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Palm Harbor teacher sues over drawing

The teacher, subject of a drawing depicting a student stabbing her, says she is owed back pay and benefits.

By ROBERT FARLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001


The teacher, subject of a drawing depicting a student stabbing her, says she is owed back pay and benefits.

PALM HARBOR -- It was during a morning drawing class in February 2000 that the 16-year-old student approached his art teacher, Nikki Limberis, and handed her an extra-credit drawing titled: Living in Darkness.

She recalled Tuesday that the student told her, "Here's my extra credit," and stared at her menacingly.

Mrs. Limberis said she looked and saw a drawing of the student driving a butcher knife into her skull and blood gushing out. Near her midsection was an incision, showing her being disemboweled and bleeding.

"I gonna stab you," read the drawing's caption.

On Tuesday, Mrs. Limberis sued the Pinellas County School Board as a result of the incident. In her suit, she contends that she has been unable to return to teaching because of the psychological trauma caused by the student's action, and that the school district is contractually obligated to continue to pay her salary and benefits until she is able to return to the classroom.

Neither school district officials nor the school's principal could be reached for comment late Tuesday afternoon.

In an interview Tuesday, Mrs. Limberis said seeing the drawing left her shocked and unable to respond, so she put the drawing down.

"When I saw the drawing, I felt the blood draining from my body," Mrs. Limberis recalled.

Mrs. Limberis' attorney, Tom Roebig of Palm Harbor, said there is no mistaking the intent of the drawing, which was filed as an exhibit to the lawsuit, or who it was intended to depict. On one side is a man sporting a beanie, a holstered gun and a T-shirt that reads "Death Metal." The man is plunging a knife into the head of a woman. The pendant drawn around the woman's neck and the shoulder-length curly hair left no doubt that he was depicting Mrs. Limberis, Roebig said.

The intent was clear, Roebig said: to intimidate and scare her, and it worked. The spate of recent school tragedies, Roebig said, "have really made threats like these real."

Mrs. Limberis said the student, then a junior, returned to his desk, but approached her again about five minutes later and asked if she'd taken a good look at the drawing.

"How much credit do I get for this?" the student asked.

"His demeanor was very menacing," Mrs. Limberis said.

Terrified, Mrs. Limberis left the classroom and got another teacher to watch her class so she could report the incident to an assistant principal.

She said the assistant principal called the school resource officer, a sheriff's deputy, who looked at the drawing and asked Limberis if she was afraid. Mrs. Limberis said she was. She returned to the class and told the student to go meet with the school resource officer.

"He rolled his eyes," she said.

Mrs. Limberis said the student, who was not identified in the lawsuit and was not named as a defendant, was suspended for 10 days and reassigned to an alternative school for the rest of the year.

Mrs. Limberis, 50, said she returned to class that day, and for the next several days as well. But on the 10th day of the student's suspension, fearing that the student might return to school, Mrs. Limberis said she started to feel chest pains, as if she was having a heart attack. She said she went to her doctor, who told her it was not a heart attack, but stress.

Since then, Mrs. Limberis has been under medical care for emotional problems caused by the incident. The psychological trauma is so severe, she said, she cannot return to the classroom, even more than a year later.

After her sick days ran out last May, the school district stopped paying her and cut off her benefits, including her medical benefits, she said.

Roebig points to a "teacher assault protection" provision in the teachers' contract with the school district. That provision stipulates that if a student is found guilty of assaulting a teacher, "any damages, injuries or material loss suffered by the teacher shall be fairly compensated by the board." Roebig argues the student's drawing amounts to an assault.

"Until she can return to the classroom, she's entitled to her benefits, period," Roebig said.

The lawsuit seeks to have Mrs. Limberis' salary and benefits reinstated but does not seek further damages.

Mrs. Limberis said she is currently under the care of a psychological counselor in Tampa who specializes in trauma. Several months ago, she also saw a psychiatrist.

Both say she should not return to school yet, she said.

Mrs. Limberis said she had hoped to return to school last fall, but then she heard the student had been readmitted to Palm Harbor University High.

"When I heard the student was returning, I knew there was absolutely no way," she said.

Mrs. Limberis, a 25-year educator who had been teaching at Palm Harbor University High School for two years when the February 200 incident occurred, said she does not know when she may be able to return to the classroom. She is four years away from being eligible for full retirement, Roebig said.

"At present, there is no way I can go back," she said. "I'm too afraid. It wouldn't be good for the students either."

But she hopes to return one day.

"This is my life," she said.

But will she?

"I really don't know at this point," she said.

- Staff writer Julianne Wu contributed to this report. Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farley@sptimes.com.

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