Superintendent semifinalist accused of fumbling past complaint

Parents were left in the dark about sexual complaint against substitute teacher

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – One of six semifinalists vying to become the next Duval County Superintendent of Schools was at the center of a controversy last year over allegations that he mishandled complaints against a substitute teacher who was accused of masturbating in a middle school classroom, the I-TEAM has learned.

Parents of students at Beth Shields Middle School near Tampa said Hillsborough County Public Schools never notified them the teacher was accused of touching himself inappropriately in the classroom. They were outraged they did not find out about it until they saw the story on the news.

Hillsborough County Chief of Schools Harrison Peters, who is now a candidate for the Duval County superintendent job, was in charge of the school district at the time. The February 2017 incident did not become public knowledge until Tampa Bay's WFTS-TV aired an investigation two months later.

Multiple attempts to reach Peters by phone Wednesday were unsuccessful.

But while interviewing in January for a job in Nebraska, Peters acknowledged his missteps. He told the Omaha World-Herald administrators handled things correctly by firing the teacher and notifying police, but they fell short when it came to getting the word out to parents.

"Where we broke down, we didn’t communicate effectively to the families," Peters told the World-Herald. "Parents have an absolute right to be communicated with. We dropped the ball on that."

According to WFTS, a student recorded cellphone video that appeared to show the substitute teacher masturbating behind a desk in a classroom. Police reports reviewed by the television station showed 20 students submitted formal statements backing up the accusation. But parents didn't learn of the incident until a news crew contacted them over a month later.

Peters said the school district immediately alerted the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office afterward, adding that the school's principal reached out to some parents, according to the report. But according to call logs obtained by a WFTS reporter, parents were not notified until two months later.

The controversy surfaced after the I-TEAM performed a simple Google search of the candidates for superintendent. School Board Chairwoman Paula Wright said she could not discuss the matter when asked about Peters' track record.

"Board members can't engage in a conversation about a school superintendent candidate," she said, adding that the search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates has asked for seven to 10 days to complete a comprehensive background check.

The School Board won't take up any more discussion of the search for a new superintendent until May 11.

About the Author:

Tarik anchors the 4, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekday newscasts and reports with the I-TEAM.