Lack of communication, confusion, and potential holes in state law reveal how a troubled substitute got – and kept — a full-fledged, professional teaching certificate to work in Florida’s classrooms, despite being fired twice for misconduct, the Florida Phoenix has found.
The state Department of Education issued the certificate for now-deceased educator Scott Beierle – the shooter involved in the recent Tallahassee yoga studio tragedy — even after he was fired in March 2016 for misconduct in Leon County schools.
District records show that as a substitute teacher, he was “viewing pornography on school computers.”
The state then allowed Beierle to keep his five-year teaching certificate after he was fired again, this time for unprofessional conduct in Volusia County schools.
He was still working as a substitute in May 2018, when he was accused of touching a female middle school student at the top of her stomach, frightening her, district records show.
Some six months after he was fired by Volusia County, Beierle still had his five-year, renewable teaching credential – the highest-level teaching certificate available to educators — with no indication that the state DOE had disciplined him in any way. Discipline could mean anything from issuing a letter of reprimand or suspending or revoking a teaching certificate so that he couldn’t get back into the classroom.
In early November, the 40-year-old Beierle walked into a Tallahassee yoga studio and opened fire, killing two women, wounding several others, and then killing himself. At the time, people may not have known that Beierle was more than a sub – he had a regular Florida teaching certificate, courtesy of the state.
His five-year teaching certificate still shows up in certification records at the Department of Education, valid until June 30, 2020.
Lack of communication
The first time Beierle was fired, in March 2016, the state DOE didn’t have information about his misconduct and termination from Leon County schools, and didn’t realize he was still working in the district, records show. The agency proceeded to give Beierle a five-year professional teaching certificate.
“Our records do not indicate that any district reported allegations of educator misconduct against Scott Beierle to the Florida Department of Education,” said Audrey Walden, spokeswoman for the state DOE.
Chris Petley, spokesman for the Leon County schools – where Tallahassee is located – said it wasn’t clear if the district had to report information about the misconduct to DOE, in part because Beierle was a substitute teacher at the time.
“When you’re a (regular, certified) teacher, there is a specific process that is followed,” for reporting misconduct and other concerns to the DOE’s Office of Professional Practices Services, according to Petley.
That’s the office that investigates misconduct and determines disciplinary action, if any, related to an educator’s teaching certificate.
But the office handles only cases related to educators who have a Florida Educator Certificate or are applying for one, according to the state DOE. It has no authority over matters related to other school personnel, such as bus drivers, custodians and “non-certified” substitutes.
Beierle applied on Feb. 22, 2016 for a Professional Florida Educator Certificate to teach English – less than a month before he was terminated by Leon schools and at a time when Leon was already investigating misconduct allegations against him.
It appears that Leon County should have reported Beierle’s misconduct and termination, according to the state DOE. That could have launched an agency investigation of educator misconduct that could lead to sanctions.
Though the state DOE didn’t have the information about Beierle’s misconduct in Leon County, the agency had already been reviewing some of Beierle’s past criminal charges.
Those included a driving-under-the-influence charge in 2004 in New York that was reduced but had limited documentation, and a battery charge in 2012 in Leon County that was not prosecuted. Beierle also had an active and valid teaching certificate in Maryland, which helped him get his Florida credentials.
Florida DOE Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart wrote a letter to Beierle dated Oct. 12, 2016 – several months after Leon County terminated him for misconduct — saying “I have determined no probable cause to deny your application for a Florida Educator’s Certificate.”
She added, “I am firmly committed to protecting the integrity of Florida’s education profession. Educators are role models in our communities and must uphold high ethical standards of conduct in and out of the classroom, our children deserve nothing less.”
The DOE made the teaching certificate retroactive to July 1, 2015.
Confusion in Volusia
Armed with his regular teacher certificate, Beierle moved on to Volusia County, though he worked as a substitute teacher there, starting in January 2017.
Volusia County School District spokeswoman Kelly Schulz says that Beierle passed state and national criminal background checks and that the DOE issued him a regular teaching certificate.
Beierle was “immediately let go,” said Schulz, after the May 2018 misconduct that involved touching a middle school student.
But it’s unclear why Volusia wouldn’t have known about Beierle’s misconduct in Leon County schools in 2016. In the hiring process, districts can ask other districts about disciplinary actions related to an educator.
Like the situation in Leon County, the state DOE said it did not have information about Beierle’s misconduct as a sub in Volusia.
What about subs?
The Phoenix spoke to several district officials around Florida who said they were not certain that substitute teacher misconduct information is supposed to be reported to the state DOE.
That’s because substitutes in many cases aren’t certified teachers who could be investigated by the DOE’s Professional Practices offices. (Some certified teachers do work as subs.)
In Hillsborough County schools, spokeswoman Tanya Arja said subs are not teachers and are not certified by the state. The school system works with a private company, Kelly Services, to hire and employ subs. And if issues of misconduct arise, the company and the district would work together to determine disciplinary action, including termination of a sub.
“Private entities are not mandated to report educator misconduct,” according to the DOE.
In Walton County schools in Florida’s Panhandle, human resources officer Sonya Alford said her district has a variety of subs who work “as needed,” — but they are not school board-approved positions. She said the district does report misconduct to DOE, but the Professional Practices office would handle sanctioning certified educators.
That raises questions about whether districts do — or don’t — report substitute misconduct to the state.
A new state law, effective July 1, strengthened reporting requirements for school districts to let the DOE know about misconduct that could lead to disciplinary action for a certified educator.
State House Rep. Ray Wesley Rodrigues, who represents part of Lee County, was involved heavily in passing the new law, following an educator misconduct incident in his county.
He said that under the new law, Beierle – who had a regular teaching certificate — would likely have been disciplined by the DOE and charged criminally for the misconduct in Leon and Volusia counties.
But as to misconduct on the part of substitutes, Rodrigues was less certain about how the law would work in terms of reporting to the DOE.
“We may need to go back and clarify that,” he said.