Teacher speaks out about arrest

Published 1:03 am Wednesday, April 19, 2006

By By Janet Little Cooper
A former Ernest Ward Middle School teacher who is charged with taking money from students in exchange for grades is speaking out in her own defense.
Tamara Tootle, 39, of Pensacola, Fla., is facing six counts of felony bribery charges stemming from an investigation by the Escambia County Florida Sheriff's Department.
ECSO Sgt. Mike Ward stated in a previous press release that approximately 150 students were paying Tootle for their grades. The students alleged that Tootle accepted $1 from them in exchange for a 100 percent daily participation grade.
Tootle said she is shocked over the allegations and charges that have been brought against her.
"I am in total shock," Tootle said in a phone interview from her home Tuesday afternoon. "I am really hurt by the whole thing. I have been made to look like a scandalous person in the press. The media has stated that I resigned from Ernest Ward as if I was doing it because I was guilty. I left due to district policy. All first-, second- and third-year teachers have to sign a paper at the end of the year acknowledging their resignation until they reach the four-year mark. It is only then that the district has to make a job opening for them."
Tootle was in her second year of teaching after graduating from the University of West Florida in Pensacola, Fla. Her first year with the Escambia County Florida School District was at Brownsville Middle School in Pensacola, Fla., as a physical education teacher. She then taught a year at Ernest Ward where the alleged incidents took place between August and May of 2005.
Tootle said she was surprised by the allegations of bribery.
"I got a phone call at work on April 6 from an investigator with the Escambia County Sheriff's Office," Tootle said. "He told me that they had a warrant for my arrest and that I needed to be at the jail by 4 p.m. that day. I asked him what the warrant was for and he would not tell me anything. I went to the jail and was told that I had to produce a $5,000 bond or spend the night in jail. I went and got the bond and was fingerprinted and released.
"This entire time I kept asking what the warrant was for and no one would tell me," Tootle continued. "I did hear one gentleman say bribery, but he would not tell me anymore. They handed me a card with a court date of April 27 on it. Later that night my step-dad and I were watching the late news and heard the charges for the first time. For a moment a kind of relief came over me because I knew that I could fight that. My step-dad and I actually hugged and even laughed at that point because it was just so ridiculous."
Tootle says that the only information she has received regarding the allegations and charges has come from the media. According to Tootle, the sheriff's department and school board have offered her no information regarding her case.
"No one will tell me anything to help myself," Tootle said. "No one will talk to me from the school board. They sent me a letter saying that I had 10 days to provide them with witnesses on my behalf and attorney statements before being suspended or having my teacher certification taken away. I have called them and told them that I do not have a lawyer and cannot do anything until the court appoints me a public defender. I feel completely abandoned by the school board and feel that they have let me down."
"Our normal practice is to tell people that we have a warrant for their arrest, tell them the charges and the amount of bond," Sgt Ward said. "We did our investigation based on the allegations and found probable cause to indicate that there was a crime. We conferred with the State's Attorney's office who advised us to charge the suspect with six counts of bribery. This does not mean that the individual is guilty, but that there is probable cause."
Tootle said she does not believe that her students would make such accusations against her and believes that she is being used as a scapegoat.
"I honestly don't know why the students would say that," Tootle said. "I would like to see those 150 students in court telling the world the truth about me. I want to make it very clear that I never accepted money from my students. Even when my students didn't dress out, I still made them participate in the class. I never allowed any student to skip class. You can ask anyone of my girls and they would tell you that I would never do that to them."
Tootle recalls one event that possibly triggered the allegations being made against her. She sponsored a talent show at the end of the school year as a way to raise money for P.E. equipment or the P.E. fund.
"We had a raffle for the talent show," Tootle said. "Students could purchase a raffle ticket for $1. If their ticket was chosen, they were awarded a free dress out pass for one day only, but they still had to participate in the class."
Tootle said that tickets were drawn and that the money donated from the raffle was used for the grand prize of the talent show, which was $105.
"I gave the grand prize to the winner right on the stage in front of everybody," Tootle said. "I can't remember the exact profit we made, but I believe that it was around $600 and I turned that money into the school bookkeeper. I was told that the school did not have a budget for P.E. and that I would have to raise whatever money we needed."
Teachers are required to complete an activity form, calendar form and money collected form that has to be signed by the teacher, bookkeeper and the principal when they collect any money. A money conciliation form also requires the principal's signature. Tootle never completed such forms for a P.E. fund or equipment, according to Ernest Ward principal Nancy Gindl-Perry said in a previous interview. Gindl-Perry could not be reached at press time.
Tootle collected money from students on another occasion for a charity event held in Pensacola, Walk for Wellness.
"I asked the girls if they wanted to help and if they did they filled out a form and donated the money," Tootle said. "I think in all we collected $90."
For now, Tootle remains in a state of shock as she tries to defend her name. She has lost her job as a result of the allegations and cannot afford an attorney.
"I always wanted to be the best teacher I could be and I thought I was," Tootle said. "I would never betray my students like this. I loved all the students at EW and thought that I would be there for a long time. I would like the support of all my students and parents to stand behind me as I face these charges."

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