Judge may end career of former Lincoln Middle School teacher

Quentin Peterson, an early figure in the controversy surrounding Lincoln Memorial Academy, is on the verge of losing his teaching credentials.

Citing evidence and testimony provided to the Division of Administrative Hearings in August, an administrative law judge recommended that Peterson’s educator certificate — currently valid through June 30, 2020 — be permanently revoked. If finalized, the punishment would bar Peterson from teaching in Florida’s public schools.

Judge Lynne A. Quimby-Pennock issued her recommendation on Thursday, describing a 2016 image of Peterson, then 24, kissing a 16-year-old girl. The judge also found that Peterson omitted key information from his job application in Sarasota County, mainly that he resigned from Manatee schools during a criminal investigation.

The same judge recommended a five-year revocation of the certificate held by Eddie Hundley, then the principal of Lincoln Middle School, after he recommended Peterson for the teaching job in Sarasota. Though he claimed to be uninformed or misled about the ongoing criminal matter, Hundley lost his certificate and later faced a district-takeover of his school, after it converted to Lincoln Memorial Academy.

The Education Practices Commission, an independent body within the Florida Department of Education, will decide whether to accept the proposed sanctions against Peterson.

“Appropriate boundaries are an essential part of a teacher’s responsibilities,” the judge wrote. “Respondent crossed the line by failing to maintain an appropriate and necessary teacher-student relationship.”

Peterson was a music teacher at Lincoln Middle before its conversion to a charter school. He was removed from the campus in Palmetto and placed on a temporary assignment in May 2017, when the Palmetto Police Department began to investigate Peterson’s alleged relationship with a former student.

Police seized his electronics in June 2017, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement provided its findings about two months later. While they found no evidence to verify the original accusation, authorities discovered several images — some nude — of a different underage girl, according to the police report.

On Aug. 18, 2017, the district transferred Peterson to paid administrative leave. His attorney, Branden Vicari, later met with the school district’s attorney, Mitchell Teitelbaum; and the district’s internal investigator, Troy Nelson.

As a result of the meeting, Peterson was told that Manatee would either terminate his employment or accept his resignation, according to the judge’s final order. In a letter dated Sept. 1, 2017, Peterson agreed to resign and never seek re-employment with the School District of Manatee County.

Police submitted charges to the state attorney’s office around the same time, while Peterson went on to apply for a substitute teaching position in Sarasota County just weeks later. Peterson started as a substitute in October 2017, about four months before he became a full-time math teacher at Booker High School.

The administrative law judge found that Peterson’s application “contained fraudulent information” because he answered “no” when asked if he ever resigned in lieu of termination.

Two administrators in Sarasota County — Superintendent Todd Bowden and Principal Laurie Breslin — testified that Peterson never disclosed his resignation or the police investigation. The hiring, they said, would have never happened if Peterson were honest in his application and interview.

Authorities arrested Peterson and charged him with possession of child pornography in April 2018, about six months after he started working in Sarasota, and the state education department then went after his teaching credentials.

According to his attorney, the ongoing criminal case would prevent Peterson from testifying at the hearing on his educator certificate, and the administrative hearing may interfere with the criminal proceedings.

Though the hearing was temporarily delayed, Florida’s education commissioner, Richard Corcoran, filed an amended complaint against Peterson. The commissioner removed any mention of the nude photographs, and he instead focused on the problematic job application and the alleged photo of Peterson kissing the teenage girl.

Two witnesses — David Mazon, the pastor at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church; and Pam Bellamy, a family member — said they were unable to identify Peterson in the “kissing photo.”

“Pastor Mazon’s testimony lacks clarity and credibility as he waffled on identifying Respondent in the first picture, but had no hesitation in the remaining pictures,” the judge concluded.

“As Respondent’s relative, Ms. Bellamy’s testimony appears to be selective and is not found credible,” the judge continued.

Judge Quimby-Pennock found there was enough evidence to permanently revoke Peterson’s educator certificate, though the criminal case is still ongoing. His jury trial, previously scheduled for February and then for September, is now slated for Jan. 13.

Meanwhile, Lincoln’s former leaders are fighting to reclaim their charter— just one year after converting from a traditional middle school to Lincoln Memorial Academy. The school board voted 4-1 to terminate Lincoln’s charter on July 23, citing issues with the school’s finances and leadership.

One of the major talking points was Hundley’s job recommendation for Peterson, and the ensuing revocation of Hundley’s educator certificate.

In its final order, the Education Practices Commission said a revoked license prevented Hundley, the principal and chief executive officer of Lincoln Memorial Academy, from being employed “by a district school board or public school in any capacity requiring direct contract with students.”

Though the sanctions and Hundley’s role as CEO were argued in court, an administrative law judge upheld the termination of Lincoln’s charter last month.

The decision by Robert Cohen, then the chief administrative law judge for DOAH, now faces a challenge before a state appeals court.

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.