tampabay.com

Jennifer Porter wants to return to teaching

Her lawyer says she has so much to offer to kids.

By LETITIA STEIN, Times staff writer
Published April 19, 2007


TAMPA -- Jennifer Porter, the Hillsborough teacher who fled an accident that killed two children and injured two others, will fight for the right to return to a public school classroom.

Porter was a dance teacher at Muller Elementary School when she drove away after a collision with four siblings, ages 2 to 13, who were crossing a dark street near the North Tampa school. She pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of the March 2004 accident -- a felony -- but avoided jail time through a judge's ruling.

Cries of racial injustice greeted her sentencing. Porter is white, the children, black.

Now, as Porter, 31, enters the final six months of a two-year house arrest, whether she can teach again in Florida is the question.

Barry Cohen, her attorney, said stellar character references and expert testimony on how she suffered psychological trauma -- which helped convince the judge to spare her a prison sentence -- should persuade a state panel to let Porter hold onto her teaching certification.

"She has so much to offer," said Cohen, who represented Porter in the high-profile case. "We heard from so many parents and students about the difference she made in their lives."

Porter's right to teach was scheduled for a hearing Friday in Tampa but is expected to be postponed for further discussion between her attorneys and the Florida Department of Education. Teachers who commit criminal felony acts can face penalties ranging from suspension to revocation of teaching credentials.

Cohen is willing to take Porter's case to a formal hearing. The state also allows teachers an opportunity to discuss settlement options in such cases. Resolution could take months.

One official outraged

It's unclear whether Porter would try to seek another local teaching job. "It's premature to make a decision like that now," Cohen said.

While Hillsborough School Board members rarely get involved with new hires, some would not welcome Porter back in the district.

School Board member April Griffin said Wednesday she remains outraged by what Porter did the night of the accident.

"I don't want somebody who's going to leave the scene of an accident -- where children are lying on the side of the road, dying -- in our school district," Griffin said. "She didn't do anything that someone who was ethical and moral would do."

After the accident, Porter sought refuge in Land O'Lakes, where she lived with her parents. Her father wiped blood off her car, which he then stored in the garage. Nearly 28 hours passed before he contacted Cohen. Four more days passed before Porter came forward publicly.

But during her sentencing, family, friends and even students vouched for a woman who had no prior record. The defense's psychiatric experts said Porter suffered an acute stress reaction after she saw a body hit her windshield. She drove away on automatic pilot, they said.

A right to due process

Porter's sentence ignited community outrage, especially in the predominantly black neighborhoods around Muller. The children's mother, Lisa Wilkins, wanted a harsher punishment. Wilkins' attorney, Tom Parnell, declined to comment on the pending review of Porter's status.

Shortly after the accident, the Hillsborough School Board suspended Porter without pay. She later resigned her teaching position. Today, she is teaching dance lessons privately, Cohen said.

School Board member Doretha Edgecomb said Hillsborough took the right steps at the time, noting that Porter has a right to due process before the Education Practices Commission.

"What I want them to look at is the severity of the situation," she said. "And then the implications of what that might mean, allowing her to go back into a classroom."

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Fast Facts: Her sentence
Jennifer Porter avoided prison time, but she was sentenced to two years of house arrest, three years of probation and 500 hours of community service.