MY VERO: Why is School District out to get Coach Joe?

I’m told by people who ought to know that some members of the Indian River County School Board and their administrative henchman want us to forget about their wrongheaded-but-ongoing efforts to fire a trusted and beloved teacher.

These school officials don’t want to talk about what they’re doing to Joe Nathaniel, the Sebastian River High School criminal justice teacher and former assistant football coach, who was removed from his classroom in the wake of a Nov. 17 altercation involving a misbehaving, 18-year-old student.

They don’t want you to talk about it. They certainly don’t want me to write about it. They want this smells-bad-from-the-start story to go away.

I’m not going to let that happen.

Especially now.

Just the other day, I acquired the Dec. 15 letter Assistant State Attorney Nikki Robinson wrote to the Sheriff’s Office after she concluded a review of the incident, which resulted in the Dec. 29 arrest of the teen, Isaiah Speights, who was charged with a pair of misdemeanors.

Robinson, responding to a request by Speights’ mother to criminally charge Nathaniel for his role in the classroom clash, read the Sheriff’s Office reports – including witness statements – and studied videos of the scuffle before deciding there were no grounds to issue a warrant for the teacher’s arrest.

Instead, Robinson’s letter praised Nathaniel for taking control of a potentially dangerous situation, noting Speights was “being disruptive and disrespectful” and that the classroom teacher, Cathy Bradshaw, “was not capable of physically dealing” with the 6-foot-1 teenager who refused to follow her directions.

“It would have been negligent on the part of Joe Nathaniel to have left the classroom, given Speights’ defiance,” Robinson wrote. “The safety of Ms. Bradshaw and the other students in the classroom would have been put in jeopardy.”

She also pointed out that Speights has, for some time, been a disruptive force at Sebastian River, which provided her with 34 pages of disciplinary reports detailing his bad behavior. At the time she wrote the letter, nearly three months ago, he already had been cited for four classroom incidents this school year.

Robinson wrote that Speights, who was not injured in the altercation with Nathaniel but violently punched lockers and kicked a water fountain off the wall on his way to the principal’s office, has been “belligerent and disrespectful” to teachers and other students in the past.

She stated that Speights “provoked the teacher’s response with his defiance” and the “physical aspect of this incident began with the student.”

Robinson deemed the school’s efforts to address Speights’ behavior problems through detention, parental outreach and “self-reflection” to be ineffective, writing, “Unfortunately, the school’s past responses have fostered further defiance on the part of this student and has brought us to where we are today.”

And where is that?

As of Monday, Speights, who has been arrested four times since mid-December, was being held without bond at the Indian River County Jail. He was arrested once before the Nathaniel incident and twice since.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, Speights was arrested Dec. 20 for “loitering or prowling,” then was arrested again Feb. 25 for violating the conditions of his probation stemming from the loitering/prowling case.

In between, there were the Dec. 29 charges connected to the classroom tussle with Nathaniel – disruption of a school function and criminal mischief resulting in damage from $200 to $1,000 – and a Feb. 22 arrest on a warrant for misdemeanor battery after Speights and a juvenile allegedly beat up 18-year-old Quintravius Glispy on Feb. 12 at the Taylor Pointe Apartments in Gifford.

The incident report, which cited video surveillance provided by the apartment complex, said Speights and his friend chased Glispy on foot and, after Glispy fell to the ground, his pursuers “began to punch and kick Glispy” for about 20 seconds until he was able to get up and run away.

“They picked the wrong kid,” Nathaniel said, “to try to get rid of me.”

Or so you would think.

Somehow, though – and this is what has raised so many suspicions about the motives behind the district’s over-the-top reaction to the Nov. 17 incident – Schools Superintendent Mark Rendell embarked on an unnecessary and irresponsible rush to judgment and arrived at a far different conclusion.

In his Dec. 18 charging letter, which was hand-delivered to Nathaniel, Rendell accused the 6-foot-4, 300-pound teacher of escalating the incident by taunting Speights, continuing to move toward the student in an aggressive manner, and physically abusing and yelling at him.

Rendell, basing his decision at least partially on an incomplete video, also alleged that Nathaniel violated School Board policies requiring teachers to protect students from harmful conditions and prohibiting teachers from intentionally embarrassing students.

“As the teacher in this situation, you were responsible to be the one in control of your own words and actions, and you were responsible to de-escalate the situation,” Rendell wrote. “Conversely, you escalated the situation, both verbally and physically.

“Your actions were harmful to the student’s physical and mental health, caused unnecessary embarrassment to the student and disparaged the student.”

He then recommended that the district terminate Nathaniel’s employment – a move supported by School Board chairman Dale Simchick and board member Claudia Jimenez at the School Board’s Jan. 12 meeting.

It didn’t matter that the Sheriff’s Office arrested only Speights and absolved Nathaniel of any criminal wrongdoing, or that the teacher had worked for the district since 2003 and compiled an otherwise unblemished record.

It didn’t matter that the Sebastian River community packed the School Board chamber for that Jan. 12 meeting, where a parade of students, parents and colleagues filled the room with an often-emotional outpouring of support for Nathaniel.

Rendell was determined to impose the professional equivalent of the death penalty.

And despite the board’s cowardly actions in the face of a potentially hostile crowd on Jan. 12 – it voted 4-1 to punt the case to the state’s Division of Administrative Hearings in Tallahassee, then voted 3-2 to suspend the teacher with pay until his fate is determined – Rendell hasn’t backed off.

In fact, Rendell forwarded his charging letter to the state Department of Education’s Office of Professional Practices, which has the power to suspend or permanently revoke Nathaniel’s teaching certification.

“The district is obligated to report violations of the code of conduct” to the OPP, school district spokesman Flynn Fidgeon wrote in an email that included a link to the relevant Florida Statute.

I didn’t know that. Probably, you didn’t, either.

Know this, though: Rendell was fully aware of the district’s obligation to the Department of Education when he authored his charging letter.

And based on the remarks made at the Jan. 12 meeting by Simchick and Jimenez, I’m guessing he wasn’t alone. Both board members blamed Nathaniel for the incident, and demanded he be held accountable for his actions.

But which actions?

“Joe has been outspoken about different things in the past, and they see him as a threat,” a source close to Nathaniel said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “If they can hurt him and get him out of education, which is something he loves, they’ll use this as an example to keep other teachers in line.”

Nathaniel, whose state hearing is scheduled for June 27 at the Indian River County Courthouse, didn’t want to comment about the district’s motivation for its ridiculously harsh response to the incident, but he said he believes it goes beyond the events of that day.

If that’s true – if this attempt to ruin Nathaniel’s career is driven by anything other than the facts of the case and a desire to protect students – then we need to take a hard look at the people running the district.

I have no doubt Nathaniel, who has hired West Palm Beach attorney Mark Wilensky, will do exactly that.

Wilensky already has challenged Rendell’s charging letter and the legitimacy of the district’s investigation, alleging at the Jan. 12 board meeting that a decision to terminate his client was made “long before” Nathaniel was offered an opportunity to respond to the accusations.

Wilensky also told the board that witnesses employed by the district were “warned not to speak to us” and told “their jobs would be in jeopardy if they did.”

The only board member to oppose Rendell’s recommendation that Nathaniel be fired was Charles Searcy, who questioned why the superintendent didn’t seek the same remedy when, earlier this school year, Sebastian River principal Todd Racine broke up an on-campus fight by chasing down, tackling and using a headlock to restrain one of the students.

That incident, too, was caught on video and posted on YouTube. Unlike the Nathaniel video, however, the Racine video was removed from the popular website once the district became aware of it.

Fidgeon said Rendell and his staff reviewed the Racine incident and concluded that the principal was not guilty of any misconduct.

Searcy said he didn’t know “what’s fueling the passion” behind the district’s drive to dump Nathaniel, nor could he explain why Rendell immediately opted for termination – not suspension – for what would be a first-time offense.

At the Jan. 12 meeting, however, Searcy successfully pressed Rendell into admitting “there are various levels of progressive discipline” and that School Board rules and the district’s contract with its teachers don’t mandate termination for the violations allegedly committed by Nathaniel.

“Thing is, I’m not sure the teacher did anything wrong,” Searcy said last weekend. “I wasn’t aware of that letter from Nikki Robinson, but she’s one of the better attorneys in town and I have a lot of respect for her. For me, anyway, that letter sheds a different light on the subject.

“I can promise you this,” he added. “It’s something I’m going to bring up at our next meeting, because it appears that what we’re on the verge of doing is wrong.”

It is wrong.

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