The Broward School Board took the first steps to fire an elementary school teacher Tuesday after students accused her of hitting them with rulers to discipline them.
Clarice Murray, 42, who taught at Markham Elementary in Pompano Beach, was suspended without pay at Tuesday's School Board meeting because she had a "pattern of hitting her students with rulers," school officials said.
"One student went to the emergency room for her hand," said Joe Melita, chief of the district's investigative unit, who said students were hit -- in some cases -- with multiple rulers with sharp metal edges at least once or twice a week.
The student taken to the emergency room complained to her mother that her teacher hit her on the palm with four wooden rulers on April 23.
Other students interviewed confirmed that the teacher hit the student and that a ruler to the hand for such an infraction as forgotten homework was not uncommon.
Florida is one of 23 states that allow corporal punishment, but districts form their own policies on if and how it should be administered. In Broward County, corporal punishment is not allowed in public schools.
The next step for Murray: She must go before an administrative law judge who will make a recommendation to the board on her punishment. The board will make the final decision. Murray violated Florida's immorality clause, according to the district's petition, but some say one could argue that point because corporal punishment is allowed in the state and it is a judgment call whether her actions brought to the public or the profession "disgrace or disrespect."
Murray, who could not be reached for comment, did not deny she had used a ruler on one of her students, but her attorney Steve Rossi, at the meeting, rejected the district's statement that her hitting students with a ruler was a pattern. Describing his client as a "well-respected teacher with lots of support," Rossi said the allegations of repeated abuse were "absolutely incorrect" and didn't happen on a weekly basis. "None of the students ever cried or went to the principal," said Rossi, who represented Murray for the Broward Teachers Union.
A substitute teacher, Farrah Moreau, and two other students confirmed Murray's actions. The student could not use her hand for a few days, school officials contend.
That was enough for board members to unanimously support Superintendent Frank Till's recommendation to fire Murray, who had been teaching in Broward for four years after leaving a teaching position in Jamaica. Friends close to Murray describe her as a loving woman who walked from her North Miami home to catch a bus to Broward, where she got a ride to school.
"She's not an abusive kind of person. I think she should be given a second chance," said Elizabeth Paige, who worked with Murray at Markham. She said Murray stayed after school to work with her students.
At the same meeting, board members gave another teacher, Harriet Parets, a one-month reprieve after Till recommended the School Board fire her because students said she helped them on the high-stakes Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests.
Board members said they didn't receive enough information to decide on the case. Parets' case will be brought back to the board during the first November meeting. They also questioned some of the investigators' findings. If fired, Parets would be the first Broward teacher to be dismissed for cheating on the FCAT. She also could face criminal charges.
Board member Stephanie Kraft asked School Board Attorney Ed Marko what would happen if board members didn't follow Till's recommendation to fire Parets, who has been removed from her class, with pay, while she awaits her fate.
A student complained to her stepmother in March that Parets, who taught at McNab Elementary in Pompano Beach, coached students in her fifth-grade class, telling them that they had wrong answers.
Parets denied the allegation, saying she made a blanket statement to her class "that everyone has wrong answers" on a test and to double-check their tests. After the student complained, the tests were thrown out. According to the district's testing office, not counting those tests could have resulted in the school not receiving an A, under Gov. Jeb. Bush's education accountability system. McNab received a B.
For Parets, Tuesday's deferral was a good sign.
"I feel very positive that I was hearing the voice of reason and justice," she said. When asked whether she would return to the classroom, she said: "Are you serious? In a heartbeat."
"I love my kids. I'm a great teacher. I am going back. I must go back or I'll die."
Education Writer Bill Hirschman contributed to this article. Toni Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4550.
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