St. John's defends accused bully teacher

Parents wanted answers at a packed meeting

TAMPA - Parents with students who attend the historic St. John's Episcopal Parish Day School in Tampa packed the church on Bayshore Blvd. on Thursday night to voice complaints about allegations of abuse and bullying.  

D.J. Holt, a Latin instructor, was placed on administrative leave after he allegedly slapped a student in class last April.  

The mother of that child spoke before the crowded church chapel about her frustrations with the school administration.

"I'm upset about the bullying," the parent said.  "He would say things about kids like 'too tall, too short, too thin, too heavy,'" she said to an applauding audience.

A father with a daughter at St. John's said a teacher once told a student who was wearing make-up, which is against school policy, that 'you're supposed to be working at a desk, not working a pole.'

"That is the kind of thing being said," the parent exclaimed.

The Episcopal Bishop for Southwest Florida moderated the meeting.  Dabney Smith told parents he was sure such complaints were "not going unaddressed."

The often emotional meeting included complaints from parents about the lack of communication by board members and school administrators.  Parents said teachers routinely answered emails about their concerns; school officials did not.

Gordon Rode, headmaster for the school, admitted that improvements need to be made.

"I think you heard tonight that there have been some issues," Rode said.  With regards to D.J. Holt, the school decided his actions were not a "firable offense," and instead are waiting for the results of a DCF investigation to see if he can return to class.

 "We have taken some corrective action where he's taken a sensitivity course, and he meets with the most preeminent emotional intelligence expert in the area," Rode said.

School officials announced that they had met with a special agent from the FBI, after board members received anonymous threats.  So far, no immediate danger was found.

Parents also told school leaders they were upset about the dismissal of a popular division chief, Michele Lambert.  One parent accused the headmaster of lying about the terms of her departure.  

Reverend Douglas Remer, rector of the church, angrily defended his staff about how Lambert was treated.

"I am going to tell you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," Remer said.  "Lambert said 'I felt like a freak every time I came to work,'' he said, referring to Lambert being at the center of numerous controversies.

"I did not want Michele Lambert to finish her time at St. John's feeling like a freak," Remer said.

Angel Pullara, who's daughter attends the school, said the decision about Lambert took many parents by surprise.

"She was always there for whoever needed her to be there," Pullara said.  "There were a lot of parents that were disappointed when she left."

Bishop Smith said while the communication issues between parents and the school were unfortunate, he was confident that Thursday's meeting was productive.

"When trust is impaired for whatever reason, it has to be rebuilt," Smith said.

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