The First Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office was watching closely as suspended Okaloosa School Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson and others testified before a Senate-appointed special master in late May in Tallahassee.

Prosecutors and their supervisors, who in 2017-18 headed the office’s lengthy investigation into dysfunction and possible wrongdoing within the district, came away satisfied they’d hit the mark with charges they had filed against district employees long before Gov. Ron DeSantis removed Jackson.

“There was not any additional evidence from her testimony or the rest of the hearing, or anything disclosed by the government or her lawyer, that we feel will allow us to reopen a criminal investigation,” said State Attorney Bill Eddins. “We have made the decision the people we have previously prosecuted were the appropriate people to prosecute under the unique facts and circumstances of the case.”

Four district employees were arrested as a result of an investigation that began in 2015-16 as an effort to mediate a teacher conflict at Kenwood Elementary. The meditation effort expanded into a code of ethics inquiry that ultimately became a child abuse case resulting in revelations of scandal and questions about Jackson’s role in a possible cover up of information related to the abuse.

One of those charged, Kenwood special education teacher Marlynn Stillions, is presently serving a seven-year prison sentence for child abuse. Three other district employees were sentenced to probation for failure to report Stillions’ abusive actions to the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Jackson spoke publicly and under oath for the first time May 29 about her role in the mess that the Stillions’ case became. The testimony was provided at a hearing of an appeal of her Jan. 11 suspension. One of the key allegations made against her is that she demonstrated negligence and incompetence in her handling of the Stillions’ matter.

Based on the testimony from the hearing and a recommendation from the special master, the Florida Senate will decide in September whether to reinstate Jackson or remove her permanently from office.

Nicholas Primrose, the attorney representing DeSantis at the hearing, has said that Jackson knew in 2016 that a School District investigation had found evidence that Stillions physically harmed Noah Perillo, a 4-year-old autistic boy.

Primrose has stated he believes a report that documented findings of Stillions’ abuse, filed in June 2016 by School District Inv. Arden Farley, was hidden away that August so its publication couldn’t harm Jackson’s chances for re-election.

Jackson has maintained, and under oath at the appeals hearing continued to do so, that she never learned about the report until August of 2017, when a public records request from Noah’s father, Eddie Perillo, brought the document to light.

She claims she saw the report for the first time a year after the Stillions investigation was closed and the document filed away in the District’s Human Resources Office, and learned of the criminal investigation it had sparked when she was approached at church by an Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office investigator.

“(Inv.) Kelly Henderson got me by the arm and pulled me between two pews. She told me ‘Ms. Jackson, there is nothing to that Kenwood Stillions investigation about child abuse,’ ” Jackson testified.

Jackson said after speaking to Henderson she attempted unsuccessfully to call Stacie Smith, her assistant superintendent of human resources, and ultimately sent Smith a text message.

 "My text to her was 'send me that Stillions report right now. On Aug. 5, I got that report," Jackson testified.

Henderson declined through a Sheriff’s Office spokesperson to confirm or refute the conversation.

Jackson’s insistence she never saw the report, which in May of 2017 arrived at her office as an email attachment sent from the head of the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigation’s Division, resulted in some interesting exchanges between her and Primrose.

Under questioning from her own attorney, Jackson explained that the investigation into Stillions’ behavior was one of several going on at any time in the School District. She said Smith brought it to her attention in May of 2016 and later informed her the scope of Farley’s investigation had expanded from a mediation effort to a code of ethics inquiry.

She said she believed throughout that the Stillions’ investigation primarily revolved around the educator’s personal conflicts with a teacher’s aide at Kenwood.

Jackson said she could recall reports of Stillions’ interactions with children, as related to her by Smith, that included vinegar being sprayed on a child’s hands and food being withheld from students.

“This was not a red flag for me,” she testified. “Vinegar in the hand, food deprivation, this is reasonable to me.”

“If she had said they’re hitting a child or doing anything to harm a child, I would be on that immediately,” Jackson testified under later questioning from Primrose.

Primrose informed Jackson during his interrogation that Smith had provided testimony in which she stated the superintendent had given the order not to act against Stillions based on the findings provided by Farley, and to close the investigation of her actions.

He also reminded Jackson that there were other findings in the Farley report that were perhaps more notable than spraying vinegar and withholding food. He mentioned a finding that Stillions had admitted to lifting Noah Perillo by the waistband of his pants, and that Farley had recommended the teachers’ actions be reported to the state Department of Education’s Office of Professional Practices.

“If she (Smith) gave you the findings, why didn’t you read the report?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Jackson answered.

“You hear something like that,” he asked of the lifting the student by the waistband and shirt collar, “and it didn’t trigger ‘I need to read the report?’ ”

Jackson said her experience with special education children were such that lifting a child by the waistband of his pants “wouldn’t be a red flag to me.”

“They have meltdowns,” she said.

Jackson contended that it was Smith who suggested no action be taken against Stillions based on the findings in Farley’s report.

“She said if we go forward (the Okaloosa teacher’s union) is going to grievance and we’re going to lose,” she testified.

Again Primrose asked, given this information, why Jackson hadn’t read the Farley report.

“Smith comes to you. She says we have a report that calls for disciplinary action. If we act on it the union may go to the mattresses on us, and you’re not saying ‘let me read the damn report?’ ” he asked. “Smith tells you ‘we’re not going to do anything.’ You agreed to move forward without reading the report?”

“I did not read the report,” Jackson asserted at several points in the conversation. “I was just told there would be no action taken against Ms. Stillions.”

Jackson also defended during her testimony her decision to decline to appear before a grand jury, which was convened twice in 2018 to scrutinize policies and procedures within the School District and consider whether criminal charges were warranted against district officials.

The grand jury decided not to file charges against Jackson, but in its reports spoke harshly of her management skills and her failure to appear before it.

Jackson said at her hearing that she would have testified if the State Attorney’s Office would have subpoenaed her to do so.

“We told them we would be happy to come with a subpoena,” she said. “They issued one to other elected officials.”

School Board members were issued subpoenas to appear before the grand jury.

Eddins said this week there was no way he would have provided Jackson, a chief target of his criminal investigation, the immunity a subpoena would have afforded her.

“The affect of issuing a subpoena would be she would have immunity from criminal prosecution for what she said. At the time we convened the grand jury I was unwilling to give her immunity from criminal prosecution,” Eddins said.

“I was certain she was aware that she would not be immune from prosecution if she testified voluntarily and that was a factor in her not appearing before the grand jury,” Eddins said.

Eddins said he found it “unusual” that Jackson did not, as a county elected official, choose to voluntarily appear before the grand jury and testify in front of “a cross section of the community she served.”

“In my 14 years as state attorney I am not aware of any other public official who failed to appear before the grand jury when invited to do so,” he said.