Rep. Mel Ponder: “The State Attorney has the final say. My plan is to let the State Attorney’s Office continue to work its way through, since they are the highest authority in this process.”
By Heather Osbourne | 315-4440 | @heatheronwfdn | firstname.lastname@example.org
Despite the slew of investigations focused on the Okaloosa County School District in recent months, the county’s state legislators said they have no plans to intervene — yet.
Rep. Mel Ponder, who sits on several education committees in Tallahassee, was the first of the four elected officials to address the investigations into allegations of child abuse, sexual harassment, harassment, negligence and policy breaches by school district staff.
Ponder said aside from following the investigations through Northwest Florida Daily News coverage, he has not sought out additional information from the School District or State Attorney’s Office.
“I’ve had a few people reach out to me with concerns,” Ponder said. “But, I think we should just let the process work its way out.”
The launching point
The first scandal for the school district came to light in May when Eddie Perillo, the father of a 6-year-old child with autism, discovered his son, at age four, had been the subject of a 2016 child abuse investigation involving former Kenwood Elementary pre-K special education teacher Marlynn Stillions.
It proved a launching point that led to three September arrests of current or former school district employees — Stillions, Arden Farley and Angelyn Vaughan — and further investigations that included sexual harassment claims against Choctawhatchee High School custodian Stephen Hall from 2014-17, allegations of child abuse by Silver Sands School varying exceptionalities teacher Roy Frazier and a complaint of harassment against district spokesman Henry Kelley.
A formal complaint was lodged by county resident Gene Earley against Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Stacie Smith. After the district declared the investigation unfounded, Earley lodged a second formal complaint, this one against Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson. He alleges nearly 20 violations of state law and/or Florida Department of Education policies.
Yet another controversy the school district finds itself at the center of involves a federal lawsuit at Baker School for racial harassment of two black students.
The plethora of controversies has already caught the eye of the State Attorney’s Office. Although it is uncertain the depth of its ongoing district investigation, First Judicial Circuit State Attorney Bill Eddins has confirmed his office is looking into the Stillions case and at two Okaloosa County schools — Kenwood and Silver Sands — for failure to report child abuse.
Ponder said, according to his research, the State Attorney’s Office is the highest level of state authority the investigations can reach.
“The State Attorney has the final say,” Ponder said. “My plan is to let the State Attorney’s Office continue to work its way through, since they are the highest authority in this process.”
If the State Attorney’s Office concludes that laws or policies need to be revised or clarified at the state level, that’s when local legislators would get involved, according to Ponder.
“Some policies can be handled at the local level,” Ponder said. “If it’s statewide policy that needs to be handled or changed, we can definitely do that. If it needs to be clarified, we can work to make the policies abundantly clear.”
Where they currently stand
The Perillo case brought the spotlight of questionable handling of serious allegations within the school district to the public’s attention. While Hall is scheduled for a termination hearing Monday, the only arrests made to date involve the Kenwood child abuse investigation.
With court dates set for January, Stillions, 59, of Destin, was arrested and charged with four counts of felony child abuse without great bodily harm. Farley, 70, of Niceville, and former Kenwood principal Vaughan, 62, of Fort Walton Beach, were arrested and charged with multiple counts of felony failure to report suspected child abuse. Farley investigated the case for the school district.
Frazier, accused of abuse during the 2015-16 school year, had his teaching certificate permanently revoked June 29 following a state investigation into allegations he struck students, confined them in boxes and tied them to an exercise bike with a belt.
He had been honored upon his retirement from the Okaloosa County School District just weeks before the revocation was announced.
There has yet to be an announcement made on how the Okaloosa County School Board will handle the formal complaint filed by Earley against Jackson, which also alleges serious breaches of existing statutes and policies by Smith and Kelley.
Farley said last week he has filed official complaints against the school district with both the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Professional Practices and DOE Commissioner Pam Stewart.
In September, a federal judge ruled a case alleging a “racially hostile school environment” at Baker School should be heard in court. There has been no court date announced.
Other legislators’ views
Rep. Jayer Williamson, Sen. Doug Broxson and Sen. George Gainer were only somewhat aware of what was occurring within the school district.
“I haven’t been following it personally because it hasn’t been brought to my attention,” Williamson said. “If I’m getting calls from a reporter, then I need to follow it better than I am.
“We need to make sure the right steps are in place for our children to go to a safe place to learn. This will be a learning experience to see if new policies need to be put in place.”
Broxson said he believes there is a set process in place and individuals should not get in the way of the State Attorney’s investigation. He said he trusts the office will turn over the investigations to the Professional Practices Commission, or some other entity, if it feels it is necessary.
Gainer said although he acknowledges the severity of the school district investigations, he still holds the Okaloosa County School District in high esteem.
“This is a situation where they can very easily decide who was right, who was wrong and who should have stepped in,” Gainer said. “This is a serious accusation, but we’ve got some good people in Okaloosa County. The people in the school district are first class.”