Grand jury convenes in case of Okaloosa County School District

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State Attorney Bill Eddins: “We are planning to present evidence of all aspects of the school district that have become public issues.”

TOM McLAUGHLIN @TomMnwfdn

CRESTVIEW — Eddie Perillo appeared Monday morning before a grand jury convened to hear what the State Attorney’s Office has discovered during several months of investigating the Okaloosa County School District.

 

Perillo is the first of many expected to provide testimony over the next two weeks. His decision to take suspicions that his special-needs child was being abused by an Okaloosa County school teacher to both law enforcement and the Northwest Florida Daily News helped launch numerous investigations into the actions and inaction of the district.

State Attorney Bill Eddins said grand jurors will hear much more than evidence of child abuse occurring within the special education departments of two county schools and the district’s spotty record on disciplining employees.

“We are planning to present evidence of all aspects of the school district that have become public issues,” Eddins said Monday.

The list of public issues is a long one. The Daily News has published 60 news or opinion articles about the school district scandal since it was exposed in early August of last year.

Thus far, four people have been arrested. Former Kenwood Elementary School pre-K special education instructor Marlynn Stillions, the teacher accused of harming Perillo’s non-verbal autistic son, Noah, faces four counts of child abuse without great bodily harm.

Three others — former Kenwood Elementary principal Angelyn Vaughan, former School District investigator Arden Farley and former Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Stacie Smith — all face multiple charges of failing to report suspected child abuse.

Stillions, Vaughan and Farley were arrested Sept. 13, after the Sheriff’s Office investigated a report compiled by Farley that included findings Stillions had physically abused Noah Perillo.

The Farley report had been turned in to Smith in June 2016 — but on Aug. 1, 2016, Smith declared the findings unfounded and the case against Stillions closed. The report was shelved for a year and only made public when Eddie Perillo petitioned the school district through a public records request for a copy in May 2017.

Smith was arrested Jan. 29 on charges that she too failed in 2016 to report Stillions’ abuse of Noah Perillo.

Superintendent’s knowledge a big question

Eddins said Monday the investigation of the school district that his office took over from the Sheriff’s Office following the Sept. 13 arrests is still open and it remains to be seen whether any more charges will be filed after the grand jury reports its findings.

He declined to discuss issues to be addressed with the grand jury. Eddins has said previously that the topic of possible child abuse of special education students at two Okaloosa schools, Kenwood and Silver Sands, was a primary focus of his office’s investigation.

Perhaps the most compelling question remaining regarding the Perillo case is whether Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson had seen and/or reviewed the Stillions investigative report before Smith closed the case.

If the grand jury finds she had been aware of Farley’s findings in 2016, it could leave her open to formal admonishment, removal from office or even criminal charges.

Jackson confused the issue of her knowledge of the report on Sept. 21, 2017 when, under questioning by School Board Chairman Lamar White, she made contradictory statements.

The superintendent originally told board members that she had not looked at Farley’s report until after the Daily News published a story Aug. 5, 2017, which confirmed the Sheriff’s Office investigation into alleged abuse at Kenwood Elementary.

“Just like you, Mr. Chairman, when all of this broke in the news, I asked in August, and I have an email and a text to prove, that Aug. 6 of 2017 this year to see this report because I had never looked at it,” Jackson said at the September meeting.

 

Moments later, Jackson said Smith, her human resources department head, called her in 2016 and said she had decided to close the Stillions file.

“I asked to review it at that point so that I could see for myself exactly what it said in that report,” Jackson said. “If something is crazy out there, Stacie calls me. And when she called me on this, and that was a year ago I believe when we had this conversation, she had thoroughly investigated this and spent a great deal of time getting the other side of the story.”

School board members did not question Jackson’s contradiction during the meeting.

White has been subpoenaed by the grand jury and is scheduled to appear Thursday, sources said. He confirmed Monday that he has generally reviewed events of the last half year in preparing to address the grand jury, including video from the Sept. 21 meeting.

Jackson called the Daily News after the September meeting to say she’d misspoken about seeing the Farley report in 2016.

But Arnold Brown, the Sheriff’s Office chief of investigations, confirmed a week after the board meeting that he’d sent Jackson an email with the Farley report on May 18, 2017, three months ahead of when she told the School Board she’d first viewed the document.

Brown told the Daily News that he’d discussed with the superintendent his agency’s investigation into the child abuse allegations lodged against Stillions.

“We discussed that the Sheriff’s Office is launching a criminal investigation based on the contents of the report by Arden Farley that I forwarded to her,” Brown said.

Eddins said he has invited Jackson to address the grand jury, but did not compel her to do so with a subpoena. He has likewise invited the four School Board members who sit on the panel with White to testify if they so choose.

“We subpoenaed the chairman in order to lay out information from the point of view of the school board,” Eddins said.

If the grand jury will truly be asked to investigate all aspects of the school district that have become public issues, Smith’s decision to close the Farley report just 30 days before Jackson was re-elected following a hotly contested campaign could become a prominent topic.

So too could the possible involvement of the Okaloosa County Education Association in the decision not to pursue Farley’s findings in the Stillions case.

Smith defended closing the case by saying Farley failed to follow union guidelines in investigating allegations against Stillions, though it has since been established that union guidelines don’t come into play when charges of child abuse are involved.

Greg Butler, the OCEA executive director, defended Stillions in the first article written confirming the Sheriff’s Office investigation of her. Neither he nor any other school union officials, including those at the state level, have responded to requests for information since Aug. 4, 2017.

Henry Kelley issues

Steven Menchel, a former federal investigator, also has been subpoenaed to testify this week. Menchel has been a vocal critic of Henry Kelley, the former Okaloosa County School District spokesman and current executive director of the Okaloosa County Public Schools Foundation.

Menchel filed a formal complaint after Kelley used a school computer to engage him in an angry Facebook discussion. The incident was investigated and Kelley received a formal reprimand, but other issues regarding Kelley have arisen since the original confrontation.

Local resident Gene Earley, who confirmed Monday that he had not been subpoenaed or invited to address the grand jury, lodged a complaint against Kelley after the then-school district spokesman released documents, sent from Earley to the school district, to a television reporter.

Earley claimed the released documents, calling for an investigation into the actions of Assistant Superintendent Smith, were considered confidential under state law and that Kelley had violated Florida Sunshine Laws by releasing them.

Kelley was reprimanded for releasing the documents and, later, became the subject of an investigation requested by Superintendent Jackson that was conducted by Matthew Pellegrino, a former FBI agent.

Pellegrino, who charged the school district nearly $1,500, concurred in a report he filed after the investigation that Earley had been correct in his claim against Kelley.

“Earley’s allegation that Kelley violated Sections [1012.31] and 119.071 of the Florida Statutes appears to be correct,” Pellegrino reported.

“A memo outlining a timeline of events concerning the Stacie Smith complaint do show that the investigation of Earley’s complaint against Stacie Smith was still ongoing beyond 10/18/2017 when Kelley released it,” the report said.

Kelley has never faced legal ramifications for the Sunshine Law violations.

Earley has also filed a complaint against Jackson and the Okaloosa County School District with Gov. Rick Scott. It alleges Jackson has committed nearly 20 violations of state law and/or Florida Department of Education policies.

It also claims wrongdoing on the part of both Smith and Kelley.

Earley said he has decided to hold off seeking action on his complaints until after the grand jury has had the opportunity to meet and hear the State Attorney’s Office evidence against the school district.

“You have to let them do what they’re going to do,” he said. “That’s what they’re there for.”

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