Currently, the state Department of Education does not keep a complete database of all substitute teachers in the state. But one violent tragedy in Tallahassee last year has raised concerns, and sparked a push for better record-keeping at the state level.
After news surfaced that Scott Beierle, the man who shot and killed two people, injuring several others in Tallahassee’s Hot Yoga studio in November, had been a substitute teacher in several counties – local leaders in education became concerned.
Leon County School Board member Alva Striplin, who began asking questions about the guidelines surrounding hiring and record-keeping on substitutes shortly after the shooting.
“That was my yoga studio, I attend class there and I have for years. And so, I’ve been in that class, I know the instructor, I know what that room is like,” Striplin said.
Beierle was a substitute in Leon between 2015-16, and was fired as a substitute by Leon County after he accessed pornography sites on-campus. He was later fired by the Volusia County School District for inappropriately touching a student.
“It hit really, really close to home. And of course, then as information started surfacing about the shooter, we got word that he had been in our school district,” Striplin recalled on Friday, just days from the start of a new school year. “And I was just – it was just so disturbing. Everything about it was disturbing, obviously, but then to find out that he had been around our children – this could have easily been in one of our schools.”
As it stands, a statewide database of substitute teachers working in Florida’s 67 counties, who don’t have the five-year renewable certification required for teachers, doesn’t exist at DOE. Striplin was surprised to hear that when she inquired about a master list.
“When I started making some phone calls to the Florida School Board Association and said ‘Hey, is there a list compiled of everyone who has either been released from a position for any reason, or any disciplinary action – other than those who are certified?’ It became very evident from that conversation that the Department of Education had very strict regulation on those who are certified, but no regulation on those who are not certified,” Striplin said. “So then, you start compiling the amount of people who that is – that’s a lot of individuals in our school district.”
Another issue tied to the lack of a consolidated database is reporting of misconduct. Because Beierle held state certification, which he was issued in 2015, districts would have followed the same procedure for reporting full-time teacher misconduct: they would have to notify DOE within 30 days of becoming aware of the situation.
A DOE spokesperson has previously told reporters that Beierle’s misconduct was not reported to the state – representing a failure on the part of the school districts. But for substitute teachers who don’t hold a certification, districts can handle discipline in-house without the requirement of notifying DOE. Striplin says that’s a problem.
“The first issue is, how can we form a database of everyone who comes in contact with our children, and if they have been released from any district, or better yet any state – I mean this needs to be nationwide, obviously,” Striplin said.
There are also different requirements for full-time certified teachers, and not certified substitutes, as it pertains to background checks.
Florida statutes require school districts to establish their own protocol for hiring substitutes – but do require a complete set of fingerprints be taken from prospective subs and a minimum education level of a high school diploma.
The state statute dealing with substitutes does not, however, require a specific level of background check. That is left up to individual district.
The red flags surrounding Beierle and his past behavior were numerous, including two separate Tallahassee arrests, in 2012 and 2016, for grabbing womens’ buttocks. Beierle had a disturbing pattern of aggressive misogyny that went beyond his criminal behavior, with some parents noting their unease at his social media activity. Many who came in contact with Beierle, school district administrators, as well as students, described his behavior as odd and off-putting.
Democratic State Senator Bill Montford wants to prevent such patterns from going unchecked going forward.
“We, as a state, we’ve got to make absolutely sure that whoever is around our young people – whether they’re substitute teachers, teachers, volunteers – it really doesn’t matter, athletic officials, all of them; we have to make absolutely sure that they’re screened, they’re screened properly,” Montford said Thursday. “And if there’s a bad actor out there, we need to know who that is, and make sure that we have a list of those on the state level.”
The longtime state senator adds he has plans in motion to begin talks with DOE on the matter.
“What we need to do is find out exactly what the databases are out there now, and make sure they’re ironclad and air-tight. And we’ll do that, we’ll be working with the Department of Education to ensure that every adult that’s around our children, whether they’re volunteers or others, are screened and the backgrounds are checked,” Montford said.
His term as a state senator ends in 2020, but Montford will maintain a key role in Florida education as CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.