Robert Ripley, the former Matanzas High School football coach and current Wadsworth Elementary School teacher, tendered his resignation rather than face getting fired over an incident in which two investigations found him to have caused injury or used excessive force while disciplining an 8-year-old special education student.
The district is allowing Ripley to remain on the payroll until May 29, the date his resignation is effective. He has been on paid administrative leave since the Feb. 19 incident. Human Resources Director Jewel Johnson recommended he be fired on March 16. Anna Crawford, the principal at Wadsworth Elementary, recommended that he be fired on March 31.
Ripley is paid $54,335. After he was suspended with pay, he also received $938 as his share for being part of an A-Plus school. And he received $2,500 for having been rated “exceptional” the previous year.
It was the second allegation of serious misconduct against Ripley in the last four years. In 2016, when he was the head football coach at Matanzas, Ripley was the subject two district investigations into allegations that he had bullied and demeaned one of his student athletes, and exhibited an “unacceptable” coaching style toward the team even after he had received a written reprimand over the “severity” of the earlier issue from then-Matanzas Principal Earl Johnson. But the district only issued a “letter of counseling” after the second investigation.
He was the school’s winningest coach when he stepped down the following year–and remained Matanzas’s dean of discipline. He stayed at Matanzas until the fall of 2018, when he took the teaching job at Wadsworth. That school year, his evaluation noted that he needed improvement with regards to interactions with students. Nevertheless, he was rated effective enough to earn the bonus.
The Feb. 19 incident involved a student who left the cafeteria without permission. Ripley, a rather large and strong man, twice pushed the child to the ground in footage captured on surveillance video.
“For nearly 35 minutes of time Mr. Ripley engaged with the student in an attempt to, what should have been, deescalate him,” Johnson concluded. “The sheer disparity between the size of the student in comparison to the teacher is problematic considering the events that transpired. But throughout the episode the teacher repeatedly showed impatience as the student was snatched from the floor, carried down a hallway, shoved into the De-escalation Room, and pushed into the calming room. The actions of Mr. Ripley on February 19, 2020 are not in accordance with school board policy.”
Johnson concluded that Ripley should “have no unsupervised contact with any child at this time,” that he should complete an anger management course, and “not work in any capacity with students regardless of age, disability or setting” until further notice.
The Department of Children and Families investigated last February’s incident and “verified findings of physical injury” to the child, according to DCF’s conclusions, raising concerns about Ripley continuing to work as a “behavior interventionist” for students in grades K-3. The injured child was not one of his students.
Recommending his firing on march 31, Crawford determined that Ripley’s actions against the 8 year old were “excessive” and “amount to misconduct in office.”
Ripley defended his actions when Johnson interviewed him on March 2. He said the school was “understaffed” that day, and described the student this way: “Multiple times he kicked, in the hallway, down the hallway. Once we were into the de-escalation room he was punching.” He said the student had “eloped” twice that day. “I know his tendencies. I used a CPI technique to get him from the hallway to the Beach.” Schools follow the Crisis Prevention Institute’s de-escalation protocols.
Crawford concluded that Ripley neither documented the restraint and transport methods he used toward the student nor used recognized CPI techniques. “The Beach is an area where we get you squared away, it is a de-escalation room. This student has a history of violence toward staff. He chipped the tooth of Mrs. Burns. [The student] has been suspended 3 times (20 referrals). He has kicked and punched. There have been holes he put in the wall and he has kicked the wall. He is violent when escalated.”
In his resignation letter, Ripley said he was completing his 18th year as a teacher, 17 of them in Flagler, along with other roles, including coaching. “It is in these experiences that I’ve shown growth and brought a unique passion to my hometown schools and county,” he wrote. It is also where I have learned many things about myself. It is also where I have failed.” He did not elaborate. “The successful students that I was able to mentor, teach, and coach will always carry some of these lessons we have learned together.”
He said he intended to get back into coaching. “I ventured too far away from my passion and my love.” he wrote, describing his work at Wadsworth as “the hardest job I have ever had.”
School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin said it isn;t clear what happened between the time when Crawford and Johnson recommended Ripley’s firing in March and the setting of the May 8 pre-termination hearing to which Ripley was entitled, according to rules set forth in the district’s contract with the teachers’ union. No firing could take place before that meeting (“basically a last bite at the apple, for lack of a better word, before action is taken,” Gavin said), following which the superintendent recommends the firing to the school board, which ratifies the decision at a meeting. That decision would have taken place at Tuesday’s meeting.
“The day he was to be having this pre-termination hearing, he sent the letter of resignation,” Gavin said, “and superintendent [Jim] Tager chose to accept his resignation in lieu of attending the meeting, and moving forward.” Gavin said she was “not really quite sure what happened during the month of April.”
In essence, rather than have a firing on his record, Ripley was allowed to resign, to set his own resignation date, which is not effective until May 29, normally the end of the year for instructional staff anyway, and to continue on the payroll until then. Gavin said that since he announced his resignation, he’s been drawing down his leave time, which would have been owed to him anyway, rather than getting straight pay.
The handling of the case of Ripley, a successful coach whom the district had already handled gingerly through a series of complaints in 2016, was sharply different from that of Jeffrey Paffumi, another special education teacher who was similarly caught on video using force toward a 14-year-old student. Paffumi was captured visibly pushing the student out of a Buddy Taylor Middle School classroom and into a hallway just weeks before the Ripley incident. Paffumi was charged with a misdemeanor the next day. The State Attorney’s Office followed up with an information, or an official charge, on March 6, by which time Paffumi–who, like Ripley, had a temperamental history with the district–had already been fired.
The investigations and recommendations to fire Ripley were equally swift, at least at the level of school and district administrators. Then it inexplicably stalled. The cases were also treated differently by law enforcement.
The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office initially investigated the Ripley incident with the 8 year old boy. But that investigation downplayed Ripley’s interactions with the child, placing certain burdens on the child’s mother, who had told the deputy that her child was disabled, and who wanted to know about “battery on a disabled person charges.”
“I asked how he was disabled, as per the video I watched [the student] was fully mobile, running from staff, flailing his body around, and kicking at Mr. Ripley during the 30 minutes or so that I watched,” the deputy reported in the incident report, clearly not understanding the meaning of the word “disability” in the context of exceptional student education. The child’s mother told the deputy that her son’s disability was fully documented by the district–how else would he have been an ESE student?–and said she would provide documentation. “ Mrs. Jackson has not provided information about [her son’s] disability,” the deputy reported five days after the incident, though that documentation was at the school, “nor has she provided a statement about the incident on her son’s behalf.”
The incident report concluded: “It should be noted that the injuries reported by [the boy] and his parents are not consistent with what I observed watching surveillance video footage. This charging affidavit for Battery will be sent to the State Attorney’s Office for further review.”
The charging affidavit was presumably sent to the State Attorney’s Office with a misdemeanor battery charge listed–not a felony battery charge, as would be the case when the alleged victim is disabled. No charges have been filed from the State Attorney’s Office.