How did a Manatee County teacher resign amid a criminal investigation and then secure a job in Sarasota County?
Ever since Quentin Peterson, 25, was charged with possession of child pornography and escorted off the grounds of a Sarasota high school on April 24, the blame has largely fallen on Peterson’s former boss, Eddie Hundley, principal of Lincoln Memorial Academy. The school in Palmetto was formerly known as Lincoln Memorial Middle School.
Hundley gave the teacher high marks in two job recommendations, despite accusations that he knew of an ongoing investigation into Peterson. The Florida Department of Education recently said Hundley could lose his educator certificate as a result.
Though the certificate has no bearing on Hundley’s role as principal, he plans to address the backlash in an upcoming press conference. He said the spotlight was misplaced, harming enrollment at the newly formed charter school, along with its funding and his personal well-being.
“I have a legacy that I care about,” he said. “I have a family and children that I care about, and I have a community who has entrusted me with their children for over 15 years.”
In an emailed response to the Bradenton Herald, district attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum said the principal is using anecdotes to counter facts.
“The statements of Lincoln Memorial Academy Principal Eddie Hundley are contrary to facts that have been clearly established by emails between the district and Mr. Hundley, as well as other irrefutable documentary evidence bearing Eddie Hundley’s own signature,” the email states.
Peterson worked as a music teacher at Lincoln Memorial Middle School. The district’s Office of Professional Standards opened an investigation on May 24, 2017, after he was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a former student.
About two months later, as a new school year was set to begin, Hundley called Child Protective Services and discovered the agency had closed its case. He emailed district officials and asked if Peterson could return to work.
“As discussed, CPS’ closure of a file does not mean a case is closed,” Teitelbaum said in a July 28, 2017, email. “Palmetto PD has an open investigation. Awaiting forensic results from FDLE. There was enough probable cause for a judge to issue a warrant to confiscate all electronics.”
Palmetto police seized Peterson’s electronics and sent them to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Though they never verified the original accusation, investigators found “several nude photographs of another young girl, who they identified as being 17 years old,” according to the district’s report.
Pictures included “them in bed together and another of them kissing,” the report continued.
Peterson was already placed on a temporary assignment off campus, and the new investigation had no connection with Lincoln Memorial, said Hundley, explaining why he was unaware of the images.
Chief Scott Tyler, of the Palmetto Police Department, recently said he notified Hundley of an image that “may be criminal,” and that his department would push for charges.
The police chief maintained his statement on Monday, responding to a denial from Hundley and another school administrator.
“I’m sorry I can’t recall a date and a time, but I informed Hundley that we found images of an underage girl and the case would be forwarded to the state attorney’s office,” Tyler said.
Hundley pointed to a letter by Assistant Principal Darlene Proue, sent to the state DOE as part of its investigation.
“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,” the letter states. “At no time did Chief Tyler insinuate that the pictures were of a serious criminal nature.”
Regardless of what the chief said, the school district’s attorney said Hundley should have known the investigation was ongoing.
“At no point in time was there any documentary evidence that the investigation concluded in favor of Quentin Peterson,” Teitelbaum said in his email.
Hundley said it was district officials who had the knowledge and power to take action, and that delays allowed Peterson to continue his teaching career in Sarasota.
A detective notified the district investigator on Aug. 17, 2017, about the alleged child pornography, according to a district report.
In a letter dated the same day, former Superintendent Diana Greene notified Peterson that he would be placed on paid administrative leave “pending the outcome of our investigation of possible misconduct on your part.” Hundley also received the letter.
Though police briefed district officials on the alleged evidence in a meeting on Aug. 24, 2017, the district waited until Sept. 27 to report any allegations to the state DOE, one month and three days after they were discovered. School districts are required to report misconduct allegations within 30 days.
“A report was forwarded and accepted by the Florida Department of Education, Offices of Professional Practices as timely in the Quentin Peterson matter,” Teitelbaum said.
Peterson had already resigned in a letter dated Sept. 1, and Hundley said the resignation was further proof that neither he nor Sarasota County could have known about the serious allegations.
“In my wildest dreams, I didn’t believe that if they knew all of this stuff was going on that they would just let him resign,” Hundley said. “If you do that, what you’re doing is setting the stage for exactly what happened. You’re setting the stage for them to go and apply somewhere else and get a job.”
In response, Teitelbaum said the principal’s suggestion is contrary to district policy.
“The District cannot prevent an employee from tendering their resignation,” he wrote in the email.
There were indications, however, that something was afoot. Peterson returned to Lincoln Memorial as a volunteer after his resignation, but he was removed by the district within 15 minutes, Hundley said.
Hundley said he was confused because Peterson was never fired or arrested, and the principal said he was never informed of the new accusations, despite Peterson’s removal from campus.
Rumors surfaced after Peterson secured a job in Sarasota, indicating he might be under state scrutiny, but Hundley said he couldn’t take action based on hearsay.
He made the first job recommendation on Sept. 22, ranking all of Peterson’s skillets as “superior,” and marking “no” when asked whether Peterson should stay away from children.
The former teacher was accused of inappropriately touching underage girls three times between 2012 and 2017, though he was never charged.
”If you work in public schools, unfortunately, there are countless accusations made, and it’s not for me to decide whether the accusations are true or not,” Hundley said, adding that Peterson has yet to be convicted on the child pornography charge he is now facing.
On the same recommendation, Hundley marked “yes” when asked if he would re-employ Peterson, though the former teacher agreed in his resignation to never apply for a job in Manatee’s school district.
Hundley made the second job recommendation on Feb. 23, when Sarasota was considering Peterson for a full-time position at Booker High School. Hundley marked “no” when asked whether the former teacher was ever disciplined.
But in a letter dated May 4, 2017, then-Superintendent Greene had directed Hundley to reprimand Peterson in connection with one of the past allegations.
“Although the Palmetto Police Department concluded that the matter was closed as unfounded, based upon inconsistent statements by the student and witnesses, there was a conclusion that physical contact had taken place between Mr. Peterson and the student,” Greene said in the letter.
Hundley wrote Peterson a letter of reprimand, making it clear that Greene ordered the discipline. Since Peterson was cleared by authorities, Hundley said he felt the letter was unwarranted, and for that reason he marked “no” when asked whether Peterson was ever disciplined.
He also said the reprimand letter fell short of actual discipline because it offered no consequences, much like the reprimand he received from Greene on May 2, 2018. She said the principal made “blatantly false” statements in his job recommendations.
Teitelbaum’s email said Hundley issued and signed the reprimand letter, regardless of his personal views.
“My assistant principal gave him a good reference, too,” Hundley said. “Are we all conspiring? We’re all going to put our careers on the line — come on.”
Sarasota authorities arrested Peterson on April 24, about two months after Hundley’s second recommendation.
Hundley is also backed by the school’s board of directors, which said the backlash “smacks of racism and a tribal mentality” in a July 29 news release.
Along with holding a press conference, Hundley will appeal the state’s recent findings. Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said the principal violated several state statutes and administrative codes by giving “misleading employment references.”
“It’s turned into suggesting that I was fully aware of what was going on and I tried to sneak him through,” Hundley said. “That’s terrible and it’s not true.”