Standing under the shade of a tree at the Palmetto Police Department on Tuesday morning, a school principal unraveled what he feels is a conspiracy, with him as its target, to mislead news outlets and state investigators.
The conspirators, according to Eddie Hundley, include officials with the Palmetto Police Department, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office’s Child Protection Investigations Division and the Manatee and Sarasota school districts.
Hundley, principal of Lincoln Memorial Academy, is facing disciplinary action against his educator certificate for giving two “misleading employment references” to someone who was under criminal investigation, according to a finding of probable cause from the Florida Department of Education.
Several agencies claim Hundley knew about a police investigation when he recommended Quentin Peterson, a former music teacher at the former Lincoln Memorial Middle School, for jobs in Sarasota.
Peterson secured a teaching job in Sarasota after resigning from Lincoln, receiving two recommendations from Hundley and then getting arrested at Booker High School on a charge for possession of child pornography, which resulted from an investigation by Palmetto police.
In the latest effort to clear his name, Hundley held a press conference in conjunction with the Manatee NAACP. He continually used the words “corruption” and “collusion” to refute allegations against him.
Hundley again stated he did not know Peterson was under criminal investigation when he recommended the former employee to Sarasota’s school district.
In an emailed statement, district attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum said the principal’s statements “stand in stark contrast with information and findings by the School District of Manatee County, the Sarasota County School District and the Palmetto Police Department.”
Former Superintendent Diana Greene also reprimanded Hundley on May 2, calling his recommendations “false and inaccurate.” Though the principal told Sarasota officials he never disciplined the former music teacher, he actually reprimanded Peterson at the direction of Greene last year.
The reprimand letter followed an earlier investigation into whether Peterson made “physical contact” with a student in his darkened office.
In the most recent investigation, Hundley maintained that only authorities and school officials could have known about allegations against Peterson.
The Manatee district removed Peterson from campus in May 2017, and the allegations that led to his arrest have no connection to Lincoln, the principal said, explaining why he was supposedly kept in the dark. He said it was district officials who failed, citing the fact that Manatee took more than 30 days to report allegations against Peterson to the state DOE.
He said their delay allowed the former music teacher to go unnoticed during a pre-employment review by Sarasota’s school district, adding that Sarasota officials later panicked and pointed the finger at him.
And why, he asked, did 11 months pass between the time Peterson was removed from campus and the time he was arrested? Reiterating past statements, Hundley said his recommendations were made in September 2017 and February of this year, before his former employee was arrested in late April.
“Teitelbaum is misleading everybody deliberately,” Hundley said, referencing the Manatee school district’s attorney.
An email sits at the allegation’s core. The first investigation started after Peterson was accused of having sex with a former Lincoln student, and Hundley — claiming to be under the impression that his employee was cleared by authorities — emailed district officials on July 28, 2017.
“The young man has not been arrested and has been cleared twice by CPS in this matter,” he wrote. “Can we revisit the current conditions so as to limit damage to our employee? I believe the closing of the case by CPS should provide adequate justification for his return to work.”
Though the child protection investigation had closed, it was not because Peterson was “cleared” of allegations.
“Palmetto PD has an open investigation,” Teitelbaum wrote in response to Hundley’s 2017 email about four hours later. “Awaiting forensic results from FDLE. There was enough probable cause for a judge to issue a warrant to confiscate all the electronics of Mr. Peterson.”
The sheriff’s office, which investigates all child welfare cases for the Florida Department of Children and Families, closed its case because it concluded there was a “verified finding” that abuse had occurred in allegations made by the initial victim.
“The child disclosed several incidents with details in which Mr. Peterson was named as a perpetrator,” wrote Capt. Dennis Romano, who supervises the Child Protection Investigation Division, in a letter addressed to Hundley. “The statements by the child were deemed credible and therefore led to a ‘verified finding.’”
The letter, written Tuesday on behalf of Sheriff Rick Wells, clarified to Hundley the distinction between child protection investigations and criminal investigation, although at times investigators may be working in tandem.
If there is a verified finding, the case is transferred to a community care agency for any appropriate treatment, such as counseling, Romano explained. The verified finding has no bearing on the law enforcement investigation.
“The law enforcement case may stay open because the gathering of evidence to obtain probable cause of a crime takes time,” Romano wrote. “The CPS investigation gets closed because the child is determined to be in no future danger of the alleged perpetrator.”
Second victim identified
Based on a forensic interview of the initial victim against Peterson, police were able to obtain a search warrant to seize and search Peterson’s electronics.
Those electronics allegedly contained pictures of a naked teenager, then 16, including one that captured her and Peterson in bed together.
Hundley argued that he was only aware of the original investigation, not the new allegations that arose after a forensic review of Peterson’s electronics. The teacher was no longer on Lincoln’s campus and district officials never updated Hundley on the new findings, according to his recent statements.
The initial reporting victim said Peterson’s electronics contained images that would corroborate her allegations. Though police found no images related to her claim, they found pictures of the new victim, according to Palmetto Police Chief Scott Tyler.
“We could find no evidence of a crime,” Tyler said. “But while we were looking in a place the warrant allowed us to look, we found evidence of a crime.”
Tyler said Tuesday, as he previously stated, that he kept the principal informed of milestones in the investigation. The police chief said he informed Hundley of an image that “may be criminal,” and that police intended to submit charges to the State Attorney’s Office.
There is a 180-degree difference in Hundley’s recollection of the conversation. According to him, the police chief said investigators found images of “an older girl,” and that Peterson should return to work “shortly.” Hundley’s account is backed by his assistant principal, Darlene Proue.
“He did state that they had found inappropriate picture(s) of a young lady and pictures with the young lady, her family and Mr. Peterson, but that he felt Mr. Peterson would be returning to work shortly,” Proue wrote in her letter to the state DOE.
Proue’s own educator certificate was at risk when she faced misconduct allegations in 2015. As the principal of W.D. Sugg Middle School, she allegedly employed a teacher to complete her home renovations, granting the teacher three days of sick leave so he could do the work. Proue was also accused of giving a student community service hours for painting a room in her home.
Though she “neither admits nor denies” the allegations, she accepted a settlement agreement and two years of probation with the state, according to a final order from the state’s Education Practices Commission, filed last year.
She has since served 16 and a half months of the probation, a DOE spokeswoman said.
A state panel may reprimand Hundley if he chooses not to respond by Sept. 24, and he faces anything from a fine to the revocation of his certificate.
On Tuesday, Hundley said he didn’t need an educator certificate to continue his work as Lincoln’s principal.
“If they find it fit to take action against my certificate based on non-facts and non-issues, then I didn’t have a chance to win anyway,” he said.