Gag order put on $9 million settlement, teacher dies of COVID, vaccinations, return to schools and more

Around the state: The Miami-Dade County School Board recently paid almost $9 million to five sexual assault victims of a former teacher and then had them sign confidentiality agreements, about 54,000 struggling Broward and Miami-Dade online students are being urged to return to classrooms, the Manatee County School Board’s decision to end its contract with a charter school is upheld by an appeals judge, a Santa Rosa County teacher died on Christmas Day of complications from the coronavirus, a bill is filed to create a searchable list of bad school employees that districts can consult before making hires, some districts are helping teachers 65 and older get vaccinated, and a spokesman for Gov. Ron DeSantis who created an uproar with comments about coronavirus deaths has taken a high-ranking job with the Florida Department of Education. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts and private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade, Broward: The Miami-Dade County School Board’s recent settlement of almost $9 million to the families of five students who were raped or sexually harassed by a former teacher included stipulations that the terms not be disclosed and that the victims not “impugn or disparage” the school board. Neither of those stipulations can be enforced under Florida law. The law firm hired to defend the school district said: “It is our practice not to discuss the reasons, the language or any provisions in a proposed or finalized settlement agreement. A settlement agreement lends finality to litigation and further discussion by a party to a settlement may impinge on such finality or cause a conflict with the settlement itself.” The students were victims of former Brownsville Middle School physical education teacher Wendell Nibbs, who received an eight-year prison sentence. Miami Herald. About 54,000 Broward and Miami-Dade students who have been learning online are being asked by district officials to return to in-person classes. In Broward, that’s 38,000 students, or 25 percent of all at-home learners. In Miami-Dade, where the process to identify struggling students and ask them to return to schools began before the break, about 16,000 more students are being urged to switch to in-person classes. Sun Sentinel. A judge has rejected a request from a Broward County School District principal for a restraining order against a former student. Karlton Johnson, 54, who has long been the principal at Blanche Ely High in Pompano Beach, said he is afraid for his life as a result of a year-long dispute with Delvin King, 27, a 2011 graduate from the school. The judge said there was “insufficient evidence” to establish that King harassed or stalked Johnson, and suggested the two men talk out their differences. Sun Sentinel.

Hillsborough: The Robert E. Lee Elementary School, which was severely damaged by a fire in 2017, has been rebuilt and is reopening today to students as Tampa Heights Elementary School. The school was first built by volunteers in 1906. The name was changed in 2018. WTSP.

Palm Beach: Work could begin this summer to convert the historic George Washington Carver High School in Delray Beach into a center for career preparation and technical classes for high school students, and for adult education classes. A 20,000-square-foot classroom building is planned, and the gymnasium will be renovated. The project would take about a year. Palm Beach Post. Parents have until Jan. 11 to choose remote or in-person learning for their children in the second semester. About 57 percent of the district’s students are learning remotely, but as many as 22,000 struggling students are being asked by the district to return to in-person classes. Palm Beach Post. Sun Sentinel.

Duval: School district employees who are 65 and older will be given priority for vaccinations against the coronavirus, starting this week, said Superintendent Diana Greene. Those employees will be contacted by health officials to arrange reservation times for the shot. WJXT. WJAX. The parents of a 14-year-old student are suing the school board, alleging she was sexually assaulted in February by a classmate at the Frank H. Peterson Academies of Technology in Jacksonville. The lawsuit charges that the school staff and security did not protect the girl, and that the district failed to investigate her claim and resolve the situation. WJXT.

Brevard: District officials said they will accommodate teachers who make appointments during the school day to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. The county will start vaccinating residents who are 65 and older today. Space Coast Daily. WKMG.

Seminole: An increasing number of parents are demanding that the school board end its face mask mandate for students. “If this mandate isn’t going away, my sons aren’t going back,” Julia Quint told the board. She said the masks are unhealthy, feed anxiety and infringe on parents’ rights to make medical decisions for their children. “What type of psychological damage is being done to our students?” she asked. District officials said the decision to require masks was based on advice from health officials, and is likely to continue through the end of the school year. WESH. Orlando Sentinel.

Volusia: The school district will participate in a state pilot program to help students prepare for kindergarten. Students will be assessed three times over the course of a school year: at the beginning, middle and end. Teachers can then use the assessments to target specific lessons and set individual goals for children. The two-year program is called the VPK Progress Monitoring Pilot, and is aimed at improving the 53 percent state passing rate on the kindergarten readiness exam in 2019. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Manatee, Sarasota: The First District Court of Appeal has upheld the Manatee County School Board’s decision to terminate the contract for the Lincoln Memorial Academy charter school. The board based its decision on unpaid bills and teachers and a “systemic dysfunction” of school management. School supporters appealed the decision. WTSP. Bradenton Herald. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Manatee County students who have struggled with remote learning are being urged by school officials to return to classrooms in the second semester. “Currently, our school records indicate that your child is still having difficulty completing his/her school work using the School District of Manatee County’s eLearning system,” states the letter going to those students. “Regretfully, considering your child’s continued difficulties, the School District of Manatee County will be removing him/her from the eLearning roster. We believe that the best alternative for your child is to return to his/her ‘Brick and Mortar’ school site.” The hybrid learning option, which mixes remote and in-person learning, is no longer being offered. Bradenton Herald. Coping with the pandemic and remote learning were the primary challenges for the Manatee and Sarasota school districts in 2020. Sarasota also hired a new superintendent, Brennan Asplen, and was harshly criticized by the state for wrongly placing about 100 students into a special program for students with severe cognitive disabilities. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Marion: Charges of inappropriately touching a student will not be brought against a former substitute teacher who was arrested in October. Prosecutors said the 6-year-old boy had made inconsistent statements and that there was no physical evidence or corroboration that warranted lewd and lascivious molestation charges to be filed against Christina Ruby Sanchez-Rodriguez, 30. Ocala Star-Banner.

Alachua: The effects of the pandemic, the resignation of Superintendent Karen Clarke and changes in the makeup of the school board were the big stories in the school district in 2020. Gainesville Sun. No charges will be filed against Buchholz High School’s former band director, who was accused of sending sexually inappropriate messages to a student early last year, according to sheriff’s officials who said they had no probable cause. Shawn Barat, 47, had been the band director since 2015 before being suspended. His case with the district is still pending. Gainesville Sun.

Santa Rosa: A longtime science teacher and football coach at Milton High School has died of complications from the coronavirus, according to Superintendent Karen Barber. Jeff Larson was 60 and had taught at the school for 25 years. Barber said he had been out of school for two weeks before dying Christmas Day. Grief counselors will be available today when students return from the break. Pensacola News Journal.

Bay: County students will not be required to be vaccinated against the coronavirus when they go back to school next fall, according to county health officials. Panama City News Herald.

Charlotte: A school resource officer at Vineland Elementary School in Rotonda West was given a 48-hour unpaid suspension for searching for pornography on a school computer, said district officials. District investigators said David Imbruno admitted using the computer to look for pornography and to make other personal searches. He was also removed from the school resource officer unit, but can reapply in a year. WINK. WFTX.

Citrus: Adapting to the changes forced by the coronavirus pandemic made 2020 “one of the most challenging and unpredictable years, both personally and professionally, and probably since my tenure as superintendent,” said Superintendent Sandra Himmel. “Even though it’s been a crazy year, I believe we’ve accomplished a lot of things.” Citrus County Chronicle.

Sumter: A 13-year-old student at the Villages Charter School has been arrested and accused of sexually abusing a 12-year-old classmate. The victim had confided to a school coach that she had been improperly touched by the boy in her Fruitland Park home. Villages-News.

Colleges and universities: The University of Florida’s Board of Trustees is being asked to consider a new campus master plan that includes growth, land-use and transportation changes. The vote is scheduled for March. Gainesville Sun. Bethune-Cookman University students will start the spring semester Jan. 11 with online-only classes, school officials announced. In-person instruction won’t resume until Feb. 15. WKMG.

Personnel moves: The chief spokesperson for Gov. Ron DeSantis resigned last week and has been hired as the executive vice chancellor of the Florida College System. Fred Piccolo said his resignation was not related to a controversial tweet he issued on Christmas Eve that panned the news media for creating a “narrative” about coronavirus deaths. “I’m wondering since 99% (of) Covid patients survive shouldn’t you have 99 photos of survivors for every one fatality? Otherwise you’re just trying to create a narrative that is not reality,” he wrote. The remark drew national attention and criticism, and Piccolo subsequently deleted his Twitter account. He said he resigned from DeSantis’ office Dec. 23. Miami Herald. Sun Sentinel. Florida Politics.

In the Legislature: A bill that would create a “disqualification” list of school employees who have been fired for bad behavior has again been filed for the legislative session that begins March 2. H.B. 131, which is sponsored by State Rep. Wyman Duggan, R-Jacksonville, is basically the same bill that was filed last year. The list would include public, charter and private school employees who have been denied a teaching certificate or had one revoked, or have been accused of sexual impropriety with a student. Florida Politics.

FLVS sues competitor: The Florida Virtual School is suing a competitor for trademark infringement. FLVS alleges that Virginia-based K-12 Inc. and K-12 Florida LLC are doing business in the state as Florida Online School and FLOS, and is using a color scheme on its website that is similar to the one used by Florida Virtual School. “(The defendants) have embarked upon yet another campaign designed to sow even more market confusion,” FLVS attorney claim in the federal suit. News Service of Florida.

School bus safety law: A new law is now in effect that doubles the fines and suspensions for drivers who illegally pass school buses. “Hopefully this will make people think twice,” said state Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater. News Service of Florida. Florida Politics.

Spring education plans: Forty-five school districts have now gotten their spring semester education plans approved by the Florida Department of Education. Getting sign-off from the state since Dec. 24 are the plans for the Alachua, Bradford, Broward, Escambia, Flagler, Franklin, Manatee, Martin, Palm Beach, Santa Rosa, Sumter and the University of Florida Lab School districts. Florida Department of Education.

Around the nation: President Trump recently issued an executive order that will allow Community Services Block Grant funds to be used as “emergency learning scholarships” to “disadvantaged” families. The funds could be used for such home-schooling and pandemic-related expenses as microschools and pods, or therapy services for students with special needs. The 74. This month, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to hear a case of a Pennsylvania student who was disciplined after posting vulgar comments on Snapchat. An appeals court has ruled that the school district violated the student’s First Amendment rights. New York Times. Only 5 percent of the country’s private schools were virtual this fall compared with 62 percent of public schools, according to a survey by the National Association of Independent Schools. That has led well-to-do parents to increasingly send their children to private schools for convenience and what they believe will be a better educational experience. Axios. Education experts say as many as 3 million American children have simply dropped out of school learning since March. NPR. How school districts around the country — including Escambia County in Florida — are dealing with the pandemic and what they’re doing to keep students learning. The 74.

Opinions on schools: Elected officials need to find ways to pay for programs that will help make up for students’ learning losses during the pandemic. Gainesville Sun. Miltonites and Coonians are united in a shared desire to improve the lot of “the least among us.” We should also share a commitment to learning from what has and hasn’t worked. The past three decades of experience with educational choice show that Miltonite means are the surest path to achieving Coonian ends. Robert Enlow and Jason Bedrick, redefinED. With his insensitive tweet, the Florida Department of Education’s new executive vice chancellor of colleges, Fred Piccolo, mocked every family that has lost someone to COVID-19. Randy Schultz, Sun Sentinel. There was no excuse for the Miami-Dade County School District to muzzle the five sexual assault victims of a district teacher to hush up the $9 million legal settlement. Miami Herald. Black students are severely underrepresented among the State University System bachelor’s degree graduates. Paul Cottle, Bridge to Tomorrow.

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BY NextSteps staff