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Teacher suspended for stuffing homecoming ballot box

Early edition

Published November 14, 2006


LARGO — The offense was so brazen, so egregious that Pinellas School Board member Linda Lerner almost laughed as she read the account aloud.

A veteran Gibbs High School teacher with a long history of work troubles had falsified hundreds of student ballots in an attempt to get her niece elected homecoming queen in September.

A wave of chuckles rose up during Tuesday’s School Board meeting, where Lerner and other board members were asked to approve a 25-day unpaid suspension for the teacher, Sharion Thurman, 56.

“This is not a gray area; this is cheating,” Lerner said.

“It’s so ridiculous, it’s so outrageous that all you can do is uncomfortably laugh at it,” said board member Mary Russell, normally one to give a teacher the benefit of the doubt.

So why not fire the teacher, who earns more than $50,000 a year? Her 20-year record includes numerous reprimands for poor judgment, insubordination, misconduct and disparaging remarks.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said firing was an option. But he looked at Thurman’s file and noticed that the last discipline she received was a 2005 reprimand for making “negative references.” He noted that the board has urged him to use progressive discipline with employees.

A suspension, he argued, was the next step up from a reprimand. He said Thurman will lose more than $7,000 in pay. Had she lied about an academic issue, he said, she would have been fired.

“I think the administration let us down on this one,” said board chairperson Carol Cook, who wondered why Thurman never received a suspension before.

According to a district report, teachers at Gibbs saw Thurman come to the principal’s office on Sept. 28 with a big box of ballots. She placed the ballots in piles, with the majority on her niece’s pile.

She was caught when administrators found more ballots than students enrolled and that Thurman’s niece received 753 votes, or about two-thirds of the possible votes for homecoming queen.

She was banned from a re-vote the next day, when support for her niece dropped to 180 votes.

Once the sponsor of the student council and junior class, Thurman has been removed from all school activities. She could not be reached for comment, but the district says she wrote a statement saying she accepted “full responsibility for the situation.”

The case illustrates how much the district is sometimes willing to tolerate from an employee. It also was part of an unusual crop of discipline actions Tuesday.

They included:

* Acquilla Bowers, 32, a school bus driver with a case of road rage who repeatedly cut off another driver, then threw a can of air freshener at the driver’s car — with 50 students aboard.

* Mark Krieger, a teacher at Oak Grove Middle School who violated district policy by trying to force a student to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, then told the student, who is black, that he should go to Africa to appreciate his freedom.

* David Bell, a teacher’s assistant at Calvin Hunsinger School who, after being punched in the chest by a student, ran after the student and slammed him to the floor, injuring the student’s knee. According to a report, Bell immediately stood up and asked, “What did I just do?”

The district’s Office of Professional Standards fields hundreds of complaints a year about school system employees. Most end up as cautions, reprimands or resignations.

A smaller number go before the School Board as proposed suspensions or dismissals.

Though Bowers’ case was on Tuesday’s agenda, she resigned before the board took action.

A district report said she was driving about 50 students the morning of Sept. 15 when a car cut in front of her, causing her to slam on her brakes. A bus video shows the students lurching forward.

But Bowers became angry, speeding up to pass the car and cutting in front in retaliation. The motorist in the car and Bowers cut each other off in traffic at least twice, the report said.

At a red light, Bowers and the motorist had words, then Bowers opened the door of the bus and threw a can of air freshener, denting the car.

Bowers also failed to report the incident. She told investigators she did not think she hit the car with the can. She could not be reached for comment.

The offense was so serious that progressive discipline was not an issue. Though Bowers, a driver since 2003, had satisfactory evaluations, the district recommended she be fired.

Board members struggled Tuesday with how to discipline Bell, the teacher who tackled the student, and Krieger, the teacher who made the comment about Africa.

Wilcox recommended a 15-day suspension without pay for Krieger. But Lerner and board members Janet Clark and Nancy Bostock said 15 days sounded too severe.

Clark argued that the district gave 10-day suspensions in two other recent cases where teachers were accused of using racially charged words with students.

Wilcox said he recommended 10 days for the remark and five days for forcing the student to stand for the pledge, a violation of a district policy based on legal precedents in free speech cases.

A black student complained that he heard Krieger tell him to go “back” to Africa if he didn’t respect the United States. But Krieger told investigators he did not intend to make a racially disparaging remark. According to a report, he was trying to tell students “that they have many freedoms in this country and they should try living somewhere else if they don’t respect this country.”

Krieger could not be reached Tuesday for comment. But investigators said he understands why the statement was offensive and that he cannot force students to stand for the pledge.

The board voted 5-1 to lower the discipline to a 10-day suspension.

In Bell’s case, Wilcox recommended a 30-day suspension.

Clark objected again, saying his and other cases seemed to indicate a trend toward heavier discipline in the district.

She argued that the district gave less severe suspensions recently to one teacher who hit a student with a plastic bat and another who taped a student to a chair. She argued the penalty should be less severe for a teacher’s assistant.

Bostock agreed, saying, “If a child hit me, I might have trouble keeping my judgment.”

But she changed her position when Wilcox revealed that he saw a videotape of the incident and found it severe. In an interview later, he compared it to a body slam in wrestling. The boy was injured.

“Thirty days is a long time, but you can’t tackle a kid,” said Lerner, who supported the 30 days.

Wilcox described the school’s environment as “tough.” Calvin Hunsinger is a school for emotionally disturbed students.

He said Bell, who has been at the school 12 years, is “loved by folks” there and that the student’s parents did not want him fired.

Wilcox and board members said they were impressed that Bell owned up immediately.

Minutes after the incident, he showed up in the principal’s office with a confession: “I just attacked a kid.”

Times Staff Writer Donna Winchester contributed to this report.

[Last modified November 14, 2006, 21:23:31]

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