Principal's 'inappropriate conduct' prompts suspension, demotion

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Duval County's school superintendent is recommending that the principal of Holiday Hill Elementary School be suspended for 30 days and demoted to a district office job after an investigation found "sufficient evidence to support the allegation of inappropriate conduct (sexual)."

The Duval County School Board voted to approve Dr. Nikolai Vitti's recommendation Tuesday night. 

The investigation of Principal Denise Ahearn was sparked by a complaint filed by staff members at the school that included allegations she sat in "inappropriate positions" on the counter of the media center and "dirty dancing" in front of students.

"There was some behavior that students may have seen indirectly," Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said.

Among the complaint of sexual harassment by a male employee at the school was that Ahearn carried around the book "50 Shades of Gray," and at one point allegedly told him, "If I keep reading this book, I'll be coming in here and pinning someone against the wall."

The report mentioned Ahearn's bizarre behavior, such as walking around campus and staring at trees for hours, smashing mushrooms and licking a door.

After conducting an investigation and interviewing Ahearn, the investigators with the school district's Office of Professional Standards wrote: "It was determined that there was substantial evidence to sustain the charges of gross exercise of poor judgement, inappropriate communication to and in the presence of staff, inappropriate conduct toward and in the presence of staff, and harassment of staff that interferes with their performance or work..."

DOCUMENTS: Investigation into complaints against Denise Ahearn

Ahearn told investigators she was reading the book, but said she was joking when she made certain comments. She denies sexually harassing the staff member and said she would never do that.

At Tuesday night's School Board meeting, Vitti's recommendation that Ahearn be suspended without pay for 30 days and demoted to supervisor of supplemental education services was approved.

"It's time for our district and part of this new administration to clearly make a statement about appropriate behavior for our staff, especially our principals," Vitti said. "Principals are at the forefront of the outreach to the community."

School officials say Ahearn was paid $85,327 as a principal and will get about a $15,000 reduction in salary in the new position.

"It's just clear that there was an inappropriate approach with certain staff members, as the report indicated, bizarre behavior," Vitti said. "We can't have that anywhere in our school system, especially at the school site."

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