Just one day after a Buddy Taylor Middle School special education teacher was fired for using excessive force with a student, an 8-year-old special education boy at Wadsworth Elementary was involved in an incident that led to an accusation that teacher and former Matanzas High School football coach Robert Ripley used excessive force against him.
The incident took place on Feb. 19 and was captured on two surveillance cameras at the school. The videos have not been made public, as they are currently part of ongoing investigations by the school district and the Department of Children and Families, and a charging affidavit is pending review by the State Attorney’s Office.
But a Flagler County Sheriff’s sergeant’s description of the videos points to two instances of Ripley pushing the student, in one case pushing him hard enough that the student fell. And School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin, who reviewed the videos, said the sergeant’s descriptions were accurate, and the two instances of pushing are not permissible by teachers. She did not elaborate further, pending the resolution of the investigation.
Ripley, a district employee since 2004, is on paid administrative leave meanwhile. His statement regarding the incident has not yet been turned into human resources, though Ripley has met with the human resources director.
In 2016, Ripley was the subject of a written reprimand by then-Principal Earl Johnson “for poor professional judgment in coaching, teaching and motivating student athletes on the football team at Matanzas High School,” where Ripley was the head football coach. “The use of chastising, unfavorable, and intimidating comments is unnecessary and unacceptable behavior towards student/athletes in Flagler Schools,” Johnson wrote him. (Johnson is currently executive director of leadership development in the district, and a candidate for superintendent.)
Ripley and the child’s mother were both contacted by phone. Neither returned a call before the story initially published.
Ripley started teaching at Indian Trails Middle School in 2004, then taught at Flagler Palm Coast High School and Matanzas before landing at Wadsworth.
Regarding the Wadsworth incident last month, Sgt. Chris Ragazzo, who holds supervisory authority in the sheriff’s 13-member corps of school resource deputies, met with the student’s parents and reviewed the videos. Ragazzo reports that the couple’s son returned home on Feb. 19 to tell his mother that Ripley had pushed him. The boy’s father said his knees were “scraped and bruised” during the incident.
According to the description of the video footage from the hallway “CAM7” in the charging affidavit, Ripley is walking down the hallway and approaches the boy, who is on the floor with another staffer nearby. A couple of minutes later the boy gets up and walks with Ripley. (The videos have no sound.) As they approach a hallway, the boy attempts to veer away, and when Ripley tries to redirect him, the boy drops to the ground. Ripley picks him up “and carries him away without further incident,” the affidavit states. It does not describe how he picked him up.
The second video starts a minute later in the “Beach” room that Ripley and the student have entered. “This part of the school is where trained teachers and staff work with students who display emotional or behavioral issues as they cannot be in classrooms with other students,” the affidavit states.
Gavin described it as a large room with doors to three different rooms, some of them used for occupational therapy, some used for physical therapy. The space “can be used for deescalation, it can be used for reflection,” Gavin said.
At that point the student “immediately flails his arms and attempts to get away and get past Mr. Ripley,” the affidavit states. “At this time Mr. Ripley pushes [the boy] back into the room; [the boy] falls backward to the ground [on to] his buttocks, then on his back. Mr. Ripley walks out of the video frame and it appears that he goes out of the room. [The boy] then gets up and approaches the door, when Mr. Ripley enters again and tries to get [the boy] into another room within, which is referred to as a reflection room. It seems [the boy] refuses to go into this room and becomes defiant with Mr. Ripley for several minutes, following him around, kicking at Mr. Ripley as he tries to get him inside the room. Mr. Ripley is seen with his school radio in hand during this time, but due to not having audio what is said is unknown.”
Ripley and the boy had first entered the room at the 12:01 mark. At 12:06, the boy “kicks higher” at Ripley, who “grabs his foot, then his hand,” according to the affidavit. “It appears that he grabs his hand at the same time to prevent him from falling backwards.” The boy continues to be defiant “for several minutes.”
At the 12:09 mark, “Ripley is observed picking [the boy] up and puts him into the reflection room in what appears to be a pushing motion.” This would be the second instance of the sort of pushing that Gavin had said is impermissible. The boy exits the reflection room and continues his defiance as another teacher, William Tuttle, briefly walks in and back out. The boy then takes his clothing off, including his pants. At the 12:18 mark Assistant Principal Fred Terry walks in “and appears to assist with the situation.” The boy continues to be defiant but without being physical toward Terry. Thirty minutes in the deputy reported no further altercations, and David Bossardet, the district’s risk manager, said there were no further incidents of concern.
At that point the affidavit signals a disconnect between the way the deputy interpreted “disability” and the way the parent of an ESE student–or the school district–define disability, as those may not necessarily or exclusively be physical disabilities. The boy’s parents had inquired about pressing a charge of battery on a disabled person. The deputy inquired what sort of disability she was referring to, “as per the video I watched [the boy] was fully mobile.” The parent said the disability was documented with the district and would provide it. (Gavin said she had not reviewed the student’s Individual Education Plan, or IEP, and so could not specify the disability, either.)
The parent did not eventually provide it to the deputy, the charging affidavit states, and would later tell a deputy that she had provided all she would, saying “we have everything we need to arrest him.”
Terry in his statement says he assisted Ripley and saw the boy’s defiance but did not witness the pushing. Another special needs employee, Steven Nocero, said he saw the boy’s defiance and heard him use profanities and kick at Ripley, but he did not see Ripley push him. (Ripley appeared alone with the student in both descriptions of the video footage.)
The charge filed by the sheriff’s office is simple battery, a first-degree misdemeanor. It is up to the State Attorney’s Office to ratify and file the charge in court. The State Attorney’s Office has the authority both to drop the charge or to upgrade it to something more serious–such as battery on a disabled person, which would make it a third-degree felony.
Aside from the incident at Matanzas in 2016, Ripley’s personnel file points to a steady, well regarded and generally well-evaluated employee over the years, though he started on the more middling than exceptional side: his 2007 evaluation had him at the “satisfactory” level throughout. But he jumped to “very effective” the next year, remaining there year after year. “Mr. Ripley is an integral part of our school culture,” an evaluation concluded in 2011. “We are fortunate to have him here at FPC. He has a great rapport with our students and cares deeply about Flagler Palm Coast High School.” His more recent evaluations were more on the “effective” than the “highly effective” side.
In August 2016, he was the subject of a formal complaint by a parent submitted to then-Superintendent Jacob Oliva following the way he’d insulted a student on the football team he coached. The student had been so shaken that day that he wasn’t able to drive himself home, and subsequently had a panic attack before an away game. Ripley conceded that it had not been his intention to be insulting and admitted it was necessary to address his players and hold himself to a higher standard. The personnel file does not show any evidence of what Johnson, the principal who wrote Ripley the letter of reprimand, refers to as “a thorough investigation,” nor does it include Ripley’s statement.
“This type of behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” Johnson wrote him. “You are formally being warned to bring to your attention the severity of this situation. Failure to correct this behavior and/or further violation of Flagler County School District policy will result in additional disciplinary action up to and including discharge.”
On Feb. 18, the district fired Jeffrey Rocco Paffumi, a teacher who’s survived several incidents that required disciplinary intervention by the district, including reprimands and mandatory anger-management counseling, before an incident in January ended his local career: he’d physically picked up a student out of his seat and pushed him into the hallway at Buddy Taylor Middle School.
The two incidents in quick succession have caught the attention of the Exceptional Student Education Parent Advisory Committee, which has been vocal through the district’s selection of a new superintendent, a decision the school board will make next Tuesday.
“We desperately need a leader who is willing to acknowledge and take strong action to fix the ugly things hiding in Flagler County Schools, particularly in ESE,” Kristi Furnari, a member of the EPAC group, wrote school board members this week. “It has come to light that there was yet another student with a disability abused, this time at Wadsworth Elementary. Why does this keep happening? How many incidents like this happen go unreported because the children can’t speak up for themselves?” She added: “We need a leader who will allow stakeholders to come forward to report problems without fear of retribution. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard this from people. It is shameful.”