LAND O’ LAKES — Everyone agrees on at least one thing.
Pamela St. Mary, an English teacher at Fivay High School, made physical contact with an agitated 16-year-old student as St. Mary tried to retrieve her laptop from him when he tried to change his grade on a research paper.
But whether the shoulder-to-shoulder contact amounted to an inadvertent bump or an intentional shove could determine whether the Pasco County School Board suspends St. Mary without pay for three days.
The board heard testimony in the case Tuesday afternoon and is expected to make a decision March 4 after receiving written closing statements from St. Mary’s attorney and an attorney for Superintendent Kurt Browning, who recommended the suspension.
St. Mary maintained she never intended to shove the student out of her way when she bumped into him in class Oct. 28.
“The student is much younger, larger and stronger than I am,” she said. “That would have been very foolish.”
Witnesses for the district, including Fivay Principal Angie Stone, said this isn’t the first time St. Mary has had problems dealing with students. She leads the school in writing student discipline referrals, Stone said, and another administrator testified that during the past three years more than one-third of St. Mary’s students have transferred out of her classes.
Parents and students have complained that she unfairly targets students for discipline, Stone said.
It’s unusual for the board members to hear an appeal when a teacher faces suspension. Usually, the only employee discipline cases that rise to the level of an appeal hearing are those that involve someone the superintendent wants to fire.
St. Mary’s attorney, Marty Beurmann, said there would not have been a disciplinary case at all except the student “saw an opportunity to make a mountain out of a molehill.”
The attorney arguing Browning’s case, Aisha Sanchez, said another school employee in the classroom and students backed up the student’s claim that the teacher intentionally shoved him.
According to the testimony and attorney comments, St. Mary had handed back graded research papers when the altercation began. The student cursed about the zero he received but initially seemed to calm down.
Then he said he was going to change the grade and grabbed the laptop. St. Mary said she approached him slowly, trying not to agitate him more. She placed her hands on the laptop, she said, and that’s when their shoulders bumped because the student did not back away.
At that point, he jumped back and claimed she shoved him, St. Mary said.
The student was given a three-day out-of-school suspension for his part in the incident, officials said.