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MY VERO: ‘Coach Joe’ back in school, but questions remain

Fifteen months after Sebastian River High School teacher Joe Nathaniel physically subdued a violently aggressive youth during a classroom altercation, the School Board finally admitted its top administrator was wrong to try to fire him.

It was telling that the board voted unanimously to exonerate Nathaniel, end his paid suspension and return him to work. Board members clearly had real concerns about the bogus case put forth by Superintendent Mark Rendell, who somehow saw a teacher bullying a student when almost everyone else saw a teacher dutifully stepping forward to take control of a potentially dangerous situation.

But what does Rendell, who uttered nary a word during the 75-minute meeting that cleared Nathaniel, have to say now?

“No comment,” he replied when asked.

Well if School Board members want the past 15 months to be something more than an embarrassing and expensive waste of time and energy, they must insist that Rendell provide answers to some tough questions.

 Why did Rendell bypass lesser punishment and immediately recommend that Nathaniel, a popular and beloved teacher and mentor with a previously unblemished record, be fired?

 Why did Rendell rely so heavily on student-recorded videos and give so little weight to the Sheriff’s Office’s investigation, State Attorney’s Office’s recommendation and public show of support, all three of which sided overwhelmingly with Nathaniel?

 Why did Rendell and Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources William Fritz, who headed the district’s investigation, see something in those videos – an angry black man instigating and escalating a confrontation with a harmless, innocent student – that reasonable, independent observers from three outside agencies did not see?

 Better yet: What is Rendell going to do with the allegations that Fritz underhandedly attempted to coerce the mother of the youth Nathaniel subdued to support the district’s case by offering to use his influence to try to get criminal charges dropped against her son?

You can be sure at least some of these questions will be asked when Nathaniel, affectionately known on campus as “Coach Joe,” files a lawsuit against the district.

Nathaniel said he was “publicly humiliated” when the district released the ill-gotten, student-recorded video to the news media. (School Board policy prohibits students from using their smart phones to record teachers and staff members during school hours.)

He also said Rendell’s accusations have damaged his reputation, professionally and personally.

“Rendell said he couldn’t trust me around kids,” Nathaniel said. “Maybe he trusted the wrong people, but the evidence was there. Both the Sheriff’s Office and State Attorney’s Office told them I did nothing wrong. But they wouldn’t listen.

“They didn’t listen until they got it from the judge.”

Why didn’t they listen?

“Because, as I’ve been saying all along, this was never about what happened in that classroom,” Nathaniel said. “This was personal. They were retaliating because I went public with the BBC thing.”

Nathaniel has maintained that Rendell and Fritz wanted to get rid of him because he publicly criticized the district’s investigation into his complaint that assistant football coaches at Sebastian River High School were derisively referred to on campus as “The BBC” – big black coaches.

Now, Nathaniel simply wants to return to his Sebastian River classroom and resume teaching his dual-enrollment, criminal justice course – something that won’t happen until next year, if at all, depending on whether the school retains the program.

With so little time remaining in the current school year, he’ll be placed in a classroom where students serve in-school suspensions. In the meantime, he plans to lobby for his criminal justice program with hopes of teaching the courses next year.

“I don’t see why they would move me,” Nathaniel said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Fifteen months later, the School Board finally and unanimously agreed, prompting a celebration that filled the room with cheers, tears, hugs and high-fives.

“I’m glad it’s finally over and the truth came out,” Nathaniel said. “I’m very grateful for (Board Chairman Charles) Searcy’s support. He made the difference in this thing.”

The rest is up to Rendell.

And you better believe he’s being watched.

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