FLEMING ISLAND – While her platform is propped up on her background as an educator and a leader, one candidate for Clay County School Board has a track record that potentially runs counter to her claims.
A review of the personnel file for Fleming Island resident Latanya Peterson, candidate for the District 1 Clay School Board seat, shows a clouded work history during her tenure as a teacher with Duval County Public Schools. And while her reason for termination on June 30, 2014, was “problems with her license,” she left under the cloud of a lengthy investigation into a standardized testing scandal at Sandalwood High School.
In the 2014 school year, Peterson was a 10th grade English teacher at Sandalwood High. As was usual, her class as well as others, were subject to what’s known as a Curriculum Guide Assessment. This CGA is a test given to students each quarter to assess their learning and is used by the district to gather data regarding overall student growth. On March 3, 2014, a day before her class was to take that quarter’s CGA, Peterson sent an email to Testing Coordinator Sharon Bailey asking what would happen if she didn’t show up to work to administer the exam. Bailey told Peterson she didn’t know what would happen, according to official emails documented in public records obtained from Duval Schools.
Peterson showed up to work anyway and administered the test. During the first period of testing, then-Principal Victoria Schultz, walked in to check on Peterson’s class after Bailey had alerted Schultz about Peterson’s email. The result: Schultz walked into a classroom in which students were not being tested, according to the 7-page DCPS investigative report. When Schultz asked Peterson why the students were not testing, Peterson said her students were not ready for the exam and that she didn’t understand why they needed to take it.
“Principal Schultz informed Ms. Peterson that it was too late for her first period students to take the exam; however, she expected Ms. Peterson to be in the computer lab second period administering the exam to her students,” states the DCPS investigative report.
During second period, Schultz joined Peterson in the computer lab to assist with the administration of the exam. According to the report, Schultz noticed that the majority of the class was scanning over the exam and not marking answers. Schultz made what appeared to be a mental note and then left the class.
Later in the day, another teacher at Sandalwood High, Crystal Parker, informed Schultz of something Peterson had told her.
“Ms. Peterson stated to Ms. Parker that she (Ms. Peterson) told her students to mark all “C” on the exam,” states the DCPS investigative report. “Due to this information, Principal Schultz printed the exam and it appeared to be true. All of the first period students selected “C” as the answer.”
It’s likely that this occurred due to something Peterson told her class.
“We was in class and we wasn’t ready to take the CGA 3, but the Principal said we have to so we all went down to a computer room and Mrs. Peterson suggested we all pick C, so the whole class picked C,” one student said, whose name was redacted from the report.
The report features another 11 students detailing what occurred, all pointing toward their teacher, Peterson, telling them to essentially “do whatever [they] want” on the exam – one student even used the term “Christmas tree” in their witness report.
Once Schultz learned that all of Peterson’s first period students selected “C,” she instructed Peterson to tell her students not to pick “C” for every answer. The next class to test after Schultz told Peterson this was Peterson’s fourth period class. They didn’t choose “C” for every answer. Instead, the majority of students chose “A.” Some of the witness statements report that Peterson told them to all pick “A.”
A deeper dive into her DCPS personnel file showed that Peterson clearly understood her duties as an educator. On August 26, 2013, Peterson signed the Test Administrator/Coordinator Prohibited Activities Agreement that states, “I understand that during testing I may not do anything that would cause the achievement of the students, teacher, or school to be inaccurately measured or reported.”
On the night of March 4, 2014, Peterson attended the Duval School Board regular meeting. According to Peterson, she went before the board ahead of the testing period to ask the board not to force the teachers to administer the test.
“I went before the school board, and it’s documented, the day before the test was supposed to be given, and I asked, ‘Please don’t have us give this test. Our students aren’t ready. If we can push it back, that would be great. Give us time to teach it so it’s a true assessment that we can use to measure their growth,’,” Peterson said. “At the meeting it was said that it was up to the discretion of the teacher, and I knew that was the answer, but I wanted to go on record because other teachers did not know that.”
However, a search of past Duval School Board meetings, failed to show Peterson spoke to the school board.
According to Peterson, union members are not required to administer the test. At the time of the testing investigation, Peterson was vice president of one of the teachers’ units within Duval Teachers United, the teachers’ union. Terrie Brady, DTU president, would not comment on any specifics of Peterson’s case or the CGA, but she did say that no union member can negotiate the terms of administering a test.
“You asked me the question, ‘Can a union member basically be exempt from administering a test?’ and the answer is no,” Brady said. “Right now, the district is the one that gives us test dates and there is some flexibility of measurement, but [it’s] not by test dates or end-of-course work, or any other major test that is sent out by the district.”
Rena Lee Paiva, president of the Clay County Education Association teachers’ union, concurs with Brady and said that in Clay, teachers are not allowed to choose whether or not to administer a test.
“It’s a teacher’s job to administer a test and administer all tests as directed by the Superintendent,” Paiva said. “[Union members] don’t get exempt.”
The next day, on March 5, 2014, Schultz met with Peterson and presented her with the allegations made against her in an effort to grant her an opportunity to explain herself. Peterson denied that she directed her students to choose “C” as their answer choice, according to the investigative report.
However, the witness statements of the students in her class offer a clearer glimpse into the allegations. Some students said Peterson told them to pick “C” for every answer and that’s it. Other students said she said to pick “C” for every answer, but that they didn’t have to if they didn’t want to.
The day of the tests, March 4, 2014, an official investigation was opened by DCPS. On March 5, 2014, Schultz reported to Aaron Clements, the investigator from the DCPS Office of Equity and Inclusion/Professional Standards, to show him the answers of Peterson’s class. All of her first period selected “C” as the answer, according to the district report. Six students in her second period class selected exclusively “C,” while the entire class selected “C” for the majority of their questions. In Peterson’s fourth period class, 11 students selected only “A” as their answer with the majority of the class choosing “A” as well for most of their answers. As part of the DCPS investigation, Schultz obtained written statements from many involved, including the teacher, Crystal Parker.
According to Parker, Peterson told her why she instructed her students to answer the exam the way they did.
“Because we decided that ‘C’ was going to be the answer to all the questions,” said Peterson to Parker, according to the investigative report. “No one else takes the test seriously, so why should I?”
Later in April of 2014, the investigation ended with the conclusion that Peterson violated the Code of Ethics and the Principles of Professional Conduct of the Education Profession in Florida which states, “Shall make reasonable effort to protect the student from conditions harmful to learning and/or to the student’s mental and/or physical health and/or safety,” and, “Shall not intentionally suppress or distort subject matter relevant to a student’s academic program,” respectively.
“Based upon the foregoing, it was determined that there is substantial evidence to sustain the charges of the exercise of poor judgment, failure to follow established testing protocols, and providing inappropriate testing assistance to students against Latanya Peterson for her role in these incidents,” the report reads.
As a result of these findings, Peterson was issued what is known as a Step II Progressive Discipline, a written reprimand. This disciplinary action was given instead of a reduction of pay or full dismissal in the effort to give her a more progressive discipline, reads the district report. This reprimand was placed in her personnel file. While Peterson was not dismissed as an employee from Sandalwood High School, she would later be terminated on June 30, 2014, due to issues with her teaching certification.
Documents in Peterson’s personnel file showed she was teaching on a temporary certificate and Peterson did not turn in proper certification to maintain her teaching position. According to Peterson, she purposefully chose not to pursue this certification and instead resigned because she was planning to work for the Republican National Committee.
Before her termination, however, the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Professional Practices Services opened an investigation into Peterson on May 28, 2014. On February 3, 2015, The Florida Department of Education published a 74-page report and closed Peterson’s investigation without taking any type of action against her. Instead state officials stated that the written reprimand she had already received was appropriate and no further action would be taken.
On top of this investigation, but not necessarily linked to it, Peterson received an official evaluation using the Collaborative Assessment System for Teachers, which earned her a .6 in the area of “showing professionalism.” This score translates to “developing/needs improvement,” and is close to the score that would have translated to “unsatisfactory.”
According to Peterson, all of this occurred because she promised her students that she would never test them on material they hadn’t yet been taught. In this instance, the test covered subjects she hadn’t yet taught which is why she told her students to answer the way she did. Meanwhile, the Duval Schools’ investigative report states that Peterson denied telling her students to all pick “C.”
Peterson told Clay Today that she told her students to do whatever they want on the exam because she didn’t want to hold her students accountable for something she didn’t teach them. When asked why they hadn’t been taught this information yet, Peterson said that simply put, her class had not yet reached that point in the curriculum.
“It was our discretion as a teacher, per the union, that if they weren’t where they needed to be, you could lump [two tests] together so that in the [sixth week], you could have one big test,” Peterson said. “That was our goal. We had talked about it as a department, but because again, I was the one that was vice president of the teachers’ union, the principal wanted to make an example out of me and that was fine.”
Peterson said the reason an investigation was opened was because she was involved in politics.
“The principal at the time, because I was politically-active, decided to take it another step further and start this investigation,” Peterson said. “Nothing was found because it wasn’t a state assessment – it’s a district test. So that’s what happened.”
When asked about the punishment, Peterson said that the reason she only received a written reprimand, rather than harsher punishment, was because there was no real harm done, although no student in her class received higher than a 60 percent on the exam, she said.
“It was, OK, maybe not the best choice of words to say, ‘do what you want to do,’ but it was no harm, no foul,” Peterson said.
Now, more than four years later, Peterson stands by the decision she made in 2014.
“I stand by it,” Peterson said. “We didn’t have to use the benchmark test that we were given so it didn’t matter. Nobody uses the data but the district and that’s why I fought for it.”
“I let the process do what it was going to do and I came out in favor,” Peterson said.
However, a further look into Peterson’s personnel file showed she had also been involved in a testing investigation when she taught at Oceanway Middle School. The May 24, 2012 investigation did not result in disciplinary action after another teacher reported Peterson.
“While counting test booklets Ms. Peterson was witnessed reviewing the End of Course Examination for Language Arts and taking notes on the content,” states her personnel file.
According to DCPS personnel records, Peterson held a temporary teaching certificate for English Grades 6-12 issued for 7-01-2006 to 6-30-2009. A current search shows she does not hold a current teaching certificate in Florida. Prior to teaching in Duval, Peterson taught two years in Broward County and half a year in Nassau County where she resigned mid-year, on November 2, 2006, before her teaching evaluation. She taught a total of 69 days in the 2005-06 school year.
Former Sandalwood High principal Victoria Schultz, who now serves as Chief of Schools for DCPS, did not return calls for this story.