School, family clash on teen's flashing folly

A mooner is fighting his punishment.

Published March 16, 2007

On a recent night at Palm Harbor University High, Taylor Tillung committed the most ill-advised act of his young life.

He became angry at a teacher at an after-hours school event, pulled down his pants and mooned her.

On that narrow set of facts, everyone agrees. After that, the story splinters into two versions.

In one, Taylor is the victim of heavy-handed discipline by Pinellas school officials, who suspended him for six days and transferred him to Clearwater High for the last 11 weeks of his senior year.

In the other, the mooning was part of a "prolonged and multifaceted series of offenses" that traumatized a respected veteran teacher and could have brought harsher punishment, including a criminal charge for sexual misconduct.

Taylor's parents have hired a lawyer and are appealing the transfer, furious at what they say is a lack of due process, a series of exaggerations by school officials and the system's failure to consider such factors as their son's good grades and discipline record.

Todd and Terry Tillung concede that their son's actions were wrong, but say school officials are being unreasonable.

"If there was just cause, I could understand it," Terry Tillung said. "I just don't feel that this is fair."

At issue: the nature of Taylor's act, the details of the moments leading up to it, the severity of his punishment and the process officials used in meting out discipline.

The family has hired B. Edwin Johnson, a Clearwater lawyer who once was the School Board's attorney for 14 years.

However the case turns out, the 18-year-old from Palm Harbor says he would take back the night of Feb. 21 if he could.

"Everybody who's been through high school knows what it means to (graduate) with their class; not many people know what it's like to have it taken away from you because of one mistake," Taylor said this week.

"I don't know of a better lesson that I've learned in my life. Good decisions will take you everywhere and bad ones will take you nowhere."

While a student in the medical magnet program at Palm Harbor, Taylor had a 3.2 grade point average and was accepted at Florida State University on a Bright Futures Scholarship. He says his discipline record consists of two referrals for being tardy. A leader on the varsity baseball team, the transfer will prevent him from playing the second half of his senior season.

What was he thinking when he mooned a teacher?

"I didn't think about the repercussions coming out of it," he said. "In my mind, I thought it was a joke because you see it in movies."

High school students who are transferred in their final semester can ask a district review panel to let them graduate from their original school. But Palm Harbor principal Herman "Doc" Allen has recommended against letting Taylor back into the school.

He said teachers fear other students will engage in similar acts in the weeks before graduation "if we do not dole out a severe punishment for this sort of behavior."

The incident took place the night of the annual Lip Sync show, which drew a full house in the school auditorium. Arriving late because of baseball practice, Taylor was one of about 12 students trying to get in after the auditorium reached capacity and ticket sales ended. Drama teacher Carla Webster came to the door to explain the situation.

According to a letter Allen wrote to district officials, Taylor forced open the door and began to argue with Webster, saying he was a senior and a baseball player and shouldn't be deprived of seeing his last Lip Sync show. "Mrs. Webster indicated that he leaned into her in a threatening manner in his abusive tirade."

Allen said Taylor backed off when the teacher said she was going to get the school resource officer. Moments later, he said, Taylor dropped his pants.

"He even tugged a second time on the right side to make sure that his rear end was completely exposed," Allen's letter said. "Mrs. Webster indicated that Taylor bent over and used both hands to spread his buttocks apart as far as he could, with this exposure directed at the teacher."

The letter said Taylor was 5 feet from the teacher, and that the gesture lasted 15 to 20 seconds. He also wrote that Taylor initially lied about the incident to the resource officer before coming clean.

Webster declined to comment. But Allen wrote that she "feels that (Taylor) needs to understand that you can't just brush everything aside with a simple and insincere apology for such a blatantly vulgar act."

After 37 years with the district, Allen said, Webster is retiring at the end of the school year and deserved more respect. He said she had never been mooned by a student.

Taylor had a different account.

"She opened the door enough for me to talk to her," he said. "And I did put my foot in the door to make sure she could hear me. There was no argumentation. There was a pleading on my part."

He said of Allen's description: "It was a bit of an exaggeration. The words that they used make it seem like a lot worse than I intended it to be."

He and his parents dispute that the act took 15 seconds. "The whole pulling down, spreading, pulling pants back up: five seconds," Taylor said.

He said he initially lied about the incident because he was afraid, but quickly decided to apologize.

He also said his remorse is sincere. He said he apologized to Webster that night and delivered a letter to her the next day.

His mother, Terry Tillung, said she talked to the parent of a student who recently mooned people in the school auditorium with Webster present. That student was given a three-day suspension.

Johnson, the Tillungs' attorney, said the district violated its policy when Allen made the decision to transfer Taylor. That decision should have been made by Alec Liem, a district-level official, after hearing all the evidence, he said.

Liem heard the family's appeal last week, but only considered whether the process had been followed correctly. He ruled that it had, and that Taylor had been given ample opportunity to state his case.

The family has one more appeal with the district and says it is prepared to go to court.

Johnson said Taylor's punishment is the result of Webster's anger over the incident.

"Let's not take anger to an unreasonable level," he argued. "You put that on the scale of justice and what do you got? What happens to Taylor - this life-changing event - is so major compared to the anger."