Principal of Okaloosa STEMM Academy settles ethics case, agrees to probation and fines.

VALPARAISO — The Florida Department of Education's Education Practices Commission has agreed to a settlement with Scheree Martin, principal of the Okaloosa STEMM Academy, to resolve allegations that Martin inappropriately disciplined a male high school student who was on the autism spectrum for behavior that was linked directly to the student's disability.

Here is what we know:

How did this case start?

During the 2020-21 school year, Martin was accused of inappropriately disciplining an autistic male high school student for behavior that was linked to the student's disability. Furthermore, Martin was alleged to have improperly pressured employees under her supervision to ignore and override parental requests to be present whenever discipline was imposed on the student.

Specific details of the case were not provided.

The incident prompted an internal investigation by the Okaloosa County School District human resources department, which is standard in such cases. The FLDOE Education Practices Commission investigated separately.

A letter of reprimand from the district

In a letter of reprimand dated Aug. 31, 2021, J. Lee Hale, assistant superintendent for the Okaloosa school district, told Martin that a formal investigation found "sufficient evidence" that she violated several school board and state ethics policies.

"As an Okaloosa County School District administrator, it is your responsibility to adhere to the highest level of professionalism at all times, ensuring that appropriate procedures are followed and removing any appearance of impropriety," Hale wrote. "While many of your actions noted in the Investigative Report do not rise to the level of policy violations, 'best practice' dictates that they demonstrated neither your best professional judgment nor your obligation to provide leadership and direction by appropriate example."

Hale also noted that Martin's use of the school resource officer in a disciplinary role was "in a manner unsupported by the contract," and reminded Martin that SROs are only to work within the scope of their duties, such as providing law enforcement or crime prevention assistance. Using an SRO in any other matter could send a misleading message or cultivate a hostile environment.

Along with the letter of reprimand, Hale required Martin to complete a SafeSchools training curriculum in special education law, roles and responsibilities in special education and behavior management by Oct. 1, 2021.

On Dec. 5, 2023, Hale wrote another letter to Martin that signaled the end of the school district investigation. The letter restates the previous letter by noting that "sufficient evidence" was found to verify that Martin did not meet FLDOE Board and district rules concerning ethics and professional conduct.

Hale then said that as an OCSD administrator, Martin is entrusted with "upholding the highest standard of professionalism consistently, ensuring prompt and effective handling of situations while not allowing past experiences to impede your effective management."

Hale noted that the investigation showed the need for a "refresher" in protocols for managing behavior. This led Hale to require Martin to complete another SafeSchools training course by Jan. 31, 2023. Toward the end of the letter, Hale said that any future problems could result in Martin receiving a suspension without pay or termination of employment.

Terms of the state settlement agreement

On March 7 this year, a hearing panel of the state Education Practices Commission met in Tampa and accepted a settlement agreement between Martin and the Department of Education.

According to the settlement, Martin will be on probation for two employment years. Within the first year of her probationary period, she must take a three-credit-hour college-level course in education ethics and pass the class with a B or higher.

Martin can also take two micro-credential courses in education ethics offered by the National Education Association within the first year.

Along with coursework, Martin must pay the EPC a $750 fine within the two-year probation period. A letter of reprimand has been placed in her state certification file and personnel file within the district.

Okaloosa County School District response

In an email, Catherine Card, the school district's public information officer, confirmed that the district was aware of a settlement agreement. She also noted that the district "takes appropriate disciplinary and reporting measures during and following its investigations, including, in this case, submission to the FLDOE Education Practices Commission."

The district then said that Florida statutes require that all teachers hired since 2011 be employed on an annual contract, and in Okaloosa County, the same rule applies to all administrators. For Martin, the School Board will approve all administrative agreements as recommended by the superintendent each June.

"We continue to have confidence in and the highest expectations for our employees and are proud to serve our families across the District," the statement says.

This article originally appeared on Northwest Florida Daily News: STEMM Academy principal settles ethics violation case with Florida DOE