Joe Henderson Columns
Henderson: Plenty of warning signs in teacher hitman case
If James J. Pepe hadn't been arrested Thursday on a charge of solicitation for first-degree murder, the Bloomingdale High School teacher still would be shaping young minds in his classroom. With everything else we'll talk about this morning, keep that key point in mind. Never mind that at a district-wide training session in 2001, his conduct was labeled by colleagues as aggressive, hostile, extremely volatile and alarming. He was suspended for that. Or that on his original application for a teaching job here, his failure to list a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge was considered "a serious breach of professional ethics," according to school records.Or that in a rambling, borderline incoherent response to what he considered a subpar teaching evaluation for the 2008-09 academic year, he blamed just about everyone except little green men from Mars for his problems. In that letter, he referred to someone trying to "sabotage" his class. Um, a moment please. What, exactly, does it take to get fired in this school system? Short of allegedly offering undercover cops $2,000 to have another teacher murdered, I mean. In the world where the rest of us live — a place with which Pepe doesn't seem to be familiar — he would have been handed a cardboard box years ago and told to hit the road. In Hillsborough County, though, Pepe moved through five different high schools. He was pulling in more than $58,000 a year. That's a pretty nice wage, especially in this economy. That doesn't include more than $24,000 in back pay he received after he was reinstated following that 2001 meltdown. At least he promised to take anger management classes after that. His personnel records were filled with mostly satisfactory reviews, which should make you wonder about the people doing the evaluations. This guy had plenty of red flags, and that kind of stuff is supposed to show up in these annual reviews. He did get knocked around a bit in that 2008-09 evaluation at Durant High, the one that sent him into a letter-writing frenzy. He was rated unsatisfactory at working "cooperatively and supportively with the school staff." Pepe's response: They're out to get me. He called the rating "entirely capricious and … maliciously motivated." Yeah, it's always someone else's fault. The evaluation noted he needed improvement in such areas as following procedures, communicating effectively with students, demonstrating logical thinking and, oh, whatever. It all was spelled out in the clinical and official language of his personnel review. I'll try to be more succinct: This guy had no business in a classroom, and it shouldn't have been up to the long arm of the law to remove him. Stuff like this gives fuel to those who want tougher evaluations for teachers. It's hard to argue against making it easier to get rid of incompetent ones, and at times like this people tend to forget that teaching is an honorable job and one of the toughest out there. Teachers too often are judged on things out of their control, and that's not right either. They complain, correctly, about classrooms filled with too many unmotivated students and dealing with parents who blame every failure on the teacher. And it gets worse every time politicians get involved. Then you hear about teachers like James Pepe, though. He influenced young minds and helped mold futures for 28 years. He may have been effective at one time, but at some point he went off the track and should have been removed from the classroom. It shouldn't have taken an arrest for someone in the school system to figure that out.