St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Teacher's bomb talk called bad judgment

A judge recommends a reprimand, not suspension, for the Palm Harbor University High instructor in the post-Columbine incident.

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2000


LARGO -- Timothy Falls used poor judgment when he discussed pipe bombs with his students the day after the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, an administrative law judge said.

Even so, the judge doesn't think the popular Palm Harbor University High School teacher should be suspended from his job for an honest attempt to allay students' concerns.

In a 26-page court order filed with the state Division of Administrative Hearings in Tallahassee, judge Lawrence P. Stevenson said Pinellas school district officials overreacted when they recommended that Falls be suspended for 10 days without pay.

Instead, the judge recommends Falls get a written reprimand for misconduct, for going "beyond what was necessary to ease the fears of his students after Columbine." Stevenson also admonished the school district for overreacting "in a similar effort to ease the fears of the public after Columbine."

". . . The actual facts of the situation appear to have mattered less than swift and relatively harsh punishment of the alleged offender," he wrote.

On April 21, 1999, the day after the Columbine killings, students were abuzz with concerns and questions. In response, Falls drew a simple diagram of a pipe bomb on his classroom chalkboard. In several classes that day, Falls mentioned materials that go into a pipe bomb and described spots on campus that would be vulnerable to an explosion.

Falls told the judge that he was responding to the question "What's a pipe bomb?" and teaching students to be aware of their surroundings so they could alert authorities to any danger. He said he was not instructing students how to make a bomb or encouraging them to place one on campus.

Teachers at Palm Harbor University High School were not told how to respond to questions about the killings, principal Alec Liem told the judge, because he trusted their professional judgment. In a speech on the school's closed-circuit television system, Liem asked students to help monitor the campus and respect each other's differences.

Liem found out about the lesson from an anonymous woman who called an assistant principal. A sheriff's deputy investigating the incident interviewed 11 students who said they did not think Falls was trying to show them how to make a bomb or where to place it to maximize damage.

Deputy Peter Kolnicki testified that he thought Falls was only trying to help the students protect themselves.

Liem and other top-level district administrators said Falls went too far, that he could not have known all his students' "mental states" and whether they would interpret his lesson as he intended.

Though officials said they did not doubt Falls' good intentions, they recommended he be suspended 10 days without pay. Falls requested a hearing to contest the suspension. He has not had to serve the suspension while the matter is being resolved.

It will ultimately be up to the School Board to decide whether to side with the judge or district officials -- or mete out a punishment somewhere between a reprimand and a suspension.

An attorney for the school district, Jacqueline Spoto, said she had not read the judge's order so could not comment in detail about it. Spoto said she doesn't know when the School Board will consider Falls' case, but it will be at least two weeks.

Falls' lawyer, Mark Herdman, praised the judge's decision. He said the judge acknowledged that Falls had tried his best to help his students in a difficult situation, while at the same time appreciating the district's concerns.

"I think it's an excellent decision," Herdman said. "If it's anything, it's a reprimand. It's good for everybody."

Falls, who teaches social studies and is an assistant football coach, said Tuesday that his lawyer had told him not to talk specifically about the case since the School Board has not made its decision.

"I love teaching," Falls said. "I'm so ready to get this whole thing over."

In a related matter, the state Department of Education has dropped an investigation into the incident. The DOE can take action against a teacher's certificate if a situation warrants; in this case, DOE officials said, it did not.

"Kids want to talk about this stuff," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "It couldn't have been more innocent."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.