MY VERO: Coach Joe exonerated! Judge raps School District’s rush to judgment

Now that a state administrative law judge has thoroughly trashed the bogus case against Joe Nathaniel and recommended the Sebastian River High School criminal justice teacher be exonerated of all the trumped-up charges brought against him last year, it’s fair to wonder:

Did the school district’s wrongheaded administrators seize upon a November 2015 scuffle with a long-established troublemaker to get rid of an outstanding employee whose popularity they feared and candor they couldn’t control?

Indeed, we’re obligated to question the motives – if not the competence – of Schools Superintendent Mark Rendell and other administrators, who, rather than praise Nathaniel for his courageous efforts in subduing a teen the judge accurately described as “foul-mouthed, defiant and violently aggressive,” inanely blamed the teacher and tried to fire him.

And we need to be concerned about school officials, including some members of the county’s Board of Education who rushed to judgment and condemned Nathaniel’s actions after viewing a few seconds of an incomplete, student-recorded video.

“They said they didn’t need to investigate because they saw the video,” Nathaniel said after reading Administrative Law Judge John G. Van Laningham’s ruling, which was issued last week. “And they tried to use this incident to show I was an angry black man that couldn’t be trusted around kids.

“But anybody who knows me knows that’s not true,” he added. “That’s why so many people – students, former students, parents, teachers, black and white – showed up at that School Board meeting last year to speak on my behalf. They know I’m a good teacher who cares about the kids.”

Nathaniel, who stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 300 pounds, has claimed from the outset that the district targeted him because he questioned the firing of longtime Sebastian River football coach Randy Bethel in December 2012 and, a year later, publicly spoke out about some of Bethel’s former black assistants being referred to on campus as “The BBC” – big black coaches.

Van Laningham’s no-nonsense ruling was dismissive of the school district’s claims of wrongdoing by Nathaniel and disparaging of administrators’ handling of the incident.

When recounting the events that led to the altercation between Nathaniel and 18-year-old Isaiah Speights, Van Laningham cited the youth’s “insolent, insubordinate” tone and behavior, and his obscene language.

“Incredibly, if sadly, the evidence suggests that students at Sebastian River High School commonly address teachers using similarly vulgar language,” the judge remarked, “evidently because such verbal defiance is either not punished, or it is not punished severely enough to stop it from being commonplace.”

For those not familiar with this story: The late-morning incident at Sebastian River began in the hallway, where Nathaniel noticed Speights was lingering and dutifully escorted him to the classroom he was supposed to be in.

Along the way – and again in the classroom – Speights hurled expletives and mocked Nathaniel, at least once punctuating his remarks with a racial epitaph, even though both Nathaniel and Speights are black.

“This astonishingly disrespectful and provocative challenge to Coach Joe’s authority took place in front of the entire classroom of approximately two dozen students,” Van Laningham wrote.

He then added: “To this point, Isaiah had been the only aggressor, while Nathaniel, the target of Isaiah’s unprovoked verbal attacks, had done nothing … that could reasonably be viewed as a provocation. If anything, Nathaniel’s responses, so far, had been measured and lenient.”

Speights then clenched his fists and, as the judge put it, assumed a “posture in the manner of the cartoon character, the Hulk.” Seconds later, Nathaniel and Speights were engaged in a scuffle, during which Speights initiated physical contact by jabbing Nathaniel in the stomach.

Van Laningham rejected the school district’s contention that the jab was “incidental” and a “slight touch,” instead describing it as the “first act of physical aggression, which constituted a battery.”

The judge wrote: “To be very clear, this was not an act of self-defense on Isaiah’s part; no one, not even Isaiah, makes that claim. Before Isaiah struck him, Nathaniel had not touched Isaiah, or even threatened the student.”

Van Laningham wrote that the force of the blow – “whether it was powerful enough to inflict pain or just annoyed Coach Joe” – was irrelevant.

“The student crossed a bright, red line when he intentionally struck the teacher for no reason,” he wrote.

After tossing aside a desk “in reckless disregard of the harm this heavy object might cause if it struck someone,” as the judge put it, Speights charged at Nathaniel and they began to grapple.

Eventually, Nathaniel wrapped Speights in a bear hug and wrestled him to the ground, holding him there until another teacher, Chris Jefferson, urged Speights to stop resisting and relax, which he did. Nathaniel then released him.

Another student used her smartphone to record parts of the tussle, and district administrators – along with School Board chairman Dale Simchick and now-former board member Claudia Jimenez – relied almost solely on the video in rendering their verdicts that Nathaniel was wrong and deserved to be fired.

Van Laningham, however, verbally shredded the video’s value as evidence in the school district’s case, citing the recording’s “inherent limitations that undermine its supposed objectivity,” in part because it starts with Nathaniel “reacting to Isaiah’s antagonistic behavior, which has taken place beforehand, off camera.”

Van Laningham wrote that, as he construed the video after reviewing it dozens of times: “Isaiah appears never to be in retreat, except tactically and then only as necessary; indeed, he seems always to be on the offensive, constantly looking for an advantage in the scuffle.”

The judge wrote that any “narrative” portraying Speights as a “practically innocent bystander trying his best to defuse Coach Joe’s inexplicable rage” was “laughable,” though he added that the district’s interpretation is reasonable if that’s what the viewer “wants to believe took place.”

The same goes for the school-recorded video of the interaction between Nathaniel and Speights after the youth stormed out of the classroom and arrived at the Sebastian River principal’s office, where he demanded that he be allowed to use the phone.

Nathaniel, worried that Speights was using the phone to enlist help in causing trouble at the school, abruptly grabbed the handset from the teen’s hand.

The district argued that Nathaniel’s action was an “unprovoked escalation” of the incident. The judge disagreed, writing that other district employees on the scene shared Nathaniel’s concern.

“Taking the telephone away from Isaiah,” Van Laningham decided, “was reasonable under the circumstances.”

Van Laningham wrote that he found it “troubling” that Indian River County Sheriff’s Deputy Eric Sesack – the School Resource Officer who arrived in the classroom at the end of the scuffle – allowed Speights to “stalk the hallways without escort” after the teen had shown he had “lost control of himself and was a danger to others.”

The judge was puzzled that Sesack didn’t place Speights in custody after the youth kicked the water fountain off the wall.

“Although this criminal act was committed in plain view of a law enforcement officer,” Van Laningham wrote, “Deputy Sesack did not arrest Isaiah because he felt that attempting to subdue the student at that point would be too risky.”

Throughout his ruling, Van Laningham sided with Nathaniel, a 48-year-old former law enforcement and corrections officer who holds a master’s degree in criminal justice and is working on his doctorate.

“Isaiah was way out of line, and somebody in authority needed to put the student in his place,” the judge wrote. “It fell to Nathaniel to do so. Had Coach Joe been ‘nice’ to Isaiah and let him have his way, as the district seems to believe would have been preferable, Isaiah’s appalling behavior would have received positive reinforcement, making it more likely that Isaiah would act that way again.

“Other students would have been encouraged to emulate Isaiah’s conduct. The learning environment would have suffered,” he continued. “Fortunately for Sebastian River High School, Coach Joe had the fortitude to stand tall, roll up his sleeves and do the tough job of keeping a foul-mouthed, defiant and violently aggressive student from causing further damage.

“For this, he should be given a pat on the back,” he added, “not a pink slip.”

It was the School Board that chose to send the case to the state Division of Administrative Hearings in January 2016, when Rendell sought to fire Nathaniel, who had worked in the district for 13 years with an unblemished record.

Confronted with a chamber jam-packed with a pro-Nathaniel crowd, board members said they preferred to seek a recommendation from the DOAH because the agency’s judges have more experience and expertise in handling such matters.

Nathaniel’s fate is still in the school board’s hands. The board could still fire him. But to ignore or appeal the DOAH judge’s decision – especially one so overwhelmingly in Nathaniel’s favor – would be as suspicious as it would ridiculous.

It also would give even more ammunition to Nathaniel, who, despite spending the past 13 months on paid suspension, almost certainly will file a lawsuit against the district to compensate him for the public humiliation he has endured and the damage that was done to his reputation.

Surely, Rendell and the board know that’s coming. So will they appeal? The district has 15 days from the date Van Laningham issued his recommendation – until Tuesday – to contest the ruling.

In response to an email seeking Rendell’s reaction to ruling, school district spokesman Flynn Fidgeon said the staff is “still in the process of sharing this information with the School Board members,” who will then decide whether to challenge the DOAH recommendation.

Two new members, Laura Zorc and Tiffany Justice, were elected in November, replacing Jimenez and Matt McCain. But Charles Searcy remains in Nathaniel’s corner and said he will try to get the matter back before the board as soon as possible.

“I’d like to see Coach Joe back in his classroom,” Searcy said.

Nathaniel said he has received numerous calls from supporters in the community since word of the ruling began to spread last week. Many of the callers say they will be in room when the School Board takes up his case again.

“At times, it has been very stressful, but the way people have rallied around me has meant a lot,” Nathaniel said. “And I’m not surprised by the judge’s ruling. But I will not feel vindicated until they get rid of the guy in charge of human resources.”

Judging by how poorly this case was handled the School Board needs to take a hard look at Rendell as well.

If not, we need to take a harder look at our School Board.

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