Florida Times Union | By Emily Bloch | August 26, 2022
Caroline Lee, who had spent nearly eight years at Darnell Cookman Middle-High teaching ninth-grade English, had just been named the school’s Teacher of the Year last October when the unthinkable happened.
She was accused of striking a student, something she adamantly denied doing. She says she has dedicated her career to teaching and serving local youth with out-of-pocket trips to the theater, ice cream parties and more. She said she’s never struck a child and never would.
That’s why, Lee said, she was shocked when she felt a rush by school officials to put blame on her. Lee says the process school administrators and police officers took that day and beyond was one-sided and unfair.
Last week, the State Attorney’s Office said the case lacked evidence and dropped the charge. On paper, her name has been cleared.
But the damage has been done, Lee says. In an interview with the Times-Union, she’s speaking out in hopes other teachers are better protected than she was when situations arise when a student may be “crying wolf.”
Lee says she called in student who made death threats
A Friday morning in late October, Lee said she called an eighth-grade student to her room to speak about the negative comments she said the student had made against her on Instagram. It was her planning period, which she usually spends in an unofficial counselor capacity — calling students individually to her room to go over grades, college admission essays and other things.
“It’s my time to have them on their own so they won’t be embarrassed,” Lee said, adding that she opted to act independently, not reporting the student’s Instagram posts to school administrators because last time she reported a different student making threats, school officials placed that student in her class a week later. “I wanted to avoid a repeat situation.”
Lee said she wanted the conversation to be a teachable moment. She said she told the student that she shouldn’t make dangerous posts on social media, she told her not to be a bully. But the student didn’t engage.
“Her [face]mask was up, she didn’t say a word to me, her head was down,” Lee said. “[I figured] maybe no one had ever taken the time to correct her.” There was a table between the two of them when Lee spoke, both the teacher and student agreed.
“I’m an athlete,” she said. “I walk fast everywhere. Some of my students who saw that detail told me, ‘Ms. Lee, they just don’t know you.’Caroline Lee
Factors like Lee’s Teacher of the Year title — which the school quietly revoked in light of the student’s claims — elevated the story of her arrest to national news. One detail from the police report noted that Lee walked “aggressively” with the student back to her classroom.
“I’m an athlete,” she said. “I walk fast everywhere. Some of my students who saw that detail told me, ‘Ms. Lee, they just don’t know you.'”
Lee says Jacksonville sheriff’s officer ‘put words in her mouth’
After the student reported to school officials that Lee had hit her, Lee says she was unfairly kept in the dark. She says an assistant principal called her to their office and left her there.
“I spent the whole day sitting in the assistant principal’s office not knowing what was going on,” Lee recalled. “No food, no drink, no bathroom. One student brought me my phone which I thought was sweet.”
Lee claims that the Jacksonville Sheriff’s officer who interviewed her “put words in her mouth” and made her sign forms without explanation. They showed Lee a picture of the student’s face with a bloody nose. But Lee says she had never seen the student without a mask on. Her lawyer suggests that before seeing Lee, the student may have used fake blood or had already been injured but was hiding the wound behind her mask.
“The student went on to begin ninth grade. And I’m not allowed to return.Caroline Lee
“Maybe she went to the bathroom and set something up,” Lee said. “It was also Halloween [weekend], so kids had funny things, fake blood, fake scars, all sorts of things.”
From there, Lee describes being handcuffed and brought to the local jail, where she spent the night. It was Sabbath and Lee is an observant Jewish woman. She couldn’t eat the ham sandwich she was provided at the prison — pork is not Kosher — which she was charged $26 for. Her husband picked her up the following day after Sabbath was over.
“I was in total shock and denial,” she said. “One of the main reasons I want to speak out is because I’m terrified other teachers will be treated the way I was. There comes a time when we have to say enough is enough. My administration did not protect me, my other teachers did but were told to be quiet. The student went on to begin ninth grade. And I’m not allowed to return.”
Lee was on paid reassignment for months while investigation continued
Last week, the State Attorney’s Office published a memo that said there was not enough evidence to prosecute Lee and that the child abuse charge was being dropped. The case ended up taking months to address, all the while, Lee was on paid reassignment by the school district at its warehouse, Bull’s Bay. With no actual work to do, the teacher spent her days going on runs, she said.
“I just sat there, that was wasteful,” she said. “I would go for massive runs, 10 to 15 miles.”
As part of the state’s agreement, Lee is now allowed to return to teaching — her record is clean and there are no disciplinary marks on her teaching certificate — but she cannot return to Darnell Cookman. She wants to know why.
“I’ve had the most wonderful career at Darnell Cookman. I love those students. I don’t think the principal (who has since left the school) knew how to deal with this,” Lee said. “I’m not pointing fingers, but the system is broken.”
The student who made claims against Lee is a minor and her information has been withheld and redacted since the initial police report was published last October.
Lee, and the State Attorney’s Office report, said the student is much larger than Lee, making it difficult for her to strike the child. Also, Lee said the issue of race has been brought up. She says both she and the student are white, adding “there is no racial element.”
“I’m not pointing fingers, but the system is broken.Caroline Lee
Lee also said the student had a troubled past, and the State Attorney’s said the student had a disciplinary record for fighting. The Times-Union is unable to independently verify the student’s disciplinary history because of privacy laws. But Lee says that the student’s record, and the fact that she was unaware of it until after the incident, is another sign of administrative failure.
“If I would have known the history of this student, I would never had her in a room alone with me,” Lee said. “As teachers, we need to know those details. Our administrators have to protect us so that we tread correctly with our students.”
Duval County Public Schools officials declined to comment for this story, citing an active and open internal investigation.
“Note that an internal, district investigation is distinct from an external investigation,” a spokeswoman said. “If there is an external and internal investigation, the internal investigation will take into account the evidence and outcomes revealed in the external investigation.”
Lee says administrators should have looked more at her past
Lee said one of her main frustrations with the way things unfolded is that 200 of her students were left without their English teacher for the entire school year since the process became so drawn out.
She says the school district should have looked deeper into her clean record as a teacher before stripping her of her accolades.
“I really feel like my administrators did nothing to help me,” Lee said. “I was guilty before proven innocent.”
Lee’s personnel file showed she received a ‘highly effective’ score over recent years, sometimes getting the maximum number of points allotted.
“My principal, who is no longer there, would say I’m the best teacher he’d ever worked with. He was in my classroom all the time. I was a model teacher,” she said. “I’d only ever been scored as ‘highly effective’ (the top score in teacher reviews). I was everyone’s brand new best friend. But my administration said not a word.”
At the very beginning of her career in 2011, she received a much lower, ‘satisfactory’ score with an ‘unsatisfactory’ mark for classroom management techniques while at Andrew Jackson High School. Lee resigned from her position but returned to Duval Schools in 2014 where she landed at Darnell Cookman and stayed ever since. She had no disciplinary notes on her Duval Schools file.
Other educators come to Lee’s defense on social media
On private social media channels, local educators have used Lee’s case as an example of the system not protecting teachers.
“It took ten months for there to be a conclusion, not an exoneration, not an apology, and definitely not a consequence for the student who posted death threats,” wrote local educator Chris Guerrieri in a blog post about the State Attorney’s Office conclusion.
One comment in response said, “the problem is that schools don’t have any real control over parents or students so they attack what they do have control over, the teachers.”
Lee maintains that she would never touch a student.
“I’ve raised four teenagers so you can imagine my resilience is pretty high,” she said. “I’ve taught teenagers for years. They say silly things. But they also call me ‘Mama Lee’ because I take care of them. I have a drawer with deodorant, I have a drawer with snacks. The bottom line is the answer is emphatically, no. Touching a student is not even a scenario I’d consider.”
Lee has returned to teaching, at a private religious school for now. Since her record has been cleared, she has started the process to return to Duval Schools as a substitute and also applied to be reinstated as a teacher. It’s unclear if Lee returns as a teacher if Duval Schools will honor her tenure status regarding her salary and benefits.
A district official said Lee is no longer a Duval Schools employee, which Lee said isn’t accurate according to the school’s Employee Self Service portal. The district declined to comment further.