Parents: ‘Okaloosa STEMM Principal Broke The Law.’ Now, They Say They Want Justice for Their Son With Autism.

In Brief:

  • Parental Allegations: Michael and Christine allege their son, José, faced harassment and unfair disciplinary actions at Okaloosa STEMM Academy due to his autism and ADD, prompting them to withdraw him from the school.
  • Administrative Scrutiny: Principal Dr. Scheree Martin has been investigated by both the Okaloosa County School District and the Florida Department of Education for her handling of José’s case, resulting in a reprimand and probation.
  • Ongoing Advocacy: Despite removing their son from the school, José’s parents continue to fight for better treatment of students with special needs at STEMM, highlighting systemic issues and advocating for administrative changes.

Okaloosa STEMM Academy blows almost every other middle school in Florida, maybe even in America, out of the water.

 

US News and World Report named it the second-best school in the state. It’s also been nominated as a Blue Ribbon School.

 

More than 95% of students passed every standardized test in every category – the passage rate for the rest of the District for English Language Arts (ELA) hovers in the 50s percent-wise, and for math, the students across the district average out to the 60s.

 

However, the school’s academic success is just the bright part of the story, according to one pair of parents who pulled their child out of school after just a year.

 

Michael and Christine don’t want their last name used because they worry their son could receive different treatment at school because of this story. Michael and Christine also requested that we maintain their son’s privacy by changing his name in this story. Throughout this story, we will refer to their son as José.

 

Michael and Christine still want the story told because they say STEMM Academy has demons to exorcise but don’t feel the Okaloosa County School District has taken appropriate action to ensure a healthy learning environment for STEMM students.

 

One of those issues, they say, is the school’s principal, Dr. Scheree Martin.

 

Mid Bay News emailed Dr. Martin, who has led the school since 2019, but has not heard back.

 

Michael and Christine claim Martin harassed and intimidated their son, who has high-functioning autism. According to José’s parents, during their child’s year at the school, he faced harassment and intimidation – they say – because he failed to conform to a specific model at the school.

 

Eventually, the parents say, Martin got her wish. After a single school year, their son decided to leave the school and enroll in another county middle school. He is now in high school and is performing well.

 

The Beginning

José is gifted. Part of his gift is autism.

 

According to his parents, the District has determined he is triply unique as he has autism, ADD, and is intellectually gifted. His ADD and autism diagnoses require an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in Okaloosa County Schools. Briefly, IEPs are planning documents written by members of the school’s team (principal, teachers, counselors, support staff, et al.), the student, and the parent’s which documents the student’s needs, desires and abilities in a goal-setting exercise. At the end of the exercise, all of the stakeholders for a particular student will know what the student’s present level of education performance is, what their collective goals are for the student, and what special education and related services the student will need to achieve those goals.

 

After achieving excellent results on his FSA tests in the fifth grade, Christine and Michael’s son got an invitation letter from STEMM to potentially join the school the following year. STEMM sends application invitations to students who excel in standardized testing every year. You can see the total battery of requirements in all of its glory here. Essentially, The rigorous application process requires the completion of gratuitous forms, recommendations from teachers, essays by the students and parents, and a selection process that includes a committee to earn a seat in the school for sixth to eighth graders.

 

Christine and Michael’s son maintained excitement about the opportunity he earned. “My son thought, ‘This is the best school.’ Especially for how bright and gifted he is. This was the only option for him, according to him,” Christine recalled in an interview with Mid Bay News.

 

However, the acceptance call or email didn’t arrive for the future member of a local academic team. José’s parents began to wonder what was happening and began to birddog the problem. “We know we’re getting word back from other students who performed lower than him and were getting accepted, and we weren’t quite sure what was happening,” Christine remembers, “We asked, ‘do they have a policy that, you know, [STEMM] doesn’t allow students with IEPs?” They were told students with IEPs could gain entry into the prestigious academy.

 

She says her son was accepted into STEMM the day after the inquiry.

 

In Class – Disciplinary Issues

Once STEMM invited José to join the Cohort for 2020-21, his parents met with Dr. Martin to explain his unique needs and learning and motivational style, according to an email sent to the Okaloosa County School Board by José’s parents.

 

“We specifically addressed that he has never successfully responded to negative reinforcement in the manner which a neuro-typical student generally would,” Christine explained.

 

At the STEMM Academy, instructors break the day up into large blocks of time, about two hours. That amount of time can seem like forever for a child with ADD to focus on a subject – especially when bored. “With him being gifted, he would get bored and use the school-provided laptop to play Cool Math Games,” Christine said on the phone, ” Well, his peers could play Cool Math Games and quickly get off it if a teacher came by. Our son doesn’t have those skills. He doesn’t know how to be sneaky.”

 

José’s lack of guile landed him in Dr. Martin’s office more often than other children to answer for his inattention. Christine said José’s grades were fine – he didn’t suffer academically from his lapses in focus.

 

Christine and Michael said they repeatedly requested accommodation for their son—specifically software that would block José’s ability to use Cool Math Games on his computer. According to the email, Martin claimed the software could not be added to the District’s laptops.

 

She said that the growing number of infractions meant she and her husband began to get more involved than they ever had before. They say José hasn’t had a single referral to the principal’s office before and since sixth grade.

 

While at STEMM in the sixth grade, they argued with the administration their son learned differently than other children, but he still learned and had a right to attend the school. They say he continued to excel academically. Christine says the administration escalated his punishment as the school year progressed. Administrators removed his device as a way to punish him. The only issue is that some 90% of the work done at STEMM takes place on devices like the one they removed from him, his parents claim.

 

They say Dr. Martin threatened to remove him from the school if he couldn’t change his behavior. “They would say to our son, ‘You know, we don’t want to have to kick you out,'” Christine said.

 

In January 2021, Christine and Michael drew up a non-consent form requiring parents’ physical presence with their child when an administrator metes out discipline.

 

Eventually, the discipline issue came to a head, and the family says they had a formal procedural meeting called a Manifestation Determination Review (MDR) meeting that included the principal, a teacher, a guidance counselor, and the parents to determine whether or not to force José to leave the school. An MDR is used by a school’s administrative, teaching, and counseling staff to determine whether a specific problem behavior has something to do with a student’s disability. If it does, there are limits that the state puts on punishment for the student (which includes up to 10 days of out-of-school suspension). If not, a student can be expelled or placed in an alternative setting for the behavior.

 

The MDR did not end with José’s dismissal from the school, but it might as well have. After the mediation, which included a representative from the Center for Autism and Related Disorders (CARD), the representative allegedly told Christine that the STEMM administration “Didn’t want my son there,” according to her.

 

Continued Escalation

After the MDR, José’s parents claimed Dr. Martin’s pressure for their son to leave STEMM escalated further, eventually involving a Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office school resource officer.

 

On March 2, 2021, José received yet another office referral and walked into a room with a school resource officer, according to his parents – a claim that Mid Bay News looked into but could not substantiate. Christine arrived at the campus to find her son in a room with the STEMM resource officer. “Now, it’s pretty obvious that when you have a 12-year-old boy who has a communication issue, and you bring law enforcement in because he was doing something on his computer that he wasn’t supposed to do – but was not illegal,” Michael said, “My son is not violent. He’s not disrespectful. He’s not out of sorts. But, they brought the resource officer to basically intimidate both my wife and my son.”

 

Gone, But Not Out of Fight

 

After a single year at the Valparaiso-based school for advanced children – José and his parents decided to leave STEMM. Initially, they pulled him out under a doctor’s recommendation for some time. Eventually, they moved José to another middle school in Okaloosa County despite what they say were his good grades and track record for success.

 

Just because their son left the school didn’t mean Michael and Christine were done fighting on their son’s behalf. “It would have been easier for us just to have left that school. Easier to go along,” Christine remembers, “We continue to fight that battle with Martin. Because even though our kid is not there, somebody else’s kids are. My kid has been treated beautifully [at his second middle and high school]. But other parents, single parents, two working parents, they don’t have maybe the wherewithal, the tenacity, not everybody can do the research that we’ve done, and write the copious emails and complaints that we’ve done. You do it to try to make it better for the next kid. And that is not, honestly, that’s not how it was. That’s not me just saying it because it sounds good. And the reason why we don’t want [Martin in her] position is so that she can’t do to other people what she’s done to us.”

 

They started the summer after that terrible year at STEMM with an email. Their first email went to The OCSD’s equity office on June 16, 2021. In the email, which they shared with Mid Bay News, the parents allege discrimination against José as a result of his disability and claim that their child was denied a free and public education – a violation of state law.

 

They say the Equity Office substantiated their claims. This conclusion could be confirmed by an email sent from Deputy Superintendent for Human Resources Lee Hale two months later to Dr. Martin.

 

In the email, an official letter of reprimand from Hale to Martin, Hale says that she violated school board policies in handling José’s disciplinary issues.

 

Christine and Michael would receive a highly redacted hard copy of the report created by the school district on September 9, 2021. The report noted that the allegations against Martin were substantiated. José’s parents claimed that the case was not initially forwarded to the Florida DOE for additional investigation but eventually sent to Tallahassee for further examination.

 

In September 2021, Dr. Hale received an email from the Florida Department of Education. The state DOE opened an investigation into Martin’s conduct. Hale responded within a business day with the records they requested. Another email from the DOE acknowledges receipt of the documentation Hale sent them that same day. That same day, Christine claimed the school district’s equity officer, Mr. Chatman, had told them the case had been sent to Tallahassee.

 

Christine and Michael sent an email to all of the elected leadership of the Okaloosa County School District on December 16, 2021. In it, they allege that Dr. Martin conspired to Deny an Appropriate and Free Education (called a FAPE claim).

 

Nothing changes. Martin continues to serve as the principal at STEMM.

 

More Problems for Martin

Nothing changes for Principal Martin from José’s entrance to school until the end of the 2024 school year. She held on to her post as principal for three more years. But, cracks in the façade begin to show at the school, according to reports in Okaloosa County School District documents provided to Mid Bay News from José’s parents.

 

According to those documents, in 2022, Hale reprimanded Martin again – this time for a series of communications between a secretary and a teacher on her staff. The teacher, a union school site leader, accused Martin of not addressing inappropriate ad hominem communication from the school’s secretary in an email. In an email, Dr. Hale – the deputy superintendent in charge of human resources, lambasts Martin and accuses her of lying during an investigation. The investigation looked into whether or not Martin sent a school employee to a former employee’s home to discuss her statements in a separate investigation. Hale noted in the email, “As you know, the STEMM Center, and you personally, have been the focus of several investigations in the recent past,” he continues, “This is of great concern to me. To be clear, in all dealings, you must display appropriate leadership with your actions and communication. Effective leadership is undermined when your integrity is called into question. You are responsible for your school and your actions. Your effective leadership, moving forward, is non-negotiable. I expect there to be no further inconsistencies of this nature as they could result in disciplinary action up to and including suspension without pay or termination of your employment.” Martin was issued a letter of reprimand from the school district for the incident.

 

State Involvement

In February 2023, the Florida Department of Education formally investigated Martin concerning José’s case. The DoE accuses Martin of four problems:

  1. Violation of section 1012.795(1)(g) – Respondent has been found guilty of personal conduct which seriously reduces effectiveness as an employee of the school board.
  2. Violation of section 1012.795(1)(j) – The respondent violated the Principles of Professional Conduct for the Education Profession prescribed by the State Board of Education rules.
  3. Martin failed to make a reasonable effort to protect a student from conditions harmful to learning and/or to the student’s mental health and/or physical health and/or safety.
  4. Martin intentionally violated or denied a student’s legal rights.

 

According to the records Michael and Christine have on the case, the DoE did not inform them that the educational oversight body had initiated an investigation until June 29, 2023, almost five months later.

 

A week after getting word about the state investigation – Christine and Michael sent an email to the School Board – once again lambasting them for their failure to fire Martin with cause. But it wasn’t until March 7, 2024, that the Department of Education ordered the case settlement. In response to her settlement agreement the Department of Education handed down a three-pronged punishment to Martin.

  1. She pleads no contest to the charges
  2. She receives a letter of reprimand from the State of Florida
  3. Probation of two years. Probation conditions include:
    1. Notification of change of employment to DOE
    2. Martin must send performance evals to EPC.
    3. $150 every six months for monitoring
    4. 3-hour college-level course on ethics. Must get a B or higher in the course.
    5. Violate no law
    6. Perform duties well.

 

A month later, as the end of the school year approaches, José’s parents make a third appeal to the Okaloosa School Board for Martin to be fired and include the settlement results in their email.

 

The next step in the situation takes place in June of 2024.

 

Results

Despite the issues with STEMM, José and his family have recovered and returned to a happier state of life. José’s high school recognized his efforts on the academic team this year. Christine and Michael say that the ordeal has strengthened their marriage in the worst way possible. After all, no one wants to go through trials and difficulties. ” My husband and I recognized that we are an incredible team,” Christine said, “we showed our kids what advocacy looks like.”

 

Martin’s contract—like all principals and teachers in the District—is up for annual renewal in June. The superintendent of Schools, Marcus Chambers, makes the recommendations, and the board approves or rejects them.

 

As of June 13, Martin was still employed with the Okaloosa County School District.

 

After this situation, we enquired with the Okaloosa County School Board. They responded: “The Okaloosa County School District is aware of the settlement agreement between Dr. Martin, Principal at the Okaloosa STEMM Academy, and the FLDOE Education Practices Commission that resulted from a 2021 District-initiated investigation. The District takes appropriate disciplinary and reporting measures during and following its investigations, including, in this case, submission to the FLDOE Education Practices Commission.”

 

What’s Next

Okaloosa County’s School Board will meet twice in June and determine whether or not to renew each of the contracts for Okaloosa County principals. We’ve requested the District to learn whether or not the District has extended Martin’s contract another year.

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