“Can any rational person expect a Superintendent of Schools who receives these two emails to not immediately take action to find out what is going on at the district staff level and at Kenwood — unless the superintendent was already fully knowledgeable of all these issues?”
An email sent from Kenwood Elementary Principal Joan Pickard on July 18, 2016 appears to provide more evidence that Okaloosa County School District Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson knew, or should have known, teacher Marlynn Stillions was being investigated for improperly treating special education students in her care.
Jackson has claimed she only learned in August 2017 that school district investigator Arden Farley looked into allegations Stillions had harmed Noah Perillo, a then-4-year-old non-verbal autistic student, by kicking him, lifting him improperly and spraying the young boy with vinegar as a disciplinary measure.
The Pickard email was sent to former Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Stacie Smith and includes Jackson as a recipient via a courtesy copy.
In it Pickard specifically mentions Stillions and the official report Farley filed with Smith on June 17, 2016, following his investigation. The investigation confirmed Stillions had violated district policies and its code of ethics by harming Perillo.
Pickard states members of her staff — records indicate as many as 19 — 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.
Stillions was Kenwood’s union representative at the time Farley investigated her.
The further link to Jackson and the Stillions investigation comes as a grand jury hears testimony on a myriad of issues raised since Farley’s report became public last August.
Farley’s findings were turned in to the school district in June 2016, but the case against Stillions was dismissed two months later on Aug. 1 by Smith.
Smith declared in dismissing the case that Farley had not followed correct teachers’ union guidelines for conducting an inquiry.
Once dismissed, Farley’s report was filed away and remained hidden from public scrutiny until Eddie Perillo, Noah’s father, obtained it in May 2017 through a public records request.
Perillo, who was never told an investigation involving his son had taken place, turned the report over to the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office and the Northwest Florida Daily News.
The Sheriff’s Office arrested Stillions last Sept. 13 on four felony charges of child abuse without great bodily harm. Farley and Angelyn Vaughan, who preceded Pickard as Kenwood’s principal, were arrested the same day and charged with multiple counts of failing to report suspected child abuse.
Smith has more recently also been arrested for failing to report suspected child abuse in the Stillions case. She has resigned from her administrative position with the school district.
School officials are considered mandatory reporters and thus violate state statute by failing to notify the state Department of Families and Children hotline when there is evidence of child abuse.
Jackson is also mandated to report child abuse, which makes the question of whether she knew about the Farley report critical.
Smith initiates emails
Pickard’s 2016 email was sent in response to an email she had received from Smith the same day. That email also courtesy copied Jackson.
“From the recent events that have taken place I am requesting that Kenwood Elementary receive training during the 2016-2017 school year,” Smith said in her email.
“There seems to be confusion/forgetfulness on employees respecting other employees. I would also like there to be a reminder during pre-planning of the mandatory requirement to report child abuse/neglect.”
Jackson has acknowledged seeing the email Smith sent to Pickard and told a reporter when asked about it last year she had read it and dismissed it because she considers any type of training a valuable tool for school staff.
“The main thing in the email was about employees respecting one another. It was causing an unpleasant environment in the classroom,” Jackson said. “I don’t know why Stacie put that in there. I just looked at it (the email) and thought she must have a reason for wanting training over there.”
Jackson did not address at that time the return email from Pickard and did not respond Tuesday to an email seeking comment.
In her reply, Pickard said, “As to training for staff to unify, I believe you are referring to their not reporting Ms. Stillions’ behavior? ... I believe from reading Arden’s report, that the not reporting was lack of knowing what/when to report and it seemed some fear of retaliation by a union rep. however unfounded that fear may have been.”
The email exchange between Smith and Pickard was uncovered through a public records request by former Air Force investigator Gene Earley, who has been closely following events at the school district since the Stillions case was made public.
Earley has contacted Okaloosa County School Board Chairman Lamar White with questions about the 2016 emails.
“Can any rational person expect a Superintendent of Schools who receives these two emails to not immediately take action to find out what is going on at the district staff level and at Kenwood — unless the superintendent was already fully knowledgeable of all these issues?” Earley asked White in an email.
Earley also questions why Pickard, who acknowledged having a copy of Farley’s report, failed to notify either DCF or Perillo and his ex-wife, Harvest, that Stillions had been investigated and no action was taken against her despite the findings.
“Ms. Pickard was also aware … that Ms. Stillions’ actions did constitute child abuse,” Earley said in the email to White.
Pickard did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Earley also questioned the role of the Okaloosa County teachers’ union in the Stillions case.
“Fear of Ms. Stillions and the union, consistent throughout, still establishes that the unions have undue influence and control not only at the OCSD district level, but the individual school levels as well,” his email said.
Earley said he has confirmed that union leaders met with Smith after the Farley report was completed but before Smith acted to close the investigation. He said he has been told no record of the meeting exists.
Okaloosa County union officials Greg Butler and Angelique Cox failed to respond to emails seeking comment.
When did superintendent know?
Though Jackson’s official stance on the Farley report is that she did not see it until Aug. 6, 2017 — the day after the Daily News initially reported the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office was investigating Stillions — she has contradicted herself on the subject.
Jackson told the School Board last Sept. 21 that she had called Smith in August 2016 after Smith made the decision to close the report.
“I asked to review it at that point so that I could see for myself exactly what it said in that report,” Jackson said.
Jackson later told the Daily News that she had misspoken when she said she had asked to review the report.
Her claim to have not viewed the Farley report until last August also was called into question in a comment made by Arnold Brown, the head of investigations for the Sheriff’s Office.
Brown confirmed he’d sent Jackson an email on May 18, 2017 with the Farley investigation attached, and had spoken with the superintendent by phone.
“We discussed that the Sheriff’s Office is launching a criminal investigation based on the contents of the report by Arden Farley that I forwarded to her,” Brown said.
Smith closed the Farley report regarding Stillions 30 days before voters decided to return Jackson to the office of superintendent.