An administrative law judge upheld Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd's decision to fire Lakeland High math teacher Keith Cook after he made comments on how to kill students during an August lockdown drill.
BARTOW — An administrative law judge has recommended upholding the firing of former Lakeland High School math teacher Keith Alan Cook, who told students in August during a lockdown drill that “he would have a 1,000-person body count and be a hero” if he were a school shooter.
Robert Cohen, an administrative law judge with Florida's division of administrative hearings, ruled last week that Cook, 52, who served in the United States Marines, could no longer be an effective teacher in Polk County.
“In an era where we have collectively witnessed unimaginable school shootings at Columbine in Colorado, Sandy Hook in Connecticut, and Parkland in Ft. Lauderdale, to name only a few, even (Cook) admitted that there is a heightened sensitivity to the words we use in everyday conversation about engaging in violent acts on a school campus,” Cohen wrote in his decision.
“The seriousness of the situation created by (Cook) was borne out by the immediate reactions of all involved and the safety measures they took, according to their training, to ensure that Respondent did not pose an immediate or direct threat to the health, safety, and welfare of the students in his classroom and throughout the school.”
Cook was immediately Baker Acted for a mental health evaluation after the investigation of school resource officers Oscar Wesley and Justin Conaster found that Cook had frightened several students during the Aug. 16 lockdown drill, a now-routine procedure to teach students what to do if a gunman is on campus.
“I asked Cook why in the world would he want a school shooter to do a better job?” Conatser wrote in his report. “He shook his head and said that he, in fact, would not want that now. I said to Cook that being a former Marine, he should be looked at as the person who will protect the students and not make them question whether their teacher is looking to harm them.”
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One student told their parents about Cook's remarks, who then called school administration. He was arrested on Aug. 22 and suspended from his job. He applied for an administrative hearing, which took place Jan. 7.
During the hearing, Cohen wrote that Cook testified “that, as a Marine, he had seen many terrible things in his life and that he felt it was appropriate during the lockdown drill to 'get real' with his students. He was unhappy with the fact that many of the students in his classroom did not seem to take the drill seriously; were seen texting, searching, and posting on social media sites; and, generally, engaging in other unfocused behavior rather than paying attention to the drill that had been ordered by the school.”
Several students were called by the school district's attorney, Donald Wilson of Boswell & Dunlap, to testify at the hearing. Their names were withheld from the judge's ruling.
“I remember he said that he would plant IEDs where the kids are supposed to hide and put shrapnel in them, like nails and stuff like that, and he would fire a couple of rounds and then they would — kids would hide, the lockdown would start and then he would set the IEDs off,” one student testified.
Cohen added that Cook's “words went above and beyond what could reasonably be expected to be appropriate language for a teaching moment.”
Wilson said Cook has until March 12 to file one last appeal to save his job.
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“He has the option to file exceptions and get a hearing before the school board, trying to get them to overturn the administrative law judge's recommended order,” Wilson said.
Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd said she will stand by the decision to fire Cook.
“The welfare and safety of our students must always be our top priority. School staff must be sensitive whenever they discuss security matters with our students,” Byrd said this week.
“Our drills are important safety measures that help us prepare for emergency situations. They are not meant to frighten students. Keith Cook's comments were totally inappropriate, and I am recommending his employment be terminated.”
Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7514. Follow her on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger.