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Arrested teachers allowed back in Central Florida classrooms

ORLANDO, Fla. – The front left tire was missing from Marc Jarett's Dodge sport utility vehicle when police found it parked on the side of the road. 

[WEB EXTRA:  Crimes to DQ teacher | Education Code of Conduct]

Officers had been searching for the vehicle, believing it was involved in a crash about five blocks away that left two women with neck, knee and back injuries, according to a report.  Witnesses reported seeing the SUV flee from the scene, rolling on a bare metal rim. 

"The accident is pretty far away. How did you manage to drive on three tires?" an Orlando police officer asked Jarett, a teacher employed by Orange County Public Schools.

"This was the first corner that I saw," he replied.

Suspecting Jarett had been driving drunk due to the strong odor of alcohol he reported smelling, the officer attempted to perform field sobriety exercises.

"I'm not doing anything until I speak to a lawyer," Jarett said.

After the teacher also declined a breath test, police handcuffed Jarett and took him to jail.  Besides recommending a charge of driving under the influence, the officer also believed Jarett committed a felony by leaving the scene of an accident with injuries.

Eventually, Jarett was allowed back in the classroom at Colonial High School teaching profoundly handicapped students, a position in which he remains to this day.

"We can't just terminate a teacher or support personnel just because we think what they may have done outside of work is wrong," said John Palmerini, associate general counsel of Orange County Public Schools.  "Teachers have contracts that, under state law, can only be terminated for just cause."

Under a different state law, teachers convicted of certain serious felonies, including murder, robbery, arson, and sex offenses must be removed from campus and will lose their certification.  If a teacher is arrested for one of those offenses, OCPS staff will ask the school board to suspend the employee without pay until the court case is resolved, said Palmerini.

However, teachers arrested for more minor crimes, including certain drug offenses, domestic battery and drunken driving are not automatically disqualified from employment.   In those cases, Orange County teachers are often allowed to remain working in the classroom as they await the outcome of their court case, according to the school district's lawyers.

"The charging decision by the state attorney is going to play a very large role in what we determine," said Palmerini.  "If somebody is exonerated or the charge is dropped, you can't base a termination decision on that.  Other school districts have tried that, and the courts have overturned them."

The school district's former attorney disagrees. 

"The criminal outcome should never be the determining factor as to whether or not you keep someone," said Frank Kruppenbacher, who represented OCPS for 30 years.  "What should be the factor is your own independent evaluation of the facts."

Kruppenbacher, who is now in private practice at the Morgan and Morgan law firm, said prosecutors can withdraw criminal charges for many reasons unrelated to the defendant's guilt or innocence, such as when a police officer fails to read an arrestee their rights.  Likewise, an acquittal does not necessarily mean the employee is innocent of the accusations, he indicated.

"It just means that under the burden of the criminal statute, they weren't found guilty," said Kruppenbacher.

Two months after Jarett's 2013 arrest, the state attorney's office decided not to pursue the felony charge of leaving the scene of an accident with injuries.  "It appears the evidence offered was not suitable for prosecution," said a spokeswoman for the state attorney's office.

Prosecutors also agreed to change the DUI charge to alcohol-related reckless driving, a misdemeanor that carries fewer long-term legal implications.  Jarett pleaded no contest and was sentenced to one year of probation. 

Personnel records provided to Local 6 by OCPS do not indicate whether the teacher had been put on administrative leave following his arrest, nor do they explain the reasons why Jarett was permitted to resume his job.

Jarett did not respond to an email seeking comment.  His attorney, Michael Snure, declined to speak about his client's case, but he indicated that most teachers he has represented in minor criminal cases have kept their employment.

"It is a microcosm of our community," said Snure.  "By and large they get the same outcome as everyone else and they don't lose their jobs."

As long as a teacher does not commit a serious criminal offense, Snure believes teachers' actions in their private lives generally do not impact their work in the classroom.

TEACHER ARRESTED FOR HEROIN POSSESSION

David Zeide was employed as a fourth-grade teacher at Apopka Elementary in 2013 when deputies arrested him on suspicion of drunken driving.

After Zeide failed field sobriety exercises, officers found small plastic baggies in the teacher's car containing residue that tests indicated was likely heroin, according to an arrest report.  Deputies also seized 7 syringes and "brownish" cotton balls, which the officer believed was consistent with heroin usage.

Zeide told the officer he was a recovering heroin addict, according to the report.

Police recommended that prosecutors charge the teacher with felony heroin possession, possession of drug paraphernalia, and DUI.

When Zeide reported his arrest to the school's principal the following workday, district officials immediately removed the teacher from the classroom and put him on paid administrative leave, records show. 

But three weeks later, after Zeide passed a drug test, school administrators reinstated him.

Yet "due to the sensational nature of the charges," OCPS area superintendent Dr. Bill Gordon transferred Zeide from Apopka Elementary to a different school, Riverside Elementary, records show.

"In education circles, they'd call it ‘passing the trash,'" said Kruppenbacher.  "If they were still capable and a fine teacher, why would you remove them from that school?"

Although records indicate the principal at Riverside Elementary knew about the teacher's pending criminal case, it is unclear whether parents at his new school were notified of the arrest.

Shortly before Zeide returned to work, the state attorney's office decided not to prosecute the teacher for heroin possession.  Court records do not indicate a reason.

As for the charges of DUI and possession of drug paraphernalia, Zeide agreed to enter into a pretrial diversion program, which allows the state to halt prosecution against certain defendants who agree to participate in rehabilitation services. 

By fulfilling such requirements as counseling, attending a DUI class, and making a $1000 donation to an organization like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Zeide avoided a criminal conviction on his record.

During a meeting with school administrators after his court case concluded, Zeide admitted to drinking at a friend's house prior to his arrest.  He also acknowledged possessing drug paraphernalia in his car.

"I have made poor choices in the past.  I have recognized that and am working to improve," Zeide stated, according to records. "The (heroin) residue was old.  I was not using at the time."

"It's absurd," said Kruppenbacher, who questions why his successors at OCPS allowed the teacher to remain working.  "You're trying to tell kids not to do drugs. And you've got a role model in front of them who has just been arrested for possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia?"

School district officials would not comment on specific employees, including Zeide, citing a long-standing practice. 

Zeide declined to comment for this story.

The principal of Riverside Elementary issued Zeide a written reprimand, informing him that he had violated the state's Code of Ethics and Principles of Professional Conduct. 

"The code requires that you strive to achieve and sustain the highest degree of ethical conduct and exercise the best professional judgment and integrity," wrote Principal Lorrie Butler.  Her letter informed Zeide that a similar incident in the future could lead to dismissal.

"I was not surprised that, under these circumstances, this individual got his job back," said employment attorney Travis Hollifield, who has represented other teachers.  "As long as he stays out of trouble, this is not a 'one strike and you're out' kind of a situation."

Hollifield said it can be a delicate balancing act for school districts to uphold the rights of the employee while also considering the potential impact on students, parents, and co-workers.

"Sometimes that includes leaving a teacher in the classroom that has been arrested for engaging in conduct that perhaps you and I would not do," said Hollifield.  "But does that disqualify that individual as a teacher? That's determined on a case-by-case basis."

TEACHERS UNION CHALLENGES TERMINATIONS

Personnel records reviewed by Local 6 do not indicate whether the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association assisted Jarett and Zeide after their arrests, and the union's president did not return phone calls and an email seeking comment. But the OCCTA has represented other teachers accused of crimes, according to the district's attorneys.

"The unions do play a role in this," said Palmerini.  "They have challenged termination decisions in the past."

Before suspending or firing a teacher, Palmerini said the school district must consider whether the union or the employee's attorney will be able to successfully appeal the action. 

"We look at case law to see if, under previously similar circumstances, a termination decision has been upheld.  And that's what really drives our decision," said Palmerini.  "We don't want to go through the process of firing somebody when we know it will be a decision that will be overturned."

"If you say, ‘well, they're going to fight us on it,' you'll never make any good decision for the students," said Kruppenbacher, who claims his former legal team did not consider whether OCPS would win a termination challenge.  "We took the theory that if what we were doing was ultimately to protect the child, we were doing the right thing."

"Student safety is always paramount," insists Palmerini.  "We are never going to have a teacher in a classroom that we view to be a potential danger to student safety."