Former teacher Stillions guilty of child abuse
Northwest Florida Daily News - 10/13/2018
Oct. 13--FORT WALTON BEACH -- Former Kenwood Elementary teacher Marlynn Stillions was convicted Saturday of abusing Noah Perillo, who during the 2015-16 school year was a 4-year-old nonverbal autistic child in her care.
A six-member jury deliberated for less than two hours Saturday before returning with their verdict: guilty on all three counts of child abuse without great bodily harm.
A prosecution request to remand Stillions immediately to custody was denied and she left the courthouse in tears. She will be sentenced at 1:30 p.m. on Dec. 6.
State guidelines call for a 33-month sentence for the three felony counts of child abuse without great bodily harm and Bill Bishop, the chief assistant state attorney for Okaloosa County, said his office will seek jail time.
"We are very pleased with the jury's verdict, this has been a difficult case," Bishop said. "Our office has put a tremendous amount of time and resources into the investigation and prosecution of this case."
The three counts against Stillions alleged that on different occasions she had tripped Noah as he walked through a cafeteria door, kneed him in the chest in the school lunchroom and pushed him down in an open-air courtyard within the school.
Prosecutor Jennifer Lieb was passionate in her final opportunity to address the jury Saturday before it began deliberations. She sounded almost offended that defense attorney Robert Allen had attempted to portray Stillions' pushing, kicking and tripping of Noah as disciplinary tactics.
"What the defendant did to Noah that year wasn't discipline, it was abuse," Lieb said. "She knew he couldn't speak. She knew he had special needs, and yet she chose to bully him."
Lieb also pointed out how solid the eye witnesses she'd called had been in describing the times they'd seen Stillions hurt Noah.
Stillions, who took the stand in her own defense, had been much less reliable as a witness, Lieb said.
"Look at everything she's said that is not consistent," Lieb urged the jury.
Stillions did not do herself any favors Friday afternoon while testifying. At one point Circuit Court Judge Michael Flowers stopped the proceedings to advise her to answer questions directly.
"Right now the men and women on that jury are the most important people in your life," he advised Stillions. "Being evasive might not be wise."
Lieb also used an affidavit, in which Stillions testified under oath, to undermine the defendant's contention that none of the acts she was accused of committing against Noah were done with the intention to harm.
Allen's defense of Stillions was based on an argument of "loco parentis."
Under loco parentis, the attorney argued that Stillions was acting, in her role as a special education instructor, in place of Noah's biological parent, and therefore was entitled to administer "reasonable," but not excessive, discipline.
"I don't see this as a case of bullying or corporal punishment. There was no animosity," he said.
Allen said the case was more about who, ultimately, is in control of the classroom.
"This case is more like they're trying to tell us that teachers just need to step back and not have any control, and students just run wild," he said. "The schools don't just need to be a warehouse. There needs to be some structure, some discipline. The things she did were discipline, not child abuse."
Stillions was arrested for the child abuse charges on Sept. 13, 2017 following an Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office investigation. The matter had been investigated a year before by then-Okaloosa County School District Investigator Arden Farley, who found evidence that Stillions violated the school district's code of ethics for physically harming Noah, but not for child abuse.
However, Farley's findings were never acted upon.
Stacie Smith, the then-assistant superintendent of human resources under Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson, declared the findings invalid on a teachers' union technicality, and the Farley report was tucked away in Smith's office without Noah's parents, Eddie and Harvest Perillo, being informed it existed.
When the report came to light a year later, Eddie Perillo took it to the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office, where an investigation concluded child abuse had occurred. Stillions was arrested along with Farley and former Kenwood Elementary School Principal Angelyn Vaughan. Farley and Vaughan were charged as mandated reporters with failing to report child abuse.
Smith, the former assistant superintendent, was also later arrested for failing to report child abuse.
Farley recently pleaded no contest to the felony charges and was placed on probation.
The cases of Vaughan and Smith have yet to be tried.
(c)2018 the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.)
Visit the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.) at www.nwfdailynews.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.