace nonjudgmental and easy to talk to. But never did she feel that Wallace acted inappropriately.
Slagle, the former Wharton teacher, said Wallace "lives to help other people" and is very protective of children. She said Wallace is demanding, has high expectations and will help students to meet those expectations.
Wallace's attitude came from experience, Slagle said. Wallace grew up in a single-parent home in Colorado, she said, where there wasn't a lot of money and struggles came daily.
"She had to learn to be resilient over time," Slagle said. "Life hasn't come easy, and she had to hustle."
In high school, Wallace was captain of her sports teams, student body president and an honors student, according to her job application. She wrote that she wanted to be a teacher to motivate students to become better people.
Williams, the college teammate, viewed this latest situation as God's test for her "very religious" friend.
"Jaymee is a Christian woman, and everything is going to be okay," Williams said. "The truth is going to come out."
In the meantime, Williams acknowledged that the situation has raised her awareness of how she deals with students. Some Wharton students said the story has changed their views, too.
Said Kelly Sykes, a 15-year-old Wharton swimmer, "Now you have to question everything at school."
- Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 813 269-5304 or firstname.lastname@example.org