Herald-Tribune | by Ryan McKinnon | April 12, 2021
The Sarasota County School Board may finalize on Tuesday a more than two-year effort to fire a Sarasota High School attendance clerk accused of mocking students.
Joy Deal, a longtime district employee who received reprimands, verbal warnings and a suspension during her time at Sarasota High, has appealed attempts to fire her since former Superintendent Todd Bowden first recommended her termination in December 2018.
Deal’s case has been drawn out by both appeals and leaves of absence, and she has been working in the district’s facilities department since the fall of 2019.
School officials accused Deal of making “rude, embarrassing and inappropriate comments” on several occasions.
According to a final recommended order issued by Administrative Law Judge Hetal Desai in February, these incidents reportedly included making fun of students’ medical conditions, not allowing one girl to call her parents after she started menstruating and needed a change of clothes, and allegedly getting into a shouting match with a student in the school’s front office in November 2018. Desai reviewed the evidence in the case during a three-day administrative hearing last November and recommended that the School Board uphold Bowden’s original recommended termination.
Deal has represented herself since she turned down a “last chance agreement,” which would have allowed her to keep her job, but she would not be allowed to appeal any future attempts to fire her.
Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association representatives opted not to continue representing her. SC/TA Executive Director Barry Dubin said the union doesn’t pay for appeals if it looks as if the employee stands no shot at winning.
“Based on our lawyer’s advice, we weren’t willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of member money on a case that we didn’t think had any merit to it,” Dubin said.
As part of her defense, Deal is accusing Sarasota High Principal David Jones of destroying surveillance footage of the shouting incident with the student from 2018. The district’s response calls this “scandalous” allegation “baseless and unsupported by a single piece of record evidence.”
School Board members received an email on Monday on behalf of Deal from Shelley Freeman, administrative assistant to Acting Director of Facilities Don Hampton. Freeman said Deal had turned over a new leaf during her time in the new workplace.
“During her time here she has been an asset to our department,” Freeman wrote. “She willingly takes on any task that she is given and handles it professionally, asks questions to ensure the job is done correctly and follows through to job completion.”
The district’s contract with the SC/TA ensures that employees accused of misconduct can be transferred to another department while they appeal. Dubin said Deal’s case is one of the more protracted cases he has seen, but outside circumstances, including the COVID-19 pandemic, have slowed the process.
Dubin said the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” means school employees deserve the right to keep their job as the wheels of justice turn, and he wants school officials to find a good use for their skillset.
“We’ve said from the beginning, ‘Give these people something to do,’” Dubin said. “The last thing I want this to be is a free vacation.”
The School Board is scheduled to meet from 1 to 3 p.m. Tuesday to rule on Deal’s case.
Image: The restored Building 4 at Sarasota High School. Herald-Tribune/2015