“As the elected superintendent of schools, Ms. Jackson is responsible for the safety and well-being of 30,000 students. We find that she has failed to fulfill that obligation. We further find that she has not satisfied her obligations as an elected official.”
TOM McLAUGHLIN @TomMnwfdn
An Okaloosa County grand jury declined to recommend filing criminal charges against School Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson, but it did request that the State Attorney’s Office continue investigating her.
In a scathing report released Thursday, jurors noted being “concerned by inconsistent statements” Jackson has made regarding her knowledge of a 2016 investigative report that found evidence of a nonverbal autistic child being abused by a teacher.
“For that reason, we recommend that the State Attorney’s Office continue to investigate Ms. Jackson to determine if sufficient evidence exists for the filing of criminal charges,” the report said.
State Attorney Bill Eddins said he fully intends to abide by the grand jury’s recommendation.
“My office will continue to investigate the actions of the Okaloosa County Superintendent of Schools. I plan to have my office once again review all of the documentary evidence,” Eddins said. “I plan to once again review all of the statements of all of the witnesses that have been provided to this point, and then I plan to gather any additional documents I believe will be helpful and interview any additional witnesses I feel will be beneficial to the investigation.”
Eddins applauded the work of the grand jury and said its findings “represent the findings of a cross-section of the community.”
Jurors expressed particular concern with the “behavior and knowledge of Superintendent of Schools Mary Beth Jackson,” including her failing to testify before the grand jury.
“Despite repeated requests, Ms. Jackson chose not to appear before the grand jury. The grand jury expresses great disappointment in that decision,” the report said. “As the elected superintendent of schools, Ms. Jackson is responsible for the safety and well-being of 30,000 students. We find that she has failed to fulfill that obligation. We further find that she has not satisfied her obligations as an elected official.”
The grand jury stated its purpose for convening was to review flawed school district operations, policies and procedures that came to light following an investigation of allegations and complaints lodged against Kenwood Elementary pre-K teacher Marlynn Stillions.
Failing to report allegations criticized
An investigative report filed in June 2016 by district employee Arden Farley confirmed Stillions had physically harmed a 4-year-old autistic boy, Noah Perillo. But the investigation was declared invalid and closed 30 days before Jackson was re-elected superintendent. No action was ever taken against Stillions.
The report was made public a year after Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Stacie Smith decided to close the case nearly two months after it was filed. Eddie Perillo, the father of the alleged victim, obtained Farley’s report through a public records request and took it to the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office and Northwest Florida Daily News.
In May 2017, the Sheriff’s Office began an investigation into the same allegations documented by Farley, and on Sept. 13 arrested Stillions and charged her with four counts of felony child abuse without great bodily harm.
Farley, Smith and former Kenwood Principal Angelyn Vaughan also have been arrested and charged with multiple felony counts for failure to report suspected child abuse. The cases have not yet been brought to trial.
Grand jurors said the four arrests are “sufficient” for now, but, along with urging further investigation of Jackson, were critical of policies and procedures, training and investigations conducted involving allegations of employee misconduct.
The grand jury also criticized the district’s failure “during the investigation process or review” to report the allegations of abuse by Stillions to either the Florida Department of Children and Families or the Office of Professional Practices of the Department of Education.
“The Department of Education has the authority to take action against a teacher’s certificate whenever allegations of abuse are confirmed,” the grand jury said. “Both of these reports should have been made by the Okaloosa County School District and its employees.”
Superintendent gets brunt of blame
Jurors said dismissing the Farley investigation for failing to comply with union investigatory guidelines did not excuse School District administrators from reporting the abuse to state agencies. It also criticized the district for failing to tell the parents of the child who was abused about either the allegations against Stillions or the investigation that was conducted.
It laid the brunt of the blame for district-wide dysfunction on Jackson.
“As a result of both poor training and supervision, employees on multiple occasions have failed to report suspected allegations of child abuse. Similarly, the Okaloosa County School District has failed to report allegations of misconduct to the Department of Education. These mistakes should have never occurred,” the report said.
“It was Ms. Jackson’s duty to see that all employees were properly trained and supervised and that they were aware of their legal obligation to report child abuse,” the report continued. “It is her responsibility to see that these mistakes do not continue and that policies and procedures consistent with this report are enacted, revised and enforced.”
Charges recommended for Kelley
The grand jury also recommended that Henry Kelley, the School District’s director of community affairs, be charged with a non-criminal infraction for violating the Florida Sunshine Law. It cited evidence that Kelley had turned over a report considered exempt from public scrutiny to a television reporter.
“I expect to file those charges shortly,” Eddins said.
Kelley could not be reached for comment, but Gene Earley, who filed the formal complaint Kelley turned over to WEAR Channel 3’s Christopher Saul, applauded the grand jury’s findings.
“Good deal,” he said. “Good deal.”
Grand jurors also were highly critical of Andy Johnson, a school district specialist with primary responsibilities in safety, athletics, discipline and crisis management who acts “to some extent” as a liaison between law enforcement and the school district.
The grand jury was presented evidence indicating that Johnson had been contacted by the Sheriff’s Office head of investigations when the Kenwood Elementary situation was first brought to the attention of the department.
“When answering questions before the grand jury, Johnson frequently answered that he could not remember. He also gave answers that were inconsistent with previous statements,” the grand jury said. “While we do not find his behavior before the grand jury criminal, we do find it concerning and worthy of note in this report.”
Jackson issues response
Asked to respond to the grand jury’s findings, Jackson released a prepared statement. She said she could not comment on testimony and expressed concerns “that the testimony presented may have been incomplete.”
“Many if not all of the proposed policy and procedure changes requested have been implemented at this time, and our ongoing review of district policies and procedures will continue to address those topics,” her statement said.
She called the grand jury faulting her for failing to show up to testify “disappointing.”
“It is disappointing that the report found my absence of such great concern,” Jackson said. “I have been, and remain, ready to discuss this matter in an official capacity.”
While Jackson seemed to call for an end to the ongoing investigation so Okaloosa County can “begin to heal as a community,” Eddins said his investigation remains open.
His office’s focus may now be directed solely on Jackson and any role she might have played in concealing the Stillions report from the public. If Jackson had knowledge of the report prior to Aug. 6, 2017, when she claims to have seen it for the first time, it is conceivable she could also be charged with failing to report suspected child abuse.
The superintendent told the Okaloosa County School Board last September that Smith had turned the Stillions report over for her to review in 2016 after Smith had decided to close the investigation.
Jackson later retracted that comment, saying she hadd misspoken.
In an interview with the Daily News, a Sheriff’s Office investigator said he sent Jackson a copy of the Stillions report in May 2017, three months ahead of when she first claimed to have viewed the document.
Also, an email sent to Smith and shared to Jackson from Kenwood Principal Joan Pickard on July 18, 2016, specifically mentioned Stillions and the report filed by Farley.
Pickard said in the email that members of her staff may have violated state law by not reporting Stillions’ actions because they either didn’t know they were supposed to or feared retaliation from the county’s teachers’ union.
Governor needs indictment to act
Eddins said he does not intend to turn the newly released grand jury findings over to Gov. Rick Scott or the Florida Department of Education.
Scott has the power to remove elected constitutional officers such as Jackson from office.
“The governor would not take action absent an indictment,” Eddins said.
The governor’s office did not respond Thursday to requests for comment on the grand jury’s findings and any possible implications its report might hold.
The Florida Department of Education can take action against an educator’s certification to teach, but a superintendent is not required to be certified by the agency.
A DOE spokeswoman, speaking generally, said the agency doesn’t traditionally take action unless an educator has been tried and convicted of criminal charges.
Four School Board members contacted Thursday — member Melissa Thrush did not return several phone calls — declined to comment specifically on the grand jury’s findings. However, board Chairman Lamar White said the findings could be beneficial overall.
“There is material in the report that is concerning, but there is also material in the report that can help the School Board and School District to make changes,” White said. “The grand jury recommended additional training, and that’s an area we certainly want to look at, and, how we could incorporate more training in regards to their duties and reporting.”
School Board member Rodney Walker said he’d like to see the scandal come to an end. He said he believes it’s a tragedy that the district has been “completely consumed” with the grand jury as well as a plethora of other recent investigations.
“I really want to see us be able to get back to what our sole purpose should be, and that is doing what’s best for our students and try to make sure they get a good education,” Walker said. “And … to make sure they’re safe and (we’re) not taking any action that would not be proper or safe for all of our kids, especially our ESE (Exceptional Student Education) kids.”
Menchel: Investigation was not complete
Earley said he hopes that with the grand jury report released, Eddins will release the School Board to do as it voted to do and send complaints he has filed against School District administrators to the state Department of Education and the Florida Commission on Ethics.
Steve Menchel, a former federal investigator who has filed formal complaints against Kelley and was called to testify before the grand jury, said he thinks grand jurors called for further investigation because they want the State Attorney’s Office to complete the task it set out to do.
“The grand jury realized the investigation that was conducted was not complete. In addition, key witnesses with damaging information weren’t called to testify,” Menchel said.
“As an example,” Menchel said in an email, “it appears that a forensic examination of Superintendent Jackson’s computer never occurred. This is basic police work 101, and if it is true that the computer was not examined, it certainly begs the question why wasn’t the computer examined?”
Eddins responded to Menchel’s criticism with a statement of his own.
“The investigation regarding the School District was extensive and included subpoenas for all emails during the relevant times,” Eddins said in an email. “This included Ms. Jackson’s computer. As you are aware, this investigation is continuing and we cannot discuss this matter in further detail.”
Daily News Staf Writer Heather Osbourne contributed to this report