The office of Bill Eddins has uncovered many serious issues in Okaloosa County School District, "specifically the ways in which the school system has handled all manner of complaints regarding the misbehavior of employees."
First Judicial Circuit State Attorney Bill Eddins announced Tuesday he will convene a grand jury to review the many serious issues his office has uncovered in the course of investigating the Okaloosa County School District.
“As a result of what has been developed up to this date in my investigation, I intend to present information regarding the overall operation of the school system, and specifically the ways in which the school system has handled all manner of complaints regarding the misbehavior of employees, to a grand jury,” Eddins said.
The announcement comes on the heels of a Monday night School Board vote to seek an audit of district investigations conducted since 2014.
Such an audit is unnecessary and could impede the progress of his own inquiry, Eddins said.
“We have been investigating this matter for several weeks now. We have obtained thousands of documents and reviewed most of them,” he said. “For Okaloosa County to be fully informed, I believe it is best to have a grand jury, composed of a broad range of community residents, review all aspects of these matters.”
The State Attorney’s Office began investigating the school district after the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office presented warrants for the arrests of several school district employees in September. The State Attorney signed three of the warrants.
Kenwood Elementary pre-K special education teacher Marlynn Stillions was charged Sept. 13 with four felony counts of child abuse without great bodily harm. On the same day, long-time school district investigator Arden Farley (four) and former Kenwood principal Angelyn Vaughan (three) were charged with multiple felony counts for failure to report suspected child abuse.
Trials for all three are tentatively scheduled for Jan. 8.
School district scandals
Serious questions arose before and after the arrests as to why an investigative report compiled by Farley in 2016, which confirmed evidence that Stillions was mistreating children in her care, was closed and not acted upon by the school district administration for a year.
Further inquiry led to disclosures that another teacher, Roy Frazier at Silver Sands School, had also been found to have physically mistreated special education students. He was suspended for three days in the spring of 2016 and allowed to retire over a year later in early June before the state Department of Education revoked his teaching certificate several weeks later.
An Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office school resource officer, Dwayne Vasiloff, resigned in July after an internal investigation found he’d failed to assist in numerous child abuse investigations at Kenwood.
A separate revelation showed that school district employee Stephen Hall sexually harassed women at three schools before being fired. The first reports were filed against Hall in 2014. He was terminated Monday night.
A second district employee, Davana Friend, was also fired Monday. A Sheriff’s Office investigation conducted in October found Friend, a lunchroom monitor at Kenwood, had mistreated a student to the extent that child abuse charges would have been filed if the child’s mother — who had left the state — had signed paperwork authorizing them.
Once seated, the grand jury would hear testimony and publish a report on its findings, Eddins said. It will be presented with a summary of the review of the many criminal investigative reports Farley has compiled in his 22-year career and with documentation from formal complaints lodged more recently against the school district and Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson.
The group selected to sit on the grand jury would not be limited to acting on just evidence that determined criminal activity, but can also report in its findings on the school district as a government entity.
Who could appear
Eddins said the School Board’s actions Monday night will be presented to the grand jury and any county School Board member with concerns about the investigative process or school district policies will be invited to appear to air those concerns.
Jackson and members of her administration will also be invited to come before the grand jury “to explain the operation of the school system and any policy changes made since the public became aware of these matters,” Eddins said.
School Board Chairman Lamar White said, as a single member of the board, he is prepared to “abide by anything the State Attorney’s Office requires.”
“There is no question we would want to cooperate with the State Attorney’s Office,” White said.
Board member Dewey Destin, who made the motion for an audit of past investigations, was also in favor of deferring to the State Attorney's Office.
"We don't need to interfere with what he's doing," Destin said. "When it all comes out, if we're not satisfied with what was done, we can go back and see if there are improvements we need to make."