Gilchrist teacher of the year not returning to classroom


Published: Monday, July 15, 2013 at 5:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 15, 2013 at 5:35 p.m.

The Gilchrist County teacher of the year who was accused of inappropriate conduct with female students will not return to his classroom in August as part of a settlement reached Monday.

Steve Broker, who taught at Trenton Middle/High School for about 18 years and spent about 11 years teaching in Levy County before that, will remain on paid administrative leave until his accrued sick leave kicks in.

The settlement followed a two-day hearing on Broker’s employment status, ending in the arrangement regarding paid leave and sick leave reached between Broker’s attorney and the Gilchrist County School Board attorney.

The school board accepted the settlement in a 3-2 vote.

Broker has 117 sick days to use against the 196-day school year for teachers. The balance of paid leave will bring him to 30 years of employment as a teacher.

The cost to the school district will be about $54,000.

By remaining on paid leave, rather than resigning or being terminated, Broker will be allowed to receive his full benefits and retirement plan.

“I encourage everyone in the community to get on board with this action and move on,” said Bill Andrews, the presiding officer in the hearing.

Broker was placed on paid administrative leave in March following allegations that he behaved inappropriately with a number of female students.

At the heart of the two-day hearing on Broker’s employment status, which began Friday, was a discussion about what kind of physical contact is not appropriate between teachers and students.

Broker, who was an agricultural education teacher, volleyball coach and Future Farmers of America adviser at Trenton Middle/High School, maintained that driving female students to and from school and events, hugging them and giving one of them a back rub on an overnight school trip to Tampa were all parental actions that contained no sexual intent.

The second day of testimony in the case brought to the witness stand Broker’s current and former students, other teachers and the mother of a female student who was frequently referred to in the case as one of Broker’s favorites.

Austin Polk, a 16-year-old rising senior at Trenton High, said it was obvious to other students who Broker’s favorites were because he would accommodate their requests.

He also said he often saw Broker pull female students toward him or let them sit on his lap, and that Broker would come up behind the girls and hug them “so close you couldn’t even get a magazine between them.”

On the witness stand Monday, Polk, who has been an active member of Future Farmers of America since sixth grade, said he would not return to the organization if Broker were still an adviser in the fall.

Having a 12-year-old sister in FFA who he’s very protective of, “I couldn’t handle myself being around what I’ve seen anymore,” he said.

Polk’s mother had instructed the sister to never let herself be alone with Broker.

“I don’t care how good of a teacher you may be in the classroom, it does not make what he did OK,” Polk said.

A student who did not consider herself one of Broker’s favorites, but who said he made her uncomfortable, also spoke Monday.

Taylor Langford spent seven years in agriculture classes, FFA and the volleyball team at Trenton Middle/High, all of which put her in contact with Broker, she said.

Langford recalled Broker making inappropriate comments about girls’ bodies during volleyball practice, and that he sometimes would tell sexual jokes that made her uncomfortable.

Another time, Langford said, Broker put his hands around her lower back while talking to her.

Before graduating in 2011, Langford said she’d been alone with other male teachers before, for tutoring or meetings. They always kept their distance and never made her feel uncomfortable.

But it was different with Broker, she said.

She would try to never be alone in a room with him, but if she had to, “I would find myself keeping a table between me and him,” Langford said.

Witnesses called by Broker’s attorney, Martin Powell, told a different story.

The allegations lacked context, they said. FFA advisers spent more time with students than regular subject teachers, they said, and naturally get closer to the students.

The first witness called by the defense was the mother of the female student who had received a back rub from Broker while on an overnight FFA field trip, and who often spent time alone with Broker outside of school events.

The mother said she knew about all of the outings and that she was glad Broker was able to comfort her daughter when she became ill on the overnight FFA trip.

She also denied Broker had rubbed her daughter’s lower back, although he admitted to it in his deposition last month.

The back rub and the accusations that her daughter frequently sat on Broker’s lap and that he touched her thighs, she said, were cruel stories made up by her daughter’s classmates.

“It’s devastated her,” the mother said.

After the testimonies, School Board vice-chair Julie Thomas asked Broker if now, in hindsight, he would’ve done anything differently.

Broker said he probably should’ve listened to his dad 28 years ago. If you’re going into education, his father told him, somebody is going to sue you.

In turn, he told his father that he wanted to teach children and to do the right thing.

“If somebody ever challenges that,” Broker said, choking up, “I’ll fight.”

Before the board came to its decision, Thomas thanked Broker for being an exceptional teacher.

“Your performance in the classroom is [surpassed] by none,” she said. “I believe a lot of what happened and what we discussed was truly parental.”

But perception is reality, she said, and students, parents and teachers were made uncomfortable by Broker’s behavior.

Board member Robert Clemons agreed.

Although Clemons said he didn’t’ believe there was sexual intent in Broker’s actions, he said, “You have to take ownership for your actions.”

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