tampabay.com

Teacher is given reprieve, not fired

Officials questioned his e-mails to students.

By Donna Winchester, Times Staff Writer
Published February 10, 2008


Pinellas school officials have determined that a male middle school teacher's electronic communication with female students was unprofessional and inappropriate, but not sexual, overriding an earlier recommendation that the teacher be fired.

The district placed Azalea Middle School math teacher Jason Williams, 32, on paid leave in August after discovering instant messages between him and a student on his school laptop computer. Investigators also discovered that Williams had used his computer to access pornographic Web sites.

The School Board was poised in September to consider a recommendation to fire Williams, but the decision was put on hold when he requested a hearing. The district suspended him without pay pending further investigation.

Now, after a review of the e-mail exchanges between Williams and a student with whom he discussed meeting at a local mall, an interview with the girl's father and interviews with six other children, the district has determined there is insufficient evidence that Williams harmed or intended to harm any student.

"The whole thing boils down to safety," said Laurie Dart, assistant School Board attorney. "That's why he was pulled from the classroom, and that's why the recommendation was originally for termination."

But while the discovery process revealed that Williams displayed an extreme lapse of judgment, Dart said, there was no evidence that he posed a threat to students. District officials concluded he was "motivated by a misguided attempt to be accessible to students rather than any lascivious intent."

The findings persuaded school superintendent Clayton Wilcox to revise his original recommendation to fire Williams. Instead, he will ask the School Board on Tuesday to accept a stipulation to suspend Williams for time already served - an 88-day hiatus that has cost him $20,000 in salary and benefits.

If the board agrees to return Williams to the classroom, he will be reassigned to a middle school other than Azalea where he will be required to comply with a "success plan" designed to teach him appropriate methods of communicating with students, Dart said.

Williams could not be reached for comment.

James Lott, an official in the district's Office of Professional Standards, said the district receives two or three complaints a year involving inappropriate conduct between a teacher and a student.

In addition to Williams' case, the School Board was scheduled to rule Tuesday on the fate of a Seminole High School teacher who allegedly met a 17-year-old male in a bar, invited him to his apartment and paid him for sex. Like Williams, Gerald DiPanfilo, 55, asked for an administrative hearing.

District records show that the St. Petersburg Police Department investigated DiPanfilo last summer for engaging a minor in prostitution.

No formal charges were filed against DiPanfilo, and the case was turned over to Lott's office.

DiPanfilo, who was reassigned to the district warehouse, told school officials he didn't know that the boy, a Pinellas County Schools student, was a minor.

He acknowledged he may have given the student money but said he couldn't remember what happened because of the amount of alcohol he had consumed.

Wilcox has recommended that DiPanfilo be fired.

Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or 727 893-8413.