State wants to revoke license of charter school principal in Manatee County

Principal Eddie Hundley may temporarily lose his educator certificate and, as a result, his ability to oversee Lincoln Memorial Academy.

Hundley provided two job recommendations to Quentin Peterson, a former employee who was being investigated for his alleged relationship with an underage girl. It was the fourth time Peterson faced such accusations since 2012, though he was only arrested in the most recent case.

With the backing of his former employer, Peterson worked at Booker High School, in Sarasota, until his arrest for possession of child pornography in April. His jury trial is scheduled for Sept. 3.

In its recent filing, the Florida Department of Education recommended that Hundley’s educator certificate be revoked for two years. He also faces two years’ probation, a $750 fine and a mandatory course in ethics.

“While a charter school principal may not need to hold a Florida educator certificate, a revocation or suspension of a certificate would prohibit employment in any position which has direct contact with students in a public school or district,” DOE spokeswoman Audrey Walden said in an email, citing Florida Statute 1012.795.

“It is important to note that charter schools are public schools,” she continued.

While the state DOE said Hundley made the job recommendations with full knowledge that Peterson was under investigation, the principal said he was largely kept in the dark. Both parties argued their points in front of Judge Lynne Quimby-Pennock on Jan. 9.

The state filed its recommendation on Friday, and the judge will soon issue her conclusion.

Florida’s Education Practices Commission will review recommendations by the state DOE and the judge before issuing its decision. The commission is an autonomous group of eight teachers, five administrators, seven “lay citizens” and five law enforcement officials.

The former teacher was first accused of touching a 16-year-old girl under her clothing in 2012. Then a 19-year-old student at the University of Florida, Peterson volunteered with the girl in a sound booth at Palmetto High School during a band concert, according to records from the Palmetto Police Department.

In a police interview, Peterson said he “misread her signals” and he admitted to flirting with the girl, but prosecutors later declined to file the recommended battery charge, citing a lack of evidence, according to police records.

Lincoln Memorial Academy, know as Lincoln Memorial Middle School before its conversion to a charter school, later hired Peterson as a music teacher. He was twice investigated for inappropriate contact with students, but one investigation was deemed unfounded, and another was closed for a lack of evidence.

The newest case opened in May 2017, when Peterson was accused of having sex with a former student — the fourth allegation levied against him in about five years.

District administrators removed Peterson from campus and placed him on a temporary assignment while the case developed. In the meantime, Principal Hundley discovered that Child Protective Services closed its review of the new allegation.

It seems Hundley believed the closed investigation was evidence of Peterson’s innocence. It was later discovered that CPS closed its inquiry after verifying allegations against the teacher, but the agency is responsible for a child’s care, not the criminal prosecution of a child’s possible abuser.

Still, the principal fought to bring Peterson back, as evidenced by emails between Hundley and the school district’s attorney, Mitchell Teitelbaum.

“The young man has not been arrested and has been cleared twice by CPS in this matter,” Hundley wrote to district administrators. “Can we revisit the current conditions so as to limit damage to our employee.”

“As discussed, CPS’ closure of a file does not mean a case is closed,” Teitelbaum responded.

“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 the electronics.”

Teitelbaum was referring to the recent confiscation of Peterson’s phones and computers, carried out by Palmetto police in June 2017. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement reviewed the devices and allegedly found nude pictures of an underage girl, including one of her and Peterson in bed.

The photographs revealed a new girl, separate from the alleged victim that originally sparked the police investigation, and Hundley has since argued that he was unaware of new evidence.

But in the recent court hearing, witnesses said they kept Hundley informed of milestones in the case. Witnesses included Chief Scott Tyler, of the Palmetto Police Department; and investigator Troy Nelson, of the Manatee County School District.

The district placed Peterson on paid administrative leave after the new images surfaced, and the teacher resigned in September 2017. He soon applied for a substitute position with Sarasota County Public Schools — a job he secured in October 2017.

In his first recommendation, Hundley answered “yes” when asked if he would re-employ Peterson. The principal answered “no” when asked if there was any reason that Peterson should not work with children.

Peterson then sought a full-time job and he listed Hundley as a reference. The principal answered “no” when asked if Peterson was ever disciplined, despite issuing him a letter of reprimand in 2017.

He did so begrudgingly, at the direction of then-Superintendent Diana Greene. She felt the teacher was unprofessional in a situation that led to his third investigation, sparked by allegations that he touched a student’s thigh.

Hundley also rated the former teacher as “superior” when asked about his ethical and professional judgment. Greene later issued her own letter of reprimand to Hundley, calling his job recommendations “blatantly false.”

Police had sent a capias request to the State Attorney’s Office in late August or early September. Peterson then secured a full-time position at Sarasota’s Booker High in February, and police arrested him on a change for possession of child pornography in April.

The former teacher was arrested about seven months after Hundley made his first recommendation, a highlight of the principal’s recent statements. No actions were taken against Peterson when the recommendations were made, the principal argued.

And since Peterson was removed from Lincoln Memorial’s campus, Hundley said he hadn’t seen the resignation or ongoing allegations.

However, according to the state, Hundley allowed the former teacher back on campus after his resignation, and the district immediately called for his removal, citing the ongoing police inquiry.

In a filing on Jan. 24, Hundley said all charges and potential sanctions should be dropped. He said the recommendations were made “honestly, ethically, and using the information known to be true.”

But the state DOE, headed by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, felt the principal was deceitful and reckless in his actions.

“Mr. Hundley’s responses to the questions above were misleading and false and were clearly intended to deceive SCPS so that Mr. Peterson would be hired as a teacher,” the state said in Friday’s recommendation.

Giuseppe Sabella, education reporter for the Bradenton Herald, holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. He spent time at the Independent Florida Alligator, the Gainesville Sun and the Florida Times-Union. His coverage of education in Manatee County earned him a first place prize in the Florida Society of News Editors’ 2019 Journalism Contest. Giuseppe also spent one year in Charleston, W.Va., earning a first-place award for investigative reporting.