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Coach Joe accuses school bosses of underhanded deal

Photo: Sebastian River High School teacher Joe Nathaniel

After being cleared of any wrongdoing by a state judge two weeks ago, Sebastian River High School teacher Joe Nathaniel continued to accuse district administrators who sought to fire him of trying to work an underhanded quid pro quo deal with the family of the youth he physically subdued during a classroom altercation.

For months, Nathaniel has alleged that Assistant Schools Superintendent William Fritz offered to use his influence to urge prosecutors to drop two misdemeanor criminal charges against Isaiah Speights if the teen and his mother collaborated with the district in its case against the embattled criminal justice teacher.

Speights, now 19, was charged with criminal mischief (causing damage between $200 and $1,000) and disruption of school functions, both counts stemming from his Nov. 17, 2015, scuffle with Nathaniel, who has spent the past 13 months on paid suspension.

Nathaniel's claim has been corroborated by Tony Brown, president of the county's NAACP chapter, and Calvin Moment, who knows both Nathaniel and Speights and brought their families together two months after the incident in hopes they could resolve their differences.

Nathaniel, Brown and Moment have been saying since last summer that Speights' mother, Tesa Pryor, told them during a January 2016 meeting at the Indian River Mall that Fritz offered to intervene in the legal process and forgive the cost of replacing the water fountain her son angrily kicked off the wall after the scuffle with the teacher.

In return, Fritz wanted the family's cooperation in the district's efforts to terminate Nathaniel's employment and have his teaching certificate revoked, the men said Pryor told them.

"She said Fritz told her . . . they were going after Joe's teaching certificate and they wanted her cooperation," Moment said. "She said Fritz told her he knows people in law enforcement and could help, and they wouldn't have to pay for the water fountain."

Brown said Fritz was "trying to manipulate Isaiah's mom," adding that Schools Superintendent Mark Rendell “met personally with Isaiah at the Alternative Center," where Speights attended school after  the incident.

According to Brown and Moment, Pryor also said Fritz told her it was Nathaniel who filed the criminal charges against her son – something that wasn't true.

Although Nathaniel, Brown and Moment were unable to produce any recorded evidence to corroborate what they claim Pryor told them, Moment shared what appears to be a text-message conversation between him and Speights' mother.

In one message allegedly texted by Pryor, she writes: "Yes dr fritz is trying to fix it ... He admits he was wrongfully arrested and they are trying to clear his record."

A minute later, she adds: "He is calling the state attorney's office to speak to the head person."

Contacted by phone using the same number that accompanied the texts to Moment, Pryor refused to comment.

Moment also shared a photograph taken Jan. 15, 2016, at the mall's food court, where Nathaniel and Speights stood side-by-side, each with an arm around the other, both of them smiling.

"Fritz didn't want this photo of Coach Joe and Isaiah put up," Moment said, using the affectionate nickname by which Nathaniel, a former football coach, is known on Sebastian River's campus.

Fritz, who runs the district's human resources operations and served as the point man for the investigation into the Nathaniel-Speights incident, denied the allegations when they first surfaced in June.

"The district never agreed or offered to intervene in the criminal case involving the water fountain in exchange for Ms. Pryor or Isaiah cooperating with the district's case against Joe Nathaniel," the school district wrote in an emailed statement.

After Rendell embraced the findings of Fritz's investigation and recommended in December 2015 that Nathaniel be fired, the School Board voted to pass the matter to the state Division of Administrative Hearings, which sent a judge to Vero Beach in October to hear the case.

Two months later, Nathaniel's attorney, Mark Wilensky, sent a proffer to John Van Laningham, the DOAH judge who presided over the hearing, and wrote that Pryor claimed Fritz told her the district's case had "nothing to do with what took place on campus" and that Fritz "agreed to intercede with law enforcement" on her son's behalf in exchange for her family's cooperation.

The school district's attorney, Jason Odom of Vero Beach, responded in January with his own proffer and denied the allegation that Fritz made any such offer.

"That is false," Odom wrote, adding that Nathaniel knows the allegation isn't true because "he deposed Dr. Fritz."

However, Fritz admitted in his Sept. 30 deposition taken by Wilensky that Pryor was upset because her son was facing criminal charges, which she mistakenly believed were filed at the request of the school district.

The charges were filed by the State Attorney's Office, which relied on an investigation conducted by Sheriff's Deputy Eric Sesack, Sebastian River's School Resource Officer.

Fritz testified that, at Pryor's request, he went to court and spoke to County Judge Joe Wild, telling him the district – "as the victim in this situation" – had no desire to press charges against Speights.

"Since when does a human resources superintendent go to court to testify on behalf of a disruptive student?" Nathaniel asked rhetorically. "They were out to get me, and they needed help."

Fritz said in his deposition that he agreed to intervene because Speights already had "some previous issues" and "run-ins with the law," and the district didn't want to "unfairly" subject the youth to more legal troubles.

"Especially since we viewed that [the incident] probably wouldn't have happened had our teacher not acted the way he did," Fritz added.

Fritz, who said he hates "seeing kids in handcuffs," was so concerned about the harmful effect the criminal charges might have on Speights that he left the courtroom and didn't wait around to hear Wild's decision.

Asked if anyone had since told him of Speights' fate, he replied, "No."

As it turned out, Speights pleaded "no contest" to the criminal mischief charge in March, was adjudicated guilty and was placed on probation for 12 months. The school disruption charge was dropped by the State Attorney's Office.

Speights, who has been arrested multiple times since the classroom incident, is currently awaiting a Feb. 28 court date for allegedly violating his probation in connection with a February 2016 arrest for battery.

"As I've said before," Nathaniel said, "they picked the wrong kid to try to get rid of me."

A month after the classroom clash, Assistant State Attorney Nikki Robinson wrote a letter to the Sheriff's Office after concluding a review of the incident, pointing out that Speights had long been a disruptive force at Sebastian River, racking up a 34-page disciplinary file detailing his bad behavior.

Robinson, responding to Pryor's request that Nathaniel be charged for attacking her son, determined that there were no grounds to charge the teacher with any crime.

Instead, Robinson's letter praised the 6-foot-4, 300-pound teacher – a former law enforcement and corrections officer who has a master's degree in criminal justice – for taking control of a potentially dangerous situation, stating, "It would have been negligent on the part of Joe Nathaniel to have left the classroom, given Speights' defiance."

Despite Robinson's letter, Rendell maintained that Nathaniel escalated the incident by taunting Speights, continuing to move toward the teen in an aggressive manner and physically abusing and yelling at him.

Rendell also accused Nathaniel of violating School Board policies requiring teachers to protect students from harmful conditions and prohibiting teachers from intentionally embarrassing students.

Brown and Moment backed Nathaniel's contention that Rendell and Fritz have wanted to get rid of him because the administrators fear his popularity and can't control his candor.

Nathaniel, who has worked in the district for 13 years with an otherwise-unblemished record, publicly questioned Sebastian River's decision to fire longtime football coach Randy Bethel after the 2012 season.

A year later, Nathaniel went public again, this time to express his dissatisfaction with the district's investigation into his complaint that some of Bethel's former assistants were derisively being referred to on campus as "The BBC" – big black coaches.

"Joe was giving other people strength – not just to black teachers but to teachers in general," Brown said. "Joe was starting to give them a voice, and the district couldn't allow it."

Two weeks ago, Van Laningham issued his much-anticipated ruling. He recommended that Nathaniel be exonerated of all charges and trashed the district's case, citing its over-reliance on an incomplete and inconclusive  student-recorded video.

"Fortunately for Sebastian River High School, Coach Joe had the fortitude to stand tall, roll up his sleeves and do the tough job of keeping a foul-mouthed, defiant and violently aggressive student from causing further damage," the judge wrote. "For this, he should be given a pat on the back, not a pink slip."

Nathaniel’s fate is in the hands of the school board after the ruling. The board could still fire him, or follow the judge’s guidance and reinstate him in his teaching position.