Eddie Hundley may have omitted key details about his knowledge of the investigation into Quentin Peterson, who received two job endorsements from the leader of Lincoln Memorial Academy. At least one person is calling for criminal charges against the Manatee County principal.
On Wednesday, Hundley addressed a wave of backlash after months of silence. During a meeting of the Lincoln board of directors, he said the investigation “did not involve me,” referencing an inquiry that led Peterson to be charged with possession of child pornography, but not before he secured a teaching job in Sarasota County.
“If he was guilty of something and they found it in July or August, why it wasn’t reported, why he wasn’t arrested, those are questions that might want to be asked,” he said. “I had not known that.”
Hundley did know about images “that may be criminal,” found on Peterson’s electronics, and the principal knew investigators were moving forward with criminal charges, said Chief Scott Tyler, of the Palmetto Police Department.
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The principal is facing even more backlash as of Friday afternoon. Bridget Ziegler, chair for the School Board of Sarasota County, urged district officials to file a criminal complaint against Hundley. Months of consideration led to the formal request, Ziegler said.
Former superintendent Diana Greene reprimanded Hundley on May 2 for his “false and inaccurate employment references.” Then, at Wednesday’s meeting, Manatee Sheriff Rick Wells resigned from the school’s board of directors.
Hundley did not respond to an email or a phone call on Friday.
The investigation of Peterson started in May 2017, when Tyler’s department opened a case and informed the school district that Peterson may have been involved with a former student. Though the claim was never substantiated, investigators seized Peterson’s electronics and allegedly found an image of him in bed with a 16-year-old girl.
Peterson had already been placed on a temporary assignment, away from Lincoln Memorial, where he previously worked as a music teacher, according to Hundley.
“Mr. Hundley told me that this was a very effective teacher and he wanted to bring him back for the next school year, so Mr. Hundley was anxious for there to be some sort of resolution to this, so he knew what to do for the next school year,” Tyler said.
The 2016-2017 school year was coming to an end, but the Peterson investigation was just beginning. Authorities seized his electronics and sent them to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on June 6, 2017, according to a report from the school district. Tyler said he informed Hundley about the electronics and allegations.
Mitchell Teitelbaum, attorney for the School District of Manatee County, informed Hundley of the seized electronics in a July 2017 email. It was a response to an email Hundley sent earlier in the day.
“Can we revisit the current conditions so as to limit damage to our employee?” Hundley wrote. “I believe the closing of the case by CPS should provide adequate justification for his return to work.”
In a follow-up email, Teitelbaum explained that Palmetto investigators were still working the case, though CPS had closed its investigation. Cynthia Saunders, now the district superintendent, asked Teitelbaum to inform Hundley of the investigation.
“Already did,” Teitelbaum responded. “He was not satisfied with the answer.”
Though he was unsure of the date, Chief Tyler said he again updated Hundley when they found “an image that may be criminal.” Detectives sifted through the files from Peterson’s electronics for about two weeks, allegedly finding nude images of the girl, along with the photo of her and Peterson in bed.
Hundley wanted to give Peterson a chance to defend himself and face the legal system, the police chief said.
“And the whole thing was, he wants to know can I bring this guy back to work?” Tyler said. “And at this point I’ve said, ‘All I can tell you, Mr. Hundley, is we’re filing a capias,’ and I explained what a capias was.”
According to the school district, police sent a capias request to the state attorney’s office on Aug. 30. Police requested that Peterson be charged with possession of child pornography and unlawful sexual act with a minor, and the state attorney would then decide whether to file those charges.
Peterson officialy resigned from Manatee’s school district on Sept. 12, 2017. The state attorney’s office decided to file the child pornography charge on Feb. 14, and Peterson was arrested at Booker High School on April 24.
He had already lived in Sarasota for at least six months, working as a substitute teacher and then a full-time math teacher.
Hundley made two job recommendations for Peterson. There was no reason to keep him away from children, and his past performance was “superior,” according to his former employer.
On Wednesday, the principal said it was impossible to know Peterson was facing charges. The case didn’t involve a Lincoln Memorial student, and Peterson was never fired or arrested. In Hundley’s opinion, the former teacher was encouraged to resign.
Palmetto’s police chief said he made Hundley aware of the evidence shortly after it was found.
“His comment was, ‘Well, he has a right to defense and, basically, we need to make sure there’s not a reasonable explanation for why that image is there,’” Tyler said.
Some believe Hundley should be criminally charged for his “egregious actions,” according to Ziegler, the Sarasota School Board chair.
She sent an email to Sarasota Superintendent Todd Bowden on Friday afternoon. She also sent the message to her fellow school board members and the board attorney, along with Scott Hopes, chair of Manatee’s school board.
Ziegler acknowledged the shortfalls previously announced by Bowden, mainly that Sarasota failed to check a state system for any pending investigations against Peterson. Ziegler said the district has since improved its hiring practices.
Citing Florida Statute 837.06, she said a criminal complaint should be filed with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, ensuring Hundley is held accountable for his “false statements.” According to the statute, it’s a second-degree misdemeanor to make false, written statements with the goal of misleading a public servant.
Sarasota filed a complaint against Hundley with the state on April 30, and a Florida Department of Education spokeswoman said on Thursday that she could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation. The district’s complaint was not enough, Ziegler said.
“We cannot claim that safety and security is our top priority, and forgo pursuing action to the full extent of the law against someone whom, I believe, has exposed our students to harmful circumstances,” she wrote in the email.
In his statement at a May 1 board meeting, Bowden said the damage was already done. He said administrators fired Peterson and then investigated his time in the district, an inquiry that yielded “alleged accusations from students.”
Bruce King, a spokesman for the Sarasota Police Department, cited an ongoing investigation when he declined to comment on Friday.
The job recommendations and Peterson’s subsequent arrest have overshadowed the grand opening of Lincoln Memorial, which was previously Lincoln Memorial Middle School. The campus will open as a charter school in August.
Hundley said he was used as a scapegoat for blunders in Manatee and Sarasota.
Citing the long period of time between Peterson’s resignation and his arrest, Hundley said there was no indication that his former employee would face legal trouble. He was investigated and absolved of similar accusations at least three times in the past.
“He’s certified for music, they hired him for math, because he’s a good teacher, and that’s what I knew to be true,” Hundley said on Wednesday. “I also knew anything about any kids here at Lincoln was unfounded.”