At its Thursday afternoon meeting, the Franklin County School Board is expected to accept the resignation of Donna Barber, a teacher in the district for the past 30 years, after district officials learned that a video visitation with an inmate had been conducted from her office at the school.
Barber’s Jan. 24 resignation letter to the board follows a decision by Superintendent Steve Lanier to suspend Barber without pay and to recommend terminating her employment.
Lanier’s decision followed a review by district officials of videos that Sheriff A.J. Smith had called attention to on Facebook. The sheriff had shared a still of Barber, talking with a jail inmate while she held some sort of pipe, which the sheriff alleged was meth. She publicly denied having ever used or been in the company of meth.
The sheriff later called Lanier and advised him that he had an additional video with an explicit image of Barber in communication with the inmate, from what appeared to be an office at the school. Smith said Barber’s video visitation privileges have been revoked.
Lanier said he asked Anthony Croom, the district’s safety and security specialist, and Karen Peddie, the district’s human resource director, to review the video at the sheriff’s office.
“They confirmed that it was during school hours, while she was on the clock working, when the video took place,” Lanier said.
The superintendent said he planned to recommend dismissal based on a violation of district rule 3140, which allows for firing for just cause based on incompetency, gross Insubordination, conviction of any crime involving moral turpitude, immorality, misconduct in office or willful neglect of duties,
“I was more than willing to bring her back for her four months until this video surfaced,” he said. “There’s a night and day difference (regarding) what a teacher does in their off-duty time. But when you’re on duty and clocked in, there’s no place for that for any employees in the school. It’s not what we want as an employee of our school district.”
He said the Florida Department of Education’s ethics division has asked the district to send them information on the matter.
“I have committed no crime,” Barber wrote in her resignation letters. “My transgression is becoming close with someone, and for that I will never apologize. There was no reason for this media spectacle, other than to bring hurt and embarrassment to people.
“No student’s safety nor educational opportunities were ever compromised,” she continued. “We all are human, and have intimate thoughts and interactions that we reasonably expect to be private. I challenge every person reading this to look in the mirror and examine this truth.”
Barber’s letter also addressed the issue of incarceration as it pertains to students in the years after they leave school.
“As a district, for many years, we’ve seen as many or more of our students leave us for cycles of incarceration as we have seen leave for college,” she wrote. “We must do better. We must give them a sense of belonging and build relationships with them that allow them to know they matter and are not simply a “level 2,” “bubble kid,” not whatever acronym they get labeled with.
“For the love of God, find them a place, a passion, a mentor, something to believe in,” Barber wrote. “You cannot punish the poverty out of a culture. I implore those of you who still have the voice and the authority to please help these kids – whatever it takes.”
In her letter, which she signed Donna Gander Barber, she recounted having been the valedictorian of Carrabelle High School’s class of 1988, while being a teenage mother and working almost full time.
She told of how she continued working and raising two small children while earning a bachelor’s in elementary education from Florida State University, and later a master’s, before starting her career with the district in 1993, at age 23.
Barber was twice selected Teacher of the Year, and received several other honors, including Macy’s “Magic of Caring” award, and recognition for teaching excellence by the University of Florida as well as by Sam’s Club.
“I have also been recognized by the Florida DOE as a ‘high impact educator’ based on multiple years of consistent student growth,” she wrote. “For 19 of those years, I also organized and volunteered thousands of hours of my life for hundreds of students to go on a three-day trip to St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest permanent European settlement, knowing many of those students would never experience a senior trip.
“During my 29½ years of service, I have never received a reprimand of any kind,” Barber wrote. “I have taught with passion in order to help my students to expand their horizons and challenge themselves. I have always, always, worked tirelessly to make the lives of those around me better. I will be eternally grateful for the opportunity to have done so. While almost every person reading this was serving someplace else, I was here, in the trenches, fighting for our kids – especially the least advantaged ones. I’ve paid out-of-pocket for kids who just didn’t have the money and have brought kids into my home when they needed a safe place to be. I have loved many like they were my own. I know I have impacted many in a positive way, and that lives have been made better because of me. I will rest in that truth with peace,” she wrote.
“The love and support I’ve received from people who were actually here for it has been a strong reminder of that. I have mentored/coached four different intern teachers during my career, all of whom went on to teach briefly in Franklin County, but then left. We must find viable ways to entice teachers to stay.”
Barber thanked those educators who have mentored her during her career. “I have learned from and am grateful for each of you,” she wrote. “I will take your gifts of wisdom and kindness forward with me into the next chapter of my life and will pay them forward every chance I am offered to do so with pride and compassion. I know there is still much good to do in the world.
So, it is not with sadness, anger, nor regret that I humbly submit my letter of resignation effective immediately. It is with hope that some with passion will remain and reach those deemed unreachable, across the entire learning spectrum. It is not difficult to follow scripts, but it takes real dedication, passion, and empathy to realistically make a difference in a kid’s life,” Barber wrote.