Critics speak of abuse at St. John's Episcopal school while supporters call it unfair mudslinging

TAMPA - A Tampa mother remembers the day last April when her daughter told her about a Latin teacher hitting the girl.

"She had tears in her eyes and a red mark on her back," she said.

She doesn't want us to identify her in order to protect her child, but says that day at St. John's Episcopal Middle School started with the same kind of edgy behavior students loved about D.J. Holt, carrying around an inflatable hammer, which she says her daughter tried to grab when he slapped her.

"You can't believe that it's really happening and that it's happening to your child," she said.

But she calls it minor compared to all of the other allegations she soon learned, including emotional abuse. Holt has even been accused of calling overweight students nicknames like "Tank."

"It was more of the kids that were not as bright, weren't doing well, too tall, too short, too thin, too heavy."

She says St. John's administrators knew all about it and did nothing.

"He's apologized. He welcomes the corrective action," said school spokesperson Lisa Brock. "Of course the school system will not tolerate an environment that's not emotionally safe for students."

Brock says they responded as soon as they had all the information the needed to report concern, calling DCF, which is currently investigating, along with an outside auditor.

Some believe all the noise is really misguided anger by supporters of the former director, Michele Lambert, whose contract the school chose not to renew. In an effort to rally against her release from the school, critics say, a small group of dissenting parents are taking down the entire staff and ruining the school's reputation.

"This has become a significant distraction and a waste of time and money and energy and efforts," Brock said. "This teacher is known to have a style that's highly relatable to students."

Many students called Holt their favorite teacher. Sometimes, however, the school admits his teaching style may have crossed the line.

Mr. Holt's partner, Dakota Hardin, calls it unjust mudslinging, and says some of the parents accusing him, even had dinners with them.

"It wasn't a pressing issue then so why all of a sudden is it an issue now?" Hardin said. "This is what he loves to do. He loves to be in the classroom. He loves to be guiding students."

The mother says she just didn't know what she knows now.

She calls Holt a "victim" of Gordon Rode, the headmaster who she says should've done something earlier. Because he didn't, she says, he did nothing to help the students' future, or their teacher's.

"If he really realized how it affected these children, I really think he could've changed," she said of Holt. "I really do."

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