A FlaglerLive Investigation
The Flagler County school board last week fired Jeffrey “Rocco” Paffumi, the 47-year-old special education teacher who drew national attention last month after he was caught on a student’s video physically lifting a middle school student out of his seat, carrying him across the room and throwing him into the hallway at Buddy Taylor Middle School. Paffumi was charged with misdemeanor battery. He is to be arraigned next week. He was placed on administrative leave at the time.
But Paffumi has had a long and documented history of violent behavior in and out of the district, law enforcement and school district records show, including two prior arrests, at least four previous instances of violent behavior toward students or adults, men and women–in 2007, 2010, 2012 and 2014–that required district intervention, the evaluation of a psychiatrist, the evaluation of a psychologist, and warnings that the behavior would not be further tolerated.
But it was. Again and again.
Lynette Shott, his principal at the time, recommended in unequivocal terms that he be fired in 2014. Jacob Oliva, the superintendent at the time, overruled her.
The pattern of violent behavior Paffumi displayed starting within two years after his employment with Flagler schools and continuing for 12 years after that was disturbing in itself. But equally disturbing is the district’s handling of the incidents, time after time resorting to the same approach: anger management, a brief suspension, and clearance from a psychologist for Paffumi to return to the classroom, where he was deemed no danger to students, despite repeated physical violence involving students and others and Paffumi’s own revelations to psychologists or psychiatrists that he had drinking and anger issues–and to Oliva that, when given the choice between fighting or walking away, he fights.
When Paffumi applied for work as a teacher in Flagler County schools in 2005, he was required to write out a mission statement as part of his application. “What are your beliefs about the importance of education?” was the question he had to answer.
“My mission as a teacher,” Paffumi wrote, or rather pasted in printed form on the application, “is to be a facilitator in building a foundation for lifelong learning. Students will be allowed to experience success without the fear of failure. A child’s successes and failures will be celebrated. Along with an education, a child needs strong morals, which will be fostered throughout the year during the learning process.” (Those weren’t actually his words: they’re found on the internet on other teachers’ web pages, on their LinkedIn page, on blogs.)
Paffumi’s record points in a different direction.
Paffumi had been placed on a “Teacher Success Plan” as recently as last year because he still had issues managing student behavior, interacting with students and engaging them in learning. Despite the completion of the plan, the district found his evaluation at the end of last year wanting. And despite the warnings from previous years, when he was explicitly warned of termination if problems persisted, he was kept on.
On January 7, after going back and forth with a 14-year-old student who was playing music on his school-issued computer during class at Buddy Taylor Middle School–even though, according to the district’s documentation of the incident, playing music was allowed during that period–Paffumi is caught on another student’s phone video physically lifting the boy out of his seat, carrying him across the room, and throwing him out into the hall. News reports and the video drew national attention, and Paffumi, locally, provoked a mix of applause and revulsion.
He had no reason to think he’d be terminated: he’d been caught on film physically confronting a student before, when he was in charge of discipline at a school, and was allowed to go on.
Paffumi graduated from Western New Mexico University with a degree in history in 1998 and got a master’s in education from Phoenix, the online university, in 2003. He taught in Clay County schools from 2002 to 2005, as a dropout prevention teacher (“Did a great job for us,” his principal at Clay High School, Pete McCabe, reported to Flagler schools on an employee-verification form), and in the same capacity in St. Johns County schools for two years before that. Paffumi was certified to teach middle and high school history, physical education (K-12), and exceptional student education (K-12).
He applied in Flagler schools initially as a math teacher, at Buddy Taylor Middle School. Then-Principal Winnie Oden turned him down. But he got a job at Pathways, the long-defunct alternative school, and got reappointed year after year, eventually becoming dean there before ending up at Flagler Palm Coast High School, then at Buddy Taylor, as an exceptional student education support facilitator.
His evaluations were good but not stellar in his early years in the district–“highly effective” rather than “exemplary,” with a few “deficiencies” here and there) but his evaluator once called him “a real team player” with “excellent rapport with students.” He did not always maintain the “highly effective” rating, falling to merely “effective” for several years starting in 2013.
The first serious, violent incident the district documented in his personnel file took place in 2010, when Paffumi tackled a student to the ground at Pathways. (The district left a 2007 incident undocumented.) The 2010 incident had similarities to the incident earlier this year, with Paffumi lifting the student off his feet, though in the 2010 case, he didn’t throw the student into a hallway but took him to the ground.
According to Paffumi’s own account of the 2010 incident, the student had told him that Paffumi wasn’t allowed to poke him in the chest. “No,” Paffumi told him (according to his own account to school investigators at the time, “what I did is you walked into me and made contact with me and then I backed you down a little bit.” The student kept trying to go through him, Paffumi told investigators, considering that an assault on a school employee. So at one point, he said, “my best bet to do right there is to do a little block hold him up and just ride him out,” he told investigators, describing the situation. “At first when I get over him and we’re going this way in a block and I’m not hurting him or anything he’s putting some resistance and I figure at this point I can either ride him out, maybe he’ll get tired and stop, ’cause [then] once over there he stopped, I tumbled right over on top of him and I fell and once I was on top of him,” the two were in a lock. Paffumi told investigators he’d had surgery on his front left pec area, which the student was grabbing and not letting go. “If you don’t let go I’m going to gouge your eyes out,” he said he told the student–and put his thumbs by his eyes.
The incident was caught on surveillance video, and the student filed a sheriff’s report, though no charges were filed. April Dixon, the risk manager at the time, asked him: “Is it normal procedure if a child is being a little bit out of control or is having anger issues to tackle (as you will see in the film) them to the ground, [is] that a normal procedure?”
“I don’t consider what I did a tackle to the ground,” Paffumi said, “what I did as when I rode him out it was more of an offbeat of him going off into the bushes. If I wanted to tackle him I would have put him down right there.” He then justifies his actions.
But even then he acknowledged being a yeller. “Do you get angry at some of the students and go off on them at times or do you have anger issues? Dixon asked him.
“There are times when I get angry with the students,” he replied. “There are times when the situation is they won’t respond to anybody unless you get angry.”
“Does that resort to a lot of screaming and yelling?” Dixon asked.
“Our whole campus, I haven’t seen one teacher on our campus who has not screamed and yelled and got upset,” he said. “You are describing our whole campus.”
“Does this ever upset the employees/personnel working when they hear this going on?” Dixon asked.
“Yes, it does,” Paffumi replied.
Paffumi received a written reprimand, and was determined to have used “excessive physical force,” as Carla Taylor, his principal at the time, wrote him. “This action is unacceptable. Your actions endangered the health, safety and welfare of a student under your supervision; have failed to perform your assigned duties in a satisfactory manner and have demonstrated conduct that is unbecoming of a School Board employee.” Taylor told him his behavior was grounds for suspension or termination.
But his actions were acceptable after all: he received a mere one-week suspension without pay in early 2011. “I realize the situation got out of control, and you made a mistake,” Taylor wrote him. “Failure to adhere to the discipline policies and procedures may result in further disciplinary action.” He also attended a one-week anger-management class.
The following year, he was twice arrested by law enforcement for violent behavior. In one case, he punched another man in the face repeatedly. Adjudication was withheld. In another, he destroyed a mailbox and was “aggressive” toward law enforcement, according to his arrest report.
Lynette Shott, at the time principal of Flagler Palm Coast High School and now the district director of student and community engagement, just before the 2012-13 school year filed a formal report outlining a “pattern of events” that raised issues for the district regarding Paffumi, including the two arrests that year and yet another disturbing allegation: “a report from a community member of an attack on a young lady at a party,” where no charges had ensued. The district required Paffumi to be professionally evaluated–the district paid for the evaluation–and to determine whether he had “fitness for duty.”
“Further issues [of] violent behavior in the community may result in further disciplinary action,” the report stated, almost identically repeating Taylor’s words from less than two years earlier, following a meeting attended by Shott, Oliva, Paffumi, and Harriet Holiday, the human resources director at the time, along with Katie Hansen, the union president.
A psychiatrist–Harish Kher–filed a report of Paffumi’s psychiatric evaluation in October that revealed for the first time in the record a 2007 “incident with a student” where “Mr. Paffumi got into a physical scuffle.” The personnel record turned over to FlaglerLive contained no documentation of that incident. The psychiatrist’s report cites Paffumi describing his 2012 arrests as “a wake-up call,” and acknowlging “a history of anger outbursts starting [in] adolescence. He stated that he would punch holes in the walls and would get into fights with peers in schools. Because of these fights, he was evaluated by a school psychologist. He denied receiving any other mental health services since then.”
The psychiatrist concluded that Paffumi at the time had “a significant alcohol abuse problem” and “a history of poor anger management skills,” recommending an outpatient rehab program and random urine tests for drugs. No such testing documentation appears in his personnel record. The doctor recommended another anger-management class, which he completed.
He was returned to the classroom.
On Sept. 20, 2014, there was yet another violent incident involving Paffumi and a student, off campus. According to Paffumi’s own account of the incident, he said he was driving south on Old Kings Road in its four-lane segment, passing a truck, when the truck sped up as well, “keeping pace with me.” When he slowed, the truck slowed, and when he sped up, so did the truck, allegedly veering into his lane to force him onto the median. At the next light, Paffumi got out to confront the other driver: “Since the truck had just tried running me off the road twice,” he wrote Shott in an email, “I felt my life was in jeopardy, and I was not going to be cut down hiding in my car.”
An FPC student was at the wheel of the truck. The student, according to his account to Shott, saw a man approach his vehicle. The man then asked the student if he was trying to start a fight, and hit him through the vehicle’s open window. The man allegedly told the student if he didn’t leave, he would hit him again. It was then that the student recognized Paffumi. Paffumi in his statement insisted that “no physical contact was made.”
“If I had punched him, he would have been knocked out, and hospitalized,” Paffumi told Shott in his statement. But he confirmed threatening the student.
There was a meeting with Paffumi in Shott’s office (she was the principal at FPC still), attended by Vernon Orndorff–then a top district administrator and Oliva’s right hand, now a candidate for superintendent–Dusty Sims, Hansen and one other individual. He would later tell Oliva, the superintendent, that Paffumi feels “enraged and full of adrenaline” when these incidents occur.
Shott recommended to Oliva that Paffumi be fired. “This event is the third documented event related to an aggressive and physical response to a situation, and the second such event to involve a student,” Shott wrote Oliva. “Due to the repeated nature of these occurrences, the previous suspension, and repeated provision of assistance it is my determination that recommendation for termination is appropriate and necessary.”
Oliva initially sent Paffumi a letter telling him of his intention to fire him. Three weeks later he backtracked–even as he was writing Paffumi that “when faced with the choice of fight or flight, you choose to fight.”
“Although Ms. Shott has recommended you for termination, I will not be making this recommendation to the board,” Oliva wrote Paffumi. Instead, I am recommending the following disciplinary actions.”
You can guess what they are by now: anger management, an evaluation for fitness for duty from a licensed psychologist, leave without pay, and probation.
Paffumi has “gained insight into his behavior and has increased his awareness regarding appropriate versus inappropriate behavior so he can act appropriately in the future,” the licensed psychologist reported to Oliva weeks later. “He recognizes that alcohol abuse has been a problem in the past and states he is able to drink alcoholic beverages in a controlled, non-abusive manner (no more than one alcoholic beverage per hour with a maximum of four drinks in an evening or daytime event) and he appears able to do so,” the letter to the superintendent read.
“Mr. Paffumi is safe to return to the classroom and can be with children without supervision,” David Bortnick, the psychologist, wrote Oliva on Nov. 25, 2014. “He does not pose a threat to students and is not at risk of harming them.”