On Tuesday, school district investigator Arden Farley, Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson and a group of witnesses will place their right hand on the Bible and swear to tell only the truth concerning the 2016 child abuse investigation involving a non-verbal autistic boy at Kenwood Elementary School.
By Heather Osbourne | 315-4440 | @heatheronwfdn | firstname.lastname@example.org
NICEVILLE — Okaloosa County School District investigator Arden Farley will break his three-month silence Tuesday during a district hearing connected to the alleged abuse of a non-verbal child with autism.
At 9 a.m. Tuesday, Farley, Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson and a group of witnesses will place their right hand on the Bible and swear to tell only the truth in the case involving now 6-year-old Noah Perillo.
The hearing will determine whether Farley will remain under suspension without pay, or if the School Board will vote for his pay to be reinstated.
It also will allow Farley to give his first sworn testimony after being arrested Sept. 13 on four counts of felony failure to report child abuse.
School Board Chairman Lamar White said Thursday that the suspension, per school board policy, cannot be retracted because of Farley’s felony charge.
“It will be just like a courtroom,” White said. “The employee (Farley) will sit on one side of the aisle. The superintendent will leave the dais and sit on the floor on the other side with her lawyer. They will call witnesses, interview witnesses, cross-examine witnesses and produce documents as a matter of record.”
The board will vote on Farley’s fate after all testimony has been heard.
If the board votes to continue the suspension without pay, and Farley is found innocent in a court of law, the district will be required to grant back pay.
Not the one to blame
The official investigator of the 2016 case at Kenwood Elementary School, Farley made his last public statement on Sept. 19, refusing to “be a scapegoat” for district administration’s failure to seek justice for Noah.
Ironically, Farley was never supposed to investigate the Stillions case, nor any others.
The 70-year-old from Niceville was re-hired as a “district trainer” in July 2015 after retiring as a district investigator in May 2014. From May 2014 to July 2015, he was a contract investigator for the district.
According to Farley’s resume, he has investigated over 1,000 equal opportunity complaints, 200 sexual harassment allegations, mediated over 500 employer/employee complaints and trained over 10,000 personnel on human relations.
Farley’s new job as district trainer was to mediate conflicts between staff and train individuals on board policy, he said.
Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Stacie Smith, despite Farley no longer being a district investigator, approved him to investigate what was considered a possible ethics violation in the Kenwood case.
In his Investigative Summary Report, Farley found that former Kenwood pre-K special education teacher Marlynn Stillions acted inappropriately toward students, including Noah.
In his official findings, Farley confirmed allegations that Stillions used a bottle to spray students with vinegar, videotaped a student and used her foot to push Noah along a lunchroom aisle. It also was confirmed she withheld food from students, including Noah, ate the food herself and also took the students’ meals home.
Farley said because he presented the official investigation, including his disciplinary recommendations, to Smith, he conformed to School Board policy.
In Smith’s hands is when Farley believes proper procedure was not followed.
Farley said he did not report the alleged child abuse to the Department of Children and Families Abuse Hotline because he believed, at the time of the investigation, it was a code of ethics violation and not abuse.
State law requires School District employees to report any suspected child abuse or neglect to the hotline. There were 21 people identified who were either interviewed or gave statements during the course of Farley’s investigation. The majority of those were employees at Kenwood.
On Nov. 3, 2016, Jackson sent out a district-wide email instructing staff to “not call Mr. Farley and ask him to investigate or what he thinks about an ongoing investigation.” She added that he is a district trainer and no longer an investigator.
Farley said the email was sent out after he approached the superintendent, concerned about how Smith was handling investigations.
Not the only one
The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office opened its official investigation in May of this year after Noah’s father, Eddie Perillo, obtained a copy of Farley’s investigative report through a public records request and provided it to the department.
In addition to Farley, the Sheriff’s Office also arrested two others on Sept. 13 in connection with the alleged abuse.
Stillions, 59, of Destin, was charged with four counts of felony child abuse without great bodily harm. Former Kenwood principal Angelyn Vaughan, 62, of Fort Walton Beach, was charged with three counts of felony failure to report suspected child abuse.
The Stillions case launched a district-wide scandal, leading to multiple investigations into suspected abuse, sexual harassment and policy and procedure violations.
On Nov. 27, a formal complaint was filed with the Okaloosa County School Board, alleging Jackson has committed nearly 20 violations of state law and/or Florida Department of Education policies.
The complaint, turned in by Fort Walton Beach resident Gene Earley, also claims two school district employees who report directly to Jackson — Smith and Henry Kelley — have committed serious breaches of existing statutes and policies.
Kelley was investigated on a separate formal complaint last month after a citizen accused the district’s spokesman of sending harassing text messages.
District employee Stephen Hall also was investigated for sexual harassment, in addition to Roy Frazier, who was accused, like Stillions, of mistreating special needs children during the 2015-16 school year. Yet another controversy involves a federal lawsuit at Baker School for racial harassment of two black students.
The plethora of controversies have already caught the eye of the State Attorney’s Office. Although it’s uncertain the depth of its district investigation, First Judicial Circuit State Attorney Bill Eddins has confirmed his office is looking into the Stillions case and two Okaloosa County schools for failure to report child abuse.
Farley is scheduled to appear in Okaloosa County Circuit Court on Jan. 8 for a criminal jury trial on the four felony charges he faces. Stillions and Vaughan will be tried later that month.