© 2023 WFSU Public Media
WFSU News · Tallahassee · Panama City · Thomasville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Day 2: Suspended Okaloosa Superintendent Faces Senate Hearing

State Attorney presenting the states' case for suspending Okaloosa County School Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson to Special Counsel Dudley Goodlette.
Blaise Gainey

Former Okaloosa County School Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson’s lawyers have been in the Florida Senate pleading for her reinstatement. She was suspended by Governor Ron DeSantis for what he says was a failure of leadership by allowing numerous criminal charges of child abuse by teachers. As Blaise Gainey reports the state is arguing her removal is necessary to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the students.

By way of recommendation, after less than a week on the job Governor Ron DeSantis suspended Okaloosa Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson. On the other end of that recommendation was the newly appointed Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran.

“I find it to be an egregious case, I think the governor made a great decision. When you have somebody who is multiple different tripping, spraying with vinegar, abusing verbally all of these just atrocious acts," said Corcoran.

Corcoran is talking about former school employee Marlynn Stillions who is currently serving a seven-year sentence for child abuse, stemming from allegations made while she worked in the county school system with non-verbal, pre-kindergarten kids.

Superintendent Jackson’s defense attorney, George Levesque, argues no system is perfect and Jackson made the best judgement she could’ve at the time. He says the state sees it differently.

“Okaloosa isn’t Lake Wobegone, where all the children are above average. [With] 33,000 students, 3,200 employees, problems are inevitable. Instead, the Governor’s counsel argue that these things happened so someone neglected their duty or was incompetent this is their case. It makes no sense to have perfection as a standard. But if perfection is a standard every public officer is subject to removal simply when something bad happens."

Levesque says there are more direct supervisors who were to blame, and that the superintendent was the furthest away from the incident.

“What we do know is that Stacy Smith, the HR Director who didn’t recommend, was charged with failure to report abuse. And, the two witnesses who testified on behalf of person A, the two witnesses who supposedly witnessed first-hand the heinous acts-the alleged heinous acts of Ms. Stillions- what did they receive? No charges, and they didn’t report," said Levesque.

The defense continued saying that Jackson’s successor, interim Superintendent Marcus Chambers, also took no action against Stillions or Roy Frazier, another former Okaloosa school employee who was  suspended for three days for bringing a BB Gun into a school

“To be absolutely clear, we think Mr. Chambers did a good job. This isn’t scapegoating," Levesque said, "but it makes no sense to remove the person at the top, the person who is naturally the least connected to the issues and is alleged to be failing, and promote the person underneath them who is more directly connected and likely to be more responsible for any failure,” said Levesque.

But Florida Deputy General Counsel Nicholas Primrose said there are district policies that demand Jackson to know about the allegations. Here he is questioning Chambers.

“There’s actually district policies that demand the superintendent know about allegations and confirmed findings of teacher misconduct," asked Primrose.

"Correct," answered Chambers.

Especially if it has something to do with the health safety and welfare of the students their entrusted to protect, right?" asked Primrose.

"Correct," responded Chambers.

But Jackson’s defense asked Chambers if he has started doing things differently since former policies and training allowed mistakes to happen. His reply was that he informs principals about abuse reporting and lets them know to tell their faculty and staff. But the defense says that was already being done.

"That’s the same thing that Ms. Jackson’s been telling the principals at these retreats every year since she’s been in office right?" asked Levesque.

"Correct," answered Chambers.

"So you’re not doing anything different than what she was doing," stated Levesque.

In fact, they said that if Chambers felt the need in his former position as assistant superintendent of HR he could’ve suspended Stillions. He agreed.

Jackson’s defense said that they don’t think Chambers did a bad job, but also don’t think Jackson should be the one fired because of the situation, and they argue so Chambers shouldn’t be the one to replace her.

“In football terms if the offense is not performing, you don’t fire the head coach and promote the offensive coordinator," explained Levesque.

With the hearing all wrapped up the next step is for Special Master Dudley Goodlette to make a recommendation to the Senate, about whether to reinstate Jackson as Okaloosa’s Superintendent.

Blaise Gainey is a State Government Reporter for WFSU News. Blaise hails from Windermere, Florida. He graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He formerly worked for The Florida Channel, WTXL-TV, and before graduating interned with WFSU News. He is excited to return to the newsroom. In his spare time he enjoys watching sports, Netflix, outdoor activities and anything involving his daughter.