"Away from policy and away from union contract, we have to get ourselves in the right place to make sure cruelty and inappropriate practices do not happen to children."

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FORT WALTON BEACH — Okaloosa County School Board Chairman Lamar White spoke candidly Thursday, voicing concerns over the interpretation of School Board policy and procedure in connection to a controversial district investigation.

White said Thursday his first concern is if Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson holds the power to designate her responsibilities to report and discipline educators who have confirmed allegations of child abuse, cruelty, harassment or neglect.

"That becomes, of course, the question," White said. "I distributed those policies to school board members, the superintendent and the (school board) attorney. I wanted the officials and folks there to look over those policies so, when it comes up at the next meeting, we can have a discussion."

White's decision to delve into the interpretation of policy and procedures was sparked by a 2016 Okaloosa County School District investigation involving the alleged mistreatment of a now 6-year-old non-verbal child with autism by former Kenwood Elementary teacher Marlynn Stillions.

Jackson said she had no involvement in the final decision, allegedly made by Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Stacie Smith, to ignore the investigator's confirmed findings of misconduct and decide no disciplinary action would be taken against Stillions.

Jackson said Smith only informed her of the decision, after meeting with school district investigator Arden Farley and Stillions separately, over the phone at the end of July 2016.

“And, I said, ‘OK’,” Jackson said during an interview with the Daily News.

'The superintendent shall ...'

White said there are many questions that arise when reviewing Section 6-27 and 6-28 in the Okaloosa County School Board Policy. 

READ the general personnel policies >>

The chairman said the first course of action will be to request Jeff McInnis, school board attorney, to translate the phrase, "The Superintendent shall ..." at the next school board meeting on Oct. 9.

"When the policy refers to the superintendent, does that mean the superintendent and her staff, as in a global manner, or does it specifically mean the superintendent?" White asked.

Generally speaking, McInnis said Friday the superintendent can delegate the duties to perform district employee investigations and the preparation of investigative reports.

Former Okaloosa County School District superintendent Don Gaetz said he believes policy and state law are clear, stating the only person who can make a determination that an employee should be suspended or terminated is the superintendent.

"It cannot be delegated, it should not be delegated," Gaetz said. "Consequently, the superintendent has to be the one to see and review all findings in order to decide whether to move forward with a disciplinary recommendation to the school board. You cannot delegate that kind of serious legal responsibility to a functionary or a bureaucrat."

White said he also questions why the investigation and its findings were withheld from the school board because, in his opinion, the allegations were confirmed by Farley.

"All I can do is look at it in retrospect," White said. "I think there are some questions that need to be answered. If it's confirmed, and there's no question that Farley confirmed inappropriate practices, we (the school board) need to be informed."

'Complex and legalistic'

At an Okaloosa County School Board meeting Monday, White proposed draft language of two new policies for parent and board member notification for district investigations involving the mistreatment of students.

One proposal would require the superintendent to immediately inform the school board chairperson when he/she receives a report confirming a student was the victim of cruelty, abuse or harassment.

The policy draft states the chairperson would then discuss with the school board attorney the best method to inform other board members.

White’s second proposal would be a requirement for the superintendent to immediately notify the parent/guardian of any student who is the subject of a district investigation alleging that the student’s civil rights have been violated and/or is a victim of cruelty, abuse or harassment.

The chairman said he proposed the two policies in hopes to leave no room for misinterpretation of the policies in future district investigations.

"Some of these questions about policy become complex and legalistic," White said. "Away from policy and away from union contract, we have to get ourselves in the right place to make sure cruelty and inappropriate practices do not happen to children."

McInnis said Friday he just began reviewing the school board policies per the board's request. McInnis is tasked with reviewing, comparing and revising White's proposed policies, which will then be voted on for approval at an upcoming school board meeting.