Jailed teacher's past behavior described as hostile, 'volatile'
TAMPA - Throughout his career as an educator, James Pepe thought that fellow teachers were plotting against him. Even before he was arrested Thursday on charges that he tried to hire a hit man to kill another teacher, Pepe thought administrators and co-workers were spreading rumors about him. Pepe was denied bail in his first court appearance today in Hillsborough County Court. He first made his feelings known in 2001. Pepe, then a history and psychology teacher at Tampa Bay Technical High School, "caused a disruption of a school function and created an uncomfortable and hostile situation," records show.Pepe interrupted a teacher training session in order to rail "against administration in matters not related to the assigned task," according to a letter sent to Pepe from the district's office of professional standards. His colleagues said Pepe was so hostile, aggressive and "extremely volatile" that they feared for his safety and their own, the letter said. One teacher confronted Pepe and told him he seemed proud of his disciplinary record. "They can't get me," he replied. Then, when the principal tried to discuss his co-workers' concerns, Pepe refused to accept her report, cut off the conversation with "denial and anger," jabbed a finger in the principal's face and called her a pathological liar, the letter said. At the time, Pepe's outburst was the last step in a "significant escalation of a similar 10-year history of alleging, without any substantiation, that you have been mistreated or maligned by persons in authority," the letter said. Pepe was suspended without pay in November 2001. Hillsborough County School District officials allowed him to return to work in 2003 after he met certain conditions, including attending anger management counseling, records show. Superintendent MaryEllen Elia said that incident raised a red flag, but Pepe was reinstated because his issues "never involved any students and he performed well with students." Elia said officials have monitored his behavior and they hadn't seen another outburst from Pepe since the incident at Tampa Bay Tech more than 10 years ago. Pepe has since worked at four other schools, but continued to believe the conspiracy among his fellow educators was alive and well, authorities said. This time, Pepe didn't waste a breath on another rant, police said. He wanted another teacher dead and was willing to pay $2,000 for someone to make the hit, they allege. Pepe, 55, was arrested Thursday, accused of trying to hire a hit man to kill his former colleague, Robert Meredith, of Plant City. Pepe was arrested at Bloomingdale High School, where he started teaching economics this year. Pepe and Meredith had both taught last year at Strawberry Crest High School in Dover, where Meredith is listed as a social studies teacher. Pepe thought Meredith was talking behind his back and spreading rumors that he was a child molester, police said, and wanted Meredith dead as revenge. The teacher first tried to hire a friend to conduct the hit, investigators said. Instead, the friend called police, who assigned an undercover officer to pose as a hit man and talk to Pepe, Plant City police spokesman Tray Towles said. Pepe, of Brandon, is being held without bail at Hillsborough County Jail. Dozens of Bloomingdale students wore T-shirts on Friday that had "Free Pepe" scrawled across the front. The veteran teacher, who has been with the district for 28 years, has been suspended with pay pending the outcome of the case. His salary was $58,378 last year, district records show. The school board will decide if Pepe will be retained or fired. "What we normally do, we let law enforcement take precedence over us," school board member Candy Olson said. "Obviously, you don't want someone accused of a crime to be in a classroom." Olson said for Pepe to return to work, the board has to be "absolutely sure" that no crime took place. "That whole situation is really sad," Elia said. "You have a teacher who was nationally board certified, by all respects he has done a good job with his students. Anytime something like that happens to anyone, you have to think there is something seriously wrong. We're very glad that this was uncovered so that nothing tragic happened." When Pepe was reinstated in 2003, he consistently received outstanding and satisfactory marks on his yearly evaluations, records show. During the 2006-07 school year, he was at Durant High School and a supervisor wrote that he's "doing an outstanding job this year. He's taught a variety of courses, co-taught and been a supporting faculty member." Things began to unravel again the following year, after supervisors noted in his evaluation that Pepe was not cooperative with school staff and that he needed improvement in several areas, including logical thinking and making practical decisions. Pepe was furious with the evaluation and fired off a meandering six-page letter that accused administrators of setting him up to fail. Pepe wrote that Durant administrators wouldn't fix an air conditioning vent in his classroom, causing the temperature to rise "over 95 degrees and caused me to get sick. … I ran a low grade fever for weeks at a time." In his letter, Pepe also said another teacher told him that she "was going to take my job" and he expressed dissatisfaction at rejection of his bid for promotion to advanced-placement class teacher — a position he sought for 15 years. He blamed nepotism. "Teachers who are coaches, cheerleader sponsors, relatives of people in the district are being given these assignments … ahead of veteran teachers," he wrote. In his most recent evaluation from Strawberry Crest, Pepe gave himself exemplary marks while supervisors said he needed to improve in several areas. His evaluation said Pepe's feedback to students was "uneven and at times confusing." Lesson objectives were vague and not coherent, the evaluation said. "By his own admission, Dr. Pepe has had health issues this school year," his manager wrote. "His attendance was still very good. His students did not perform as well as last year on semester exams, as his student average was below the district average." Pepe disagreed, saying that his students' second semester scores were "very good." In the comments section he added, "I have been harassed and slandered by some of my colleagues in the department." Pepe applied to the Hillsborough school district in 1983, after getting a bachelor's degree in education and history at the State University of New York, records show. More than 10 years later, he earned a doctorate degree in education from the University of Southern Mississippi. In his application, Pepe said he wanted to teach in Tampa because he enjoyed living in the city. He spent a few summers as a substitute teacher and wrote that he "really likes the school system" and "wanted to be a part of it."
Reporter Rob Shaw contributed to this report. [email protected] (813) 259-7920