‘Resignation in lieu of termination.’ Manatee School District spotlights alleged abuse

Saturday marked one year since former Gov. Rick Scott approved a new set of laws to combat abuse in schools, along with the continued employment of alleged abusers.

House Bill 495 requires school districts to make it clear when they accept a resignation or fire an educator amid ongoing allegations. If a district is investigating misconduct that affects the health, safety or welfare of a student, it must now update the employee’s file if he or she leaves during an active case.

As a result, Tuesday’s school board agenda included wording not seen in the past: “resignation in lieu of termination.”

Quintin Bradley, a former teacher’s aide at Rogers Garden-Bullock Elementary School, is accused of repeatedly throwing a large yoga ball at the face of a student with nonverbal autism, demanding the child stop crying. Bradley is now facing a felony charge of child abuse without great bodily harm.

The law only applies to district staff who hold an educator certificate or coaching certificate with the Florida Department of Education. And while Bradley holds neither credential as a teacher’s aide, Manatee administrators expanded on the law and updated Bradley’s personnel file to reflect his fallout with the district.

“Best practices dictate notification in these circumstances,” district attorney Mitchell Teitelbaum said.

The new requirement went into effect on July 1, 2018, about 10 months after the resignation of another district employee.

Quentin Peterson, a former music teacher at Lincoln Memorial Middle School, allegedly had nude pictures of him and an underage girl on his phone, yet he found employment in another school district while charges were pending.

When he left the district in 2017, Peterson’s name appeared under the monthly list of resignations, alongside other employees who simply resigned for personal reasons. There was no indication that Peterson was facing an investigation or termination.

In tandem with the Palmetto Police Department, the school district completed its report on Peterson just days after his resignation. He violated district policies by allegedly having an “inappropriate relationship” with the teenage girl, who attended another school in Manatee County, according to the report.

Peterson soon became a substitute teacher and then a full-time math teacher in Sarasota County. He received two job recommendations from his former employer, Principal Eddie Hundley, who is now at risk of losing his own educator certificate.

Over several months of media interviews and administrative hearings, Hundley argued that he was unaware of developments in the case against his former employee, though several witnesses later disputed his claim. He also blamed the district for its slow reporting.

School districts were always required to investigate possible misconduct and report “legally sufficient” complaints to the Florida DOE within 30 days. Manatee notified the state DOE of allegations against Peterson on Sept. 27, 2017, approximately 34 days after police briefed district officials on the evidence, but its notice — delayed by several days — was still accepted by the state.

Under the new law, districts are required to immediately notify the state when certified employees leave during an active investigation into “legally sufficient” complaints, meaning a factual allegation that violates state statute.

And while the state already maintained an internal database of educators, flagging those who were under criminal investigation, it now flags educators who left their district while under an internal investigation. The state has since updated Peterson’s certifications — available to the public in an online database — to reflect the ongoing allegations.

“Termination or resignation under investigation,” it states.

House Bill 495 aimed for greater and quicker reporting of alleged misconduct, but it also stiffened the penalties for people who harmed a student, and for people who failed to report the abuse.

While district superintendents were required to investigate misconduct allegations and report them to state officials, superintendents must now report the allegations to local law enforcement. Otherwise, they risk losing a year’s salary.

And the bill created Florida Statute 800.101, making it a felony for authority figures — employees, volunteers or contracted workers in a school — to engage in sexual conduct, romantic relationships or lewd conduct with a student.

“While this was illegal before, the bill created a specific statute in which the authority figure could be charged with a felony if they are engaging in misconduct,” according to an email from DOE spokeswoman Audrey Walden.