Eddie Perillo’s courage exposes problems within Okaloosa County School District

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“Everything that’s coming out, it’s all part of justice for Noah. I’m very humbled by it all. It’s him, and every other kid, I’m fighting for.”

By Heather Osbourne | 315-4440 | @heatheronwfdn | hosbourne@nwfdailynews.com

Let me tell you a secret about a father’s love

A secret that my daddy said was just between us

He said daddies don’t just love their children every now and then

It’s a love without end, amen

It’s a love without end, amen

— George Strait, “A Father’s Love”

FORT WALTON BEACH — Imagine the thought, as hard as it might be, to have a child who isn’t like the others in the neighborhood; who’s different from the kids of friends and family members.

Your son is challenged by normal social skills. He’s nonverbal. He’s autistic.

But you love him unconditionally, and have since the thought of his birth. And when he hurts, the pain is immeasurable.

So how did Eddie Perillo cope — learning a year after the fact — that his now 6-year-old boy, Noah, had been the subject of an investigation into inappropriate treatment by an Okaloosa County School District pre-K special education teacher?

He got to work.

And he’s still working after becoming a spotlight that has aided law enforcement and the Northwest Florida Daily News in uncovering scandal, mistreatment of children, sexual harassment, ineffective leadership and numerous other issues within the school district.

Being named 2017 Daily News Person of the Year may not be an important enough title to bestow on Perillo, but it will have to do for now. The honor was based on an outpouring of support from an outraged community during the nomination process.

“In my eyes, he is a hero,” said one nominator. “As large as life and as large as any I know or have met in my 72 years. Edward is in the background, but his mission is just as important and needed, if not more so, than the civil groups or persons that stay in the limelight all year round.”

In August, Perillo contacted the Daily News after discovering Noah was the subject of a 2016 school district investigation.

The Investigation Summary Report, which Perillo said he fought the district to obtain, confirmed Noah was mistreated by Marlynn Stillions, his teacher at Kenwood Elementary School.

Perillo first contacted the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office in May, at which point the department began an internal investigation into the allegations.

In September, the OCSO investigation was handed over to the State Attorney’s Office and three arrests were made — Stillions on four felony counts of child abuse without great bodily harm, plus former Kenwood principal Angelyn Vaughan and school district investigator Arden Farley on multiple felony charges for failure to report suspected child abuse.

Since the revelations at Kenwood, investigations, harassment claims, public complaints, contradictions by district officials and a lawsuit have followed.

Perillo was just one voice, but a shocked community listened.

A tearful Perillo, holding his son tightly at their Fort Walton Beach home, said the award is misplaced. He believes Noah, and every child who has suffered abuse within Okaloosa County School District, is the real Person of the Year.

“I’m humbled,” Perillo said. “Noah, to me, is my hero for everything he went through. I think all of those kids deserve this award.”

With a new discovery seemingly being made on a weekly basis — and sometimes daily — the current state of the school district is in the hands of the State Attorney’s Office, which is in the investigative stage of child abuse allegations involving special needs children at both Kenwood Elementary and Silver Sands School.

First Judicial Circuit State Attorney Bill Eddins announced Dec. 13 that a grand jury will convene at some point early in 2018 and review the many serious issues his office has uncovered in the course of investigating the school district.

At the heart of it all, however, remains the Perillo family.

Perillo, the owner of Joe and Eddie’s Restaurant, said his work is far from done. He will continue fighting for justice, attending School Board meetings and rallying with the community until all at fault are held accountable for their actions.

“I want teachers and staff members to feel safe to report inappropriate behavior without repercussions,” Perillo said. “Everything that’s coming out, it’s all part of justice for Noah. I’m very humbled by it all. It’s him, and every other kid, I’m fighting for.”

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