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Arrest emerges as factor in last year’s ouster of Coach Joe

Photo: Joe Nathaniel

A 2003 felony arrest for aggravated battery, later reduced to misdemeanor assault, has emerged as a key justification for the firing of a beloved coach and teacher.

It’s been nearly a year since Joe Nathaniel was suspended with pay by Indian River County School District officials while awaiting a formal hearing on a tussle he had with a student, Isaiah Speights, on Nov. 17, 2015.

Nathaniel and some witnesses say Speights, who has a history of arrests and problems at school, instigated and escalated the conflict and that Nathaniel was acting responsibly, subduing a violent student and protecting other students.

But the district contends Nathaniel was at fault and is guilty of mistreating Speights.

When the district sent Nathaniel a termination notice after the incident, it did not mention his 2003 arrest, but Superintendent Mark Rendell alluded to the arrest while giving testimony last week at the long awaited hearing, held by Judge John Van Laningham, Department of Administrative Hearings.

“I am charged with student safety,” Rendell said.  “It is the number one priority. I have to be confident students will be safe. There is no way I could, in good conscience, put Mr. Nathaniel back in the classroom and entrust him with the safety of students.”

His decision “relied on” the reasoning of Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources William Fritz, whose deposition mirrored Rendell’s statements. 

Both discounted witness statements claiming Speights shoved Nathaniel first. Both said a video, which was taken on a student’s cell phone from about 20 feet away and shows Nathaniel shoving Speights and jabbing two fingers into his forehead, and the “prior violent incident,” were sufficient to conclude Nathaniel is “unpredictable” and therefore a safety hazard to students.

According to the 2003 arrest affidavit, “On August 28 . . . at about 1:38 p.m., the above named defendant (Joe Nathaniel) intentionally and willfully struck the driver door window on a dump truck belonging to R. Readen Trucking with a shovel and broke the window. The defendant then struck the victim Lawrence Lyons intentionally and willfully with the same shovel on the elbow causing a bleeding injury to the victim.” The incident was witnessed by three people.

Nathaniel said the charge was reduced to misdemeanor assault because he didn’t actually hit Lyons, just the window. He said Lyons ran him off the road, spit on him and threw coffee at him before he grabbed his shovel.

Nathaniel pled “no contest” to misdemeanor assault and criminal mischief and was given 12 months’ probation, shortened to seven months.

Although school spokesman Flynn Fidgeon said Nathaniel started his employment in 2005, Nathaniel said he started coaching for the district in 2003, before his arrest, at which time he was interviewed and went through a “Level II” security check, required by state law to ensure student safety.

He did not go through another application process with the district when he began teaching in 2005, he said, and therefore did not disclose the arrest.

Rendell would not comment on whether the district knew of Nathaniel’s arrest before hiring him as a teacher. Florida’s open records law does not require the district to disclose that personnel information, Fidgeon said, referring Vero Beach 32963 to the state Education Practices Commission for additional information.

It turns out the commission discovered in 2007 that Nathaniel had failed to disclose his arrest on his teaching certificate application, a violation of state requirements. He paid a $350 fine to avoid revocation of his teaching certificate.

When they first tried to fire Nathaniel, district officials did not mention his arrest and School Board member Charles Searcy confirmed last week the board was not informed of the 2003 assault charge when they were asked to approve his termination.

In January, the school board put off a vote on termination after Nathaniel asked for a formal hearing on the matter. Rendell and Fritz recommended he be suspended without pay while awaiting a hearing, but the school board voted 3 to 2 to suspend him with pay. The board also chose not to conduct a hearing itself, but to request a ruling on Nathaniel’s actions and the district’s response from the Department of Administrative Hearings.

Judge John Van Laningham presided over the three-day hearing last week. Jason Odom, of Gould, Cooksey, Fennel, in Vero Beach, is representing the school district. Mark Wilensky, of Dubiner & Wilensky in Wellington, is representing Nathaniel.

Both attorneys will write draft orders the judge will consider prior to writing his own order, which is expected in January, 14 months after the shoving match. The judge’s ruling will address the validity of firing Nathaniel for the altercation with Speights, but the school board will still make the final decision whether to fire or retain the popular teacher.