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How Did a Troubled Teacher Remain in the Classroom So Long?

James Pepe spent his entire career, 28 years, bouncing from school to school in Hillsborough County.

Appearing in court yesterday before Hillsborough Circuit Judge Walter Heinrich, wearing the signature red Hillsborough County jail uniform with the word "Inmate" splashed across the chest, James J. Pepe hardly looked like a man you'd trust to teach your child.

Looking bedraggled and disoriented, Pepe resembled someone you'd go out of your way to avoid if you encountered him on the streets.

The Bloomingdale High School teacher silently faced Heinrich while the defense and prosecution debated whether he should receive bail, the prosecution arguing that Pepe is "a danger to society."

In the end, Heinrich opted to hold Pepe in jail one more night to allow both sides to prepare their arguments for and against bond for the man charged Sept. 27 with soliciting to commit first-degree murder.

A Hillsborough County school teacher for 28 years, the 55-year-old Buffalo, N.Y., native spent his entire career teaching high school students in Hillsborough, starting at Brandon High School in 1984.

On the surface, Pepe was a competent educator, teaching world history, psychology and sociology.

Durant High School graduate Jessica Kramer called him a "good teacher" and said she enjoyed his history class at Durant.

However, students say they noticed something "odd" about their teacher.

"He didn't seem to be very healthy," said Kramer. "His hands would shake a lot and he'd frequently have to leave the classroom."

Other students reported that Pepe would inexplicably meander off the subject and begin talking about his personal life.

He was convinced the woman who lived next to his home in Tampa was trying to break into his home, recalled Bloomingdale High School senior Marissa Williams, who had Pepe as a sociology teacher last year.

"He said he kept changing his locks and then finally moved away," said Williams.

In addition, Williams said he talked about how the school administration was "out to get him."

"He was very paranoid," she said.

Pepe also instructed his students to use the title "Dr." when referring to him although there is no evidence he has a doctorate degree.

Despite his unorthodox behavior, Pepe managed to retain his teaching position. However, he frequently changed schools.

During his career in the Hillsborough County School District, he taught at Brandon High, Tampa Bay Technical High School, Gaither High, Durant High, Strawberry Crest High and finally Bloomingdale.

After Thursday's arrest for allegedly trying to hire a hitman to kill Strawberry Crest High School social studies teacher Robert Meredith, Pepe was suspended with pay.

Pepe allegedly told an undercover Plant City Police officer that he was angry at Meredith for spreading rumors that he was a child molester. He wanted Meredith dead and was willing to pay $2,000 to have the deed carried out.

But was this the first sign that Pepe may have been disturbed?

According to a review of his personnel file by the Tampa Bay Times, there were indications early on that Pepe should have been removed from the classroom long before his arrest. Fellow teachers said they felt "uncomfortable" around Pepe. His file indicated he had problems getting along with other members of the faculty. He complained to the school district that fellow teachers were withholding instructional materials and equipment from him, stealing from him and trying to sabotage him.

At other times, fellow teachers said he would rant about the school administration, claiming he was being unfairly targeted.

Former students say he was quick to anger, at times even hostile.

Perhaps the most telling indication of the depths of Pepe's paranoia are comments made by the man Pepe is accused of attempting to hire a hitman to kill.

Pepe reportedly told police that he and Meredith were best friends but had a falling out.

However, in an interview with ABC Action News, Robert Meredith said he knew who Pepe was but never socialized with him during his tenure at Strawberry Crest High School. Meredith was stymied when police said Pepe wanted him dead.

Nevertheless, somewhat reminiscent of the Catholic Church's reaction to pedophile priests during last century, instead of firing the teacher for his increasingly erratic behavior, Pepe was sent to counseling and reassigned to another school.

In fact, Pepe frequently received outstanding performance evaluations. As recently as 2010, while teaching at Strawberry Crest High School, he was described as "a great asset to the social studies department and to Strawberry Crest High School." His current salary at Bloomingdale is $58,378 a year.

It makes you wonder just what must a teacher do to lose his or her job? Does it take commiting a felony before a teacher is deemed unsuitable to work with our children?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beth October 01, 2012 at 11:42 AM
"It makes you wonder just what must a teacher do to lose his or her job? Does it take commiting a felony before a teacher is deemed unsuitable to work with our children?" Exactly. My children's elementary school let the music teacher go suddenly last year, but according to an online search I did later, he'd already been arrested for violence in the classroom against a child. He was also exhibiting signs of grooming for molestation in my children's school, according to another account--taking children on his lap, talking to them alone in a flattering way in the classroom. I emailed the assistant principal about why the man was let go last year, and never received a response. Does not inspire confidence about the hiring/firing process.

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