“Some of these questions become complex and legalistic, that's why it's really important to determine which path the investigation was following. It appears, just from what I've seen, it was following the district investigative process.”

Before it became a criminal investigation, and even before it became a code of ethics violation investigation, the case of alleged child abuse against former Kenwood Elementary pre-K special education teacher Marlynn Stillions was a dispute between educators.

Educators and union members, as it turned out.

Stillions and Gina Mercer, a pre-K paraprofessional, both dues paying members of the Okaloosa County branch of the Florida Education Association, not only couldn’t get along, documents indicate, but were actively hostile toward one another.

The feud would escalate late in the 2016 school year to an extent that former Kenwood principal Angelyn Vaughan sought school district mediation. Accusations that arose during the mediation are what led school district official Arden Farley to open an investigation into allegations of improper actions and procedures involving special needs students made against Stillions.

Those allegations would eventually result in a criminal investigation a year later by the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office and Stillions' arrest Sept. 13 on four counts of felony child abuse without great bodily harm.

But before the mediation, in April 2016, Greg Butler, the executive director of Okaloosa County’s teachers’ union, was asked by both sides to intervene in the dispute between Stillions and Mercer. He did what union officials unequivocally say he had to do by declining to get involved in a disagreement between members.

“I don’t/can’t get involved with issues between two employees and especially when those employees are union members,” Butler told Mary Elias-Evans, the union representative for Mercer and other Kenwood Elementary paraprofessionals, in an April 26, 2016 email. “What would one of them think of the union if I ruled against one of them?”

Union remains involved

Despite Butler’s stepping back from the teacher dispute, there are clear indications the Okaloosa County Education Association didn’t remove itself completely from the Stillions case as it progressed from mediation to investigation.

Farley claims local union president Angelique Cox, “the best of the best,” even represented Stillions when she was interviewed June 3, 2016 and at another meeting during his investigation.

After the investigation concluded and Farley turned over his findings, Stillions claimed her rights had been violated because the investigator had failed to adhere to union guidelines in conducting his inquiry.

Stacie Smith, the school district’s assistant superintendent of human resources, would ultimately order the case closed based on Stillions’ objections. She did so without officially documenting the decision or conducting an appeals process between the involved parties — Stillions and Mercer, who is listed on Farley's report as the grievant initiating the investigation.

“The matter was closed verbally with the employee,” school district spokesman Henry Kelley told the Northwest Florida Daily News.

Farley, who along with Vaughan is facing multiple felony charges for failing to report suspected child abuse to the Department of Children and Families' abuse hotline, has accused union officials of working alongside Smith to orchestrate the closing of the district’s case against Stillions, even though inappropriate actions toward students had been confirmed.

“I’ve worked for 22 years and under four different superintendents, and something of this nature has never occurred,” Farley said. “This has happened under the administration of Stacie Smith. Her and the union are close and the union did not want Ms. Stillions to be punished.”

No documentation that any sort of union-sanctioned investigation took place exists, according to Farley.

'It's not my call, it's her call'

Neither Butler nor Cox have attempted to refute any of Farley’s statements. In fact, both the Okaloosa branch of the union and the Florida Education Association have shut down all communication with the Daily News.

Butler last spoke to the Daily News prior to an Aug. 5, 2017 article that published after Eddie Perillo, father of the now 6-year-old non-verbal autistic boy identified as the main victim of alleged abuse by Stillions, provided the newspaper a copy of Farley’s report from the school district investigation. That report was obtained by Perillo through a public records request.

The report had been withheld from public review since the case was closed on Aug. 1, 2016. Neither Perillo nor his ex-wife were told an investigation of Stillions had even been conducted. Harvest Perillo, the ex-wife, was residing in the Stillions’ household for a week in July 2016 as the investigation was being conducted.

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Farley contends that at the onset of any investigation like the one he conducted in the Stillions case, a decision must be made whether it will follow a union track or a school district track. The guidelines for each track differ with the union requiring notification within five days that an investigation is underway and a 30-day maximum to complete the inquiry.

Farley said when he decided to move beyond the mitigation of the Mercer/Stillions dispute and into an investigation of alleged improper actions and procedures, he notified Smith, his immediate supervisor, “this is huge, this is big, this is going to take time.” He also noted that since the case began under school district policy, it couldn't change midstream.

He called Smith’s falling back to his alleged failure to adhere to union guidelines as a reason to close the case “a smoke screen.”

Asked if he’d objected to Smith’s decision, Farley said no.

“I didn't challenge her, that's not my role,” he said. “My only role is to do the investigation and turn it over. ... What they do with it at that time is strictly up to them. What she does with it at that time is strictly up to her. ... She has verbalized it's really her call. It's not my call, it's her call.”

Farley also said he feared retaliation if he stood up to Smith and Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson.

Smith’s decision to dismiss Farley’s findings prevented Stillions from being forced to comply with recommended disciplinary actions, which included being removed from a classroom setting and undergoing ethics and professional conduct recertification.

The order also prevented the investigative report Farley had filed from being placed in Stillions’ personnel file.

School board kept in dark

Like the Perillos, the Okaloosa County School Board was kept in the dark about the Stillions investigation and its findings. This week, School Board Chairman Lamar White said he has concluded the board should have been told.

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“It was a confirming report in my opinion, but it was not shared with the school board because they ruled because of the union contractual violation, it wasn't added to the individual's personnel file,” White said. “My thinking is that’s why the report wasn't shared.”

White also shared Farley’s opinion that the Stillions investigation appeared to have been conducted on a school district timeline, not under union guidelines.

“The policies talk about two different paths that these investigations can take. One is where the individuals can go the union path, which does have timelines involved, and the other is going through a school district investigation,” he said. “Some of these questions become complex and legalistic, that’s why it’s really important to determine which path the investigation was following. It appears, just from what I’ve seen, it was following the district investigative process.”

School district attorney Jeff McInnis has declined comment on the course the Stillions investigation took and the way the closing of the case was handled. He cited a still open criminal investigation.

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