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    Principal tells school of past DUI charge

    Staff and parents express confidence in the Palm Harbor Elementary leader after he says he pleaded no contest to DUI.

    [Times photo: Scott Keeler]
    Bob McFadden, principal of Palm Harbor Elementary School, speaks with members of the School Advisory Committee and PTA on Monday about his DUI charge in October.

    By RICHARD DANIELSON

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 3, 2001


    PALM HARBOR -- In emotional meetings Friday and Monday, Palm Harbor Elementary School Principal Bob McFadden told teachers and parents what a few people already were discussing: Last fall he was charged with DUI.

    "In October, I made an incredible, major error in judgment," McFadden said in an after-school meeting Monday. "I'm lucky that I did not hurt anybody. I've learned from it. . . . That night in October, I will tell you, was the most humiliating, shameful experience in my life."

    In response to his apology, school staff and parents gave McFadden a vote of confidence.

    "I think one of the most important facts to remember is that he is a principal, but he is human, and everybody makes mistakes," said Paige Tavoularis, 37, a parent and school volunteer. "It could have happened to anybody in this room. We need to emphasize to our kids and to the community what a great principal he is."

    On Monday, parents sent McFadden notes, cards and e-mail messages of support. They also brought bagels and cream cheese, chips and salsa and lunch to lift the staff's spirits. At the school's media center, parents posted signs: "We Love You Mr. McFadden" and "We Support Mr. McFadden. He Cares About Our Kids."

    McFadden, 44, was driving home from a Thursday night Tampa Bay Buccaneers game Oct. 20 when a Pinellas County sheriff's deputy pulled his van over at about 1:30 a.m. on Tarpon Avenue. His blood-alcohol level was 0.20 percent. Florida law presumes a driver with a level of 0.08 percent to be impaired.

    In December, McFadden pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 12 months' probation, was fined $1,400 and had his license revoked for six months.

    As a result, he moved to within a few blocks of the school so he could walk to work. He did not decide to tell the school community about the arrest until a St. Petersburg Times reporter told him that the newspaper had received two anonymous calls last week about it from people who said they were parents.

    "I was impaired, I made a bad choice and I should not have been driving that car," McFadden said. "I would never put myself in a position where this could happen again."

    Teachers and parents praised McFadden for owning up to his error.

    "He took full responsibility for his behavior," said Despina Garos, 35, who teaches fourth grade and has three children at the school. "He admonished us to learn from his mistake. We care about him. We care about our school and our kids. We just want this to get done and over with so we can go on with the business of teaching and educating."

    Even a parent who has disagreed with McFadden in the past said he wasn't bothered by the arrest or the fact that he hadn't heard about it sooner.

    Keith Thomas, 45, said he has disagreed with McFadden about the financing of a new covered play area for children and one teacher's performance, so "I'm not real thrilled with the guy personally."

    "But as far as the DUI's concerned, off-duty, I don't have a real big problem with that," Thomas said Sunday. "If he wasn't drunk at school and he's gone through the system and paid his fines and did all the community service, I really don't know it would affect his ability to be the principal."

    The morning after his arrest, McFadden said he went home, took a shower and went to School District offices to report the charge to his supervisors, as is required.

    In a letter of reprimand, area superintendent Bill Williamson said he had "deep concern over your actions considering your position as the principal of Palm Harbor Elementary School and the role model for your teachers, students and school community."

    McFadden said he never thought to do anything but plead no contest to the charge, but he was surprised in court when officials said his driving history showed a driving while intoxicated charge in Virginia in 1983. Of that, McFadden said he remembers being pulled over for "failure to maintain a lane." He said he was not arrested but received a ticket. The officer "said be careful and I drove home," he said.

    McFadden, who was hired as a Pinellas schoolteacher in 1987, is known as an easygoing administrator who plays the guitar for students and parents. He even wrote a song about why he wanted to be principal at Palm Harbor when he got job and sang it at his first faculty meeting.

    Before coming to Palm Harbor Elementary in November 1998, McFadden taught at Curlew Creek Elementary in Palm Harbor for 61/2 years and was assistant principal at Sawgrass Lake Elementary in St. Petersburg.

    Palm Harbor Elementary fourth-grade teacher Tim Stambaugh, who has worked for eight principals, praised McFadden as someone who "responds to the faculty and to the community and he has a great rapport with the children."

    "He's one of the few principals I've worked with who has worked his way up through the ranks," Stambaugh said. "As a teacher himself, he still has a great respect for the children. I always believed that Bob carried that in his heart. Still do."

    That opinion is shared by McFadden's supervisors.

    "He's very well-respected," School Board spokesman Ron Stone said.

    In his office Monday, McFadden said he thinks some good will come out of this experience.

    "I just feel better because, as a result of it, I've felt a sense of solidarity," he said. "I know we will continue to move forward with what our vision is, and that is to create a school that is effective and is best for the children."

    - Staff writer Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or danielson@sptimes.com.

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