Ex-cop with history of complaints faces firing from teaching job

4:24 p.m Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017 Local
Zedrick Barber, then a Riviera Beach police officer, at a funeral in 2004. (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post)

Twelve years ago, the Palm Beach County School Board hired a rookie teacher who had no criminal convictions, but whose tenure as a Riviera Beach cop was highlighted by at least 20 complaints against him for misconduct.

Zedrick Barber was at one point fired by the city after he was accused of shoving his ex-girlfriend. The firing didn’t stick, but a judge ordered Barber to keep his distance from his ex. Barber retired from the department two years later to try his hand at teaching.

Now, his conduct in the classroom has put the 58-year-old’s second career in jeopardy.

Investigators say the social studies teacher at Howell L. Watkins Middle School dragged an eighth grade student into his classroom by her wrist and ankle — twice — after she attempted to leave. The school board will consider a recommendation to fire Barber on Wednesday.

That happened in January 2017, with the dragging captured on a security camera in the hall, according to the investigative report. But it wasn’t Barber’s first dust-up as a teacher.

In 2014, Barber was given a 10-day suspension for using unreasonable force with a student, but a judge overturned the suspension, agreeing with Barber when he said he grabbed the student to defend another.

And in 2016, Barber was reprimanded after a student accused him of making lewd and sexually explicit comments, banter investigators found credible despite Barber’s denial.

Barber could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

The events in January began with a student who seemingly had a good rapport with Barber, and had written a thank you note to him only months earlier.

“You say I’m loud and that’s not true. You make class fun. I wanna thank you for the little talks we have. They may seem like nothing but they help. And I will work on it,“ says the note, which was included in the investigation.

But on Jan. 19 during third period, the girl was frustrated and had her head on her desk and Barber called her out, she and other students told police. When Barber demanded she tune in or get out, she stood to leave. They had a stare down. She said he pushed her against the wall, she pushed him off and headed for the door, shoving a book from table to floor on her way out. By all accounts he demanded she pick up the book.

When she didn’t and turned to exit, Barber grabbed for her backpack, she hit the floor and he reached down and dragged her back through the doorway. She got up to leave again and the scene repeated, in the span of less than a minute, investigators wrote. They relied on the security camera video, which has not been made public.

“Mr. Barber is behind her and then stands over her, pulling on her arms with her sweatshirt being partially pulled off. Victim was on her back attempting to escape from Mr. Barber by kicking and pulling away. Mr. Barber then drags victim by one arm (wrist area) and one leg in a semi-hog style position,” investigators wrote.

But as Barber told it, his intent was to “detain and de-escalate.”

Barber told investigators that administrators put the most difficult students in his class because of his ability to discipline. When the girl was about to bolt, he said he feared that she would get suspended.

“You need to calm down,” Barber recalled telling her. He said he didn’t intend to hurt her. “Look at me, I can really hurt someone if I wanted to,” he said.

“He agreed it was not ideal on his part to drag her across the hallway by the ankle and wrist,” investigators wrote. They believed Barber should be charged with child abuse and took the case to the State Attorney’s Office with her mother’s blessing.

The office, however, declined to prosecute, citing insufficient evidence.

Barber consistently has earned overall teacher ratings of “efficient” with some “highly efficient” marks and no deficiencies in the score.

When questioned by police, the teacher across the hall from Barber said the man had a “good relationship with the students” and when she first saw the girl on the ground that day in January, she thought it was a joke because the two were always joking around.

Barber’s career in the Riviera Beach Police Department was tumultuous and at times headline-grabbing.

The internal affairs complaints, many of them in the 1980s, ranged from speeding to insubordination, including threatening the police chief at the time. Barber blamed internal politics and his association with the previous chief for some of the strife.

He quit in 1988 as state law enforcement officials considered revoking his police certification, but the charges were dismissed. Barber was rehired under a new city administration, but in the years that followed he racked up more internal affairs complaints and was found at fault or partially at fault in three complaints of improper conduct and one for unauthorized use of a vehicle. Again, Barber said the dings on him were politically or racially motivated.