A principal defends his actions. Then, Sheriff Wells resigns from the school’s board

Principal Eddie Hundley addresses his board at Lincoln Memorial Academy’s first meeting as a charter school, but has now announced his resignation after a series of controversies surrounded his leadership tenure.
Principal Eddie Hundley addresses his board at Lincoln Memorial Academy’s first meeting as a charter school, but has now announced his resignation after a series of controversies surrounded his leadership tenure. Bradenton Herald

Principal Eddie Hundley put his excitement on hold Wednesday, at the first board meeting for his new charter school, refuting claims that he knowingly recommended someone for a teaching job while they were under investigation for sexual misconduct.

“I can assure the board that I haven’t and wouldn’t intentionally put any children in harm’s way,” he said. “I would encourage people to read through the sensationalism and, perhaps, look at dates.”

He recommended Quentin Peterson for two jobs in Sarasota County, once for a substitute teaching position, and later for a full-time position as a math instructor. Peterson, a former music teacher at Lincoln Memorial Middle School, had resigned amid investigations by law enforcement and the school district.

Peterson was previously investigated and absolved of sexual misconduct three times before the most recent allegations, which led to his arrest this past April 24.

Hundley’s school officially became Lincoln Memorial Academy on July 1. Manatee Sheriff Rick Wells was on the charter school’s board of directors until he resigned at Wednesday’s meeting.

Wells commended the board members for their dedication to area students, noting that his presence was a “distraction,” and that his departure was in the board’s best interest.

“I just feel that on the law enforcement side, because of my position, that I continue to be questioned about what’s going on with Mr. Hundley,” Wells said in a follow-up interview. “And I don’t really have all the answers because I’m not part of any of the investigations going on.”

On May 24, 2017, the school district opened an investigation in its Office of Professional Standards after Peterson, now 25, was accused of “having a relationship with a former student” who moved on to high school.

According to the district’s report, the Palmetto Police Department and Child Protective Services were also investigating.

Peterson was placed on a temporary assignment the same day. His last contractual day was on June 2, but he remained in the temporary position as authorities seized his electronics days later, according to the district report.

Though CPS closed its case, Palmetto detectives continued their investigation, according to an email sent to Hundley on July 28, 2017. District attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum told the principal about an ongoing probe into Peterson’s alleged actions.

“There was enough probable cause for a judge to issue a warrant to confiscate all the electronics,” Teitelbaum wrote.

Peterson was placed on paid administrative leave in late August, when authorities briefed the district on evidence that was allegedly found on Peterson’s electronics.

Detectives found a picture of Peterson, then 24, kissing a girl who was 16-years-old at the time, according to a police report. It was not the former student who sparked their original investigation.

The school district attorney met with Peterson’s attorney, Brendan Vicari, to discuss the evidence on Aug. 30, the district report states. The former teacher soon tendered his resignation, agreeing to never seek employment in Manatee County.

The report also said police sent a capias request to the state attorney’s office.

“If the police, or the board or the superintendent were privy to some evidence that showed something, then I’m curious as to why the emphasis has been on me as opposed to why it was eight to nine months before anybody said anything,” Hundley said on Wednesday.

He was likely referring to Peterson’s arrest, which took place nearly eight months after Peterson’s official resignation. Though he knew of the seized electronics and Peterson’s resignation, Hundley said he was unaware of the most recent allegations.

Peterson was neither arrested nor fired in the weeks and months leading up to Hundley’s job recommendations, he noted on Wednesday.

He first recommended Peterson for a substitute teaching job in Sarasota County on Sept. 22, 10 days after his resignation, according to personnel records.

Days later, Manatee notified the state Department of Education about Peterson’s alleged relationship with the teenage girl, according to a previous statement from the district’s attorney.

Peterson signed a contract for the substitute teaching position on Oct. 10, 2017. Then, about four months later, Hundley recommended the former employee for a full-time position as a math instructor. Peterson started the job at Booker High School on Feb. 28.

Authorities arrested Peterson at Booker High on April 24, and the Sarasota school district responded by filing a complaint against Hundley with the state about one week later.

“Just pay attention to some details, like the suggestion that the Manatee County school board didn’t know why he resigned but I somehow was supposed to know,” Hundley said on Wednesday.

Hundley’s argument held little weight with former Superintendent Diana Greene, who reprimanded Hundley in a letter dated May 2. According to the letter, Hundley knowingly made the recommendation while Peterson was under investigation.

In his recommendation, he said there was no reason Peterson should not work with children. Greene said Hundley’s statement was “blatantly false” because he knew of the resignation and the preceding investigation.

He also marked that Peterson was “recommended for continued employment,” though Peterson agreed to never again work in Manatee’s school district, and Hundley marked “no” when asked whether Peterson was ever disciplined.

In May 2017, weeks before the recent investigation opened, the former superintendent directed Hundley to reprimand Peterson in a separate case. Peterson was accused of touching a student’s thigh while they were alone in his dark office.

Police later dropped the case, citing inconsistent statements and a lack of evidence. Physical contact had taken place, and it was Peterson’s poor judgment a lack of management skills that led to the situation, according to a May 4, 2017, letter from Greene to Hundley.

The former superintendent asked Hundley to issue a letter of reprimand . He begrudgingly accepted.

“While I am fully aware that the accusations made against you in this matter were determined to be unfounded by all three investigating agencies (OPS, CPS, PPD), it is the determination of the Superintendent that your actions warrant this reprimand,” Hundley wrote.

That was the third time authorities investigated Peterson. Hundley reported Peterson to an abuse hotline after a mother brought her concerns to the school in 2016. She brought her daughter’s diary, which detailed a sexual relationship between Peterson and the girl.

The daughter told police her stories were fake, and investigators closed the case. And in 2012, while Peterson was a student at the University of Florida, he was accused of touching an underage girl. They were in a sound booth during a concert at Palmetto High School, according to a police report.

He was “touching her under clothing” after she “repeatedly told him to stop,” the report states. Police filed a capias request, but the state attorney’s office declined to file charges, citing a lack of witnesses or evidence.

Referencing the most recent allegations on Wednesday, Hundley said administrators used him as a doormat to distract from other people’s failings.

“I feel as though it’s a scapegoat situation for one district, and it did a great job putting a negative cloud over what we’re doing, and I’m proud that it didn’t stop us,” he said.