Under Mary Beth Jackson, student achievement in Okaloosa County “has skyrocketed,” according to the lawyer seeking her reinstatement as school superintendent, “and the District has risen to be consistently one of the top performing districts in the state.”
“Things are not that bleak in the District, nor have they ever been under Superintendent Jackson’s tenure. The District is a beacon of excellence for the state, and Superintendent Jackson should be commended for her work in the District, not suspended from office,” attorney George Levesque argued in a bench memorandum made public Friday.
Jackson, who was suspended from office Jan. 11 by Gov. Ron DeSantis, will have her appeal of that suspension heard May 28-29 before Special Master Dudley Goodlette. The bench memorandum, turned in a week after a similar one was posted by the Governor’s Office, serves to outline the case at hand ahead of the hearing.
Goodlette will preside over the hearing and present a recommendation to the Florida Senate afterward that calls for Jackson either to be reinstated to her post or removed permanently from office.
The Governor’s Office's specific charges against Jackson are that she failed in the administration and management of the School District, including supervising the instruction of children. It says her neglect of duty and/or incompetence resulted in multiple instances of child abuse/neglect.
The charges also claim she failed to provide sufficient policies and procedures to protect students, which resulted in child abuse and neglect of children. Cited as evidence against Jackson are confirmed findings of child abuse in two 2015-16 cases and child abuse charges filed earlier this year against three more Okaloosa educators.
In his memo, Levesque claims that many allegations the Governor’s Office has leveled against Jackson “are demonstrably false and without basis” and that the governor fails to establish grounds sufficient to warrant removal of Jackson on the grounds of neglect of duty or incompetence.
The defense memo goes into great detail about the case of Marlynn Stillions, a special education-kindergarten teacher at Kenwood Elementary School who was arrested in September 2017 and is now serving seven years for child abuse committed during the 2015-16 school year on a nonverbal autistic child in her class.
The Governor’s Office contends Jackson knew about the Stillions case in 2016 and acted just prior to her August 2016 re-election to quash the findings of then-School District Investigator Arden Farley.
Levesque's memorandum creates a narrative in which Jackson never knew about an investigation into Stillions’ alleged abuse until late 2017.
The defense memo credits both Jackson and Stacie Smith, her former assistant superintendent of human resources, with removing Stillions from her classroom “immediately upon learning of allegations of misconduct.”
It implies that Eddie Perillo, whose son Noah was the victim of the abuse in the Stillions’ case, somehow convinced the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, for which he once worked, to prosecute Stillions. It also implies that he did so out of spite.
“In the events involving Ms. Stillions, the facts conclusively demonstrate why the matter could have been handled (by the School District) the way it was,” the Jackson memo argues. “It is easy to understand how upper administrative staff, like Superintendent Jackson and (current Superintendent Marcus) Chambers may not have been fully apprised in the details of the saga.”
It likewise credits Smith and Jackson for acting decisively in the case of former Silver Sands teacher Roy Frazier, who received a three-day suspension after allegations he physically abused children in his classroom came to light. The charges were severe enough that the Florida Department of Education removed Frazier’s education certificate after he retired from the School District.
The memorandum argues against the Governor’s Office's claim Jackson that did little or nothing to train School District employees on proper protocol for child abuse and its reporting. It quotes Karen Peek, the School District’s director for professional services, as saying “knowledge of the requirement to report child abuse was so ingrained it is ‘just kind of like breathing.’ ”
The memorandum argues that if Jackson could be judged unworthy to serve as superintendent “it defies logic” that Chambers would be appointed to serve in her place.
Jackson’s “alleged shortcomings ... were the more direct responsibility of Mr. Chambers,” who served as an assistant superintendent over ESE programs, and later human resources, the memo states.
It also contends that Jackson “has faithfully carried out the duties imposed upon her” as the elected superintendent, but has been punished for not putting in place policies and procedures that ultimately fall upon the School Board to implement.
“The governor seeks to justify his suspension order by claiming she failed to fulfill those duties which she, as a matter of practical and legal reality, lacked the authority to carry out,” the memo said.
Nicholas Primrose, the governor’s counsel in the Jackson case, was quick to rebut the Levesque memorandum. He filed a second bench memorandum Tuesday. That document was published Friday along with Levesque's bench memorandum.
Primrose states Jackson’s memo “attempts to argue that Jackson bears no responsibility for the child abuse/neglect that occurred within Okaloosa Schools during her tenure ... and exhibited no neglect or incompetence.”
It said the arguments presented are not new.
“Jackson has never accepted any responsibility or role in the scandal that hangs over Okaloosa Schools,” the rebuttal said.
Primrose states “Jackson bears the sole responsibility for recommending policies and insuring they are adopted” and “seemingly takes credit for her swift action in changing policies once the media exposed the issues surrounding Teacher Stillions.”
It states her argument that training of teachers on child abuse issues was “more than sufficient … is replete with factual misrepresentations.”
Primrose argues that the Senate should not believe Jackson’s assertion that she knew nothing of the Stillions’ investigation until late 2017. If that argument were true, he wrote, that in itself should serve as evidence of the suspended superintendent’s neglect of duty and incompetence.
The rebuttal rejects Levesque's rendition of the Stillions’ case and speaks critically of the allegations made against Eddie Perillo.
The Governor’s Office “will not engage in slanderous accusations and conspiracy theories regarding the parents of the minor chilled involved in the teacher Stillions' incident,” Primrose's memo said.