Teacher under fire for Facebook page after gun, knives allegedly found in backpack

Pinellas County

SEMINOLE, Fla. (WFLA) – Pinellas parents remain outraged after a fourth grade teacher at Starkey Elementary School was arrested on Monday, accused of having a loaded handgun and two knives in her classroom.

Deputies say Betty Soto had the weaopns in her backpack, including a Glock 9mm handgun loaded with seven rounds of ammunition, a six-inch fighting knife and a two-inch finger knife.

Moms and dads were extremely upset when they heard the news about the arrest.

Then, they looked at the teacher’s Facebook page. That’s when they became alarmed. 

Erica Kennedy is a parent of two children who attend Starkey Elementary School in Seminole. She says she was shocked when she heard about Betty Soto’s arrest and immediately looked for the teacher on social media.

What this Pinellas mom found, she told us, has her worried.

“Shock, absolute shock,” the mother-of-three told WFLA. “Almost disbelief. I can’t believe something like that would happen at this school.”

She added, “I went on her facebook page, and there are things that are radical.  I always got this feeling. I felt it in the hairs on the back of my neck, like hmmm. She acted suspicious. On our field trip last week, I had no idea who she was. She was abrupt with the kids, wearing military combat boots. I had to ask another mom, is she a parent? We didn’t know. Militant is a good way to describe her..”

School leaders confirm they’re investigating Soto’s Facebook page as part of this case.

In multiple Facebook posts, the teacher shared her thoughts on law enforcement and other topics.

In one post, she called herself a “revolutionary” who “needs to free minds,” calling Starkey Elementary “a plantation.”

Then, in another post, she described the St. Petersburg Police Department as an “occupying military force, here to harass, intimidate and provoke.”

So, is this free speech or hate speech?

Betty Soto’s arrest and her Facebook posts have certainly sparked conversation. 

It begs the question – what’s acceptable and what’s not?

Should teachers be able to post whatever they want on social media, even if some say it’s radical and controversial?

“Well, radical is in the eye of the beholder. What one person may consider radical is someone’s else’s mainstream opinion,” said James Shaw, a lawyer with the American CIvil Liberties Union.

Shaw says the law is clear on the issue.

Teachers can post what they want, just like everyone else.

They do not lose their first amendment rights when they become educators, Shaw told WFLA..

“If you’re a school teacher or a government employee, you’re also still a citizen,” he explained.

He added, “You’re allowed to express your opinion like any other member of the public, as long as it doesn’t affect your ability to function as a professional.”

So, is there an exception to the rule?  Where does the first amendment not apply?

Shaw said if the social media posts interfere with that employee’s performance abilities, that’s when the courts intervene, and the comments could then become a legal issue.

In that instance, the speech would not be protected under the first amendment.

“Be responsible for what you post online,” said Debbie Lundberg, a Bay Area author, longtime life coach and well-known public speaker based in Tampa.

She is the CEO of Presenting Powerfully, a corporation dedicated to coaching, teaching and inspiring people to communicate successfully.  Debbie says she talks to people daily about their image and their brand, especially online.

As an expert on behaviors and relationships, both in the business world and personal life, Debbie told us what people post online says a lot about who they are.

Employers are watching, she says, and they often check the social media sites of potential hires.

She told us – it’s simple. Social media is forever, so be careful what you post.

Current and future employers will most likely see it, she advises.

Debbie shared her thoughts on the case involving Betty Soto.  “Teachers are some of the most important people in our world and in our country,” she commented. “They should be able to post what they want, just like other people would. They should be held to a high standard, not a higher standard.”

She offered this warning to everyone who enjoys posting on social media, including teachers.

“If you’re posting things that are controversial, be very aware that people have the right, just like you have to post them, they have the right to ask you about them.”

As for Betty Soto, she will not be returning to Starkey Elementary School, according to district officials.

Pinellas school leaders told us they’re waiting to take the appropriate action as Soto’s case makes its way through the court system. 

When Soto bonded out of the Pinellas County jail Monday night, WFLA asked her why she would bring weapons inside a classroom full of 4th graders.

She answered, “Ask your Governor,” referring to Governor Ron Desantis, who recently signed a bill arming Florida teachers on school campuses.

However, Pinellas has chosen to opt out, prohibiting all weapons on all campuses in the county, which is why law enforcement officers say they arrested Soto Monday on the campus of Starkey Elementary. 

The principal maintains Soto was acting “suspiciously,” carrying her backpack everywhere she went. It made staff nervous as they watched the 4th grade teacher around campus that morning.

The principal alerted the authorities, and law enforcement officers arrived shortly before 1 p.m.

They tell WFLA they found a loaded handgun and two knives inside the teacher’s backpack, which was in a class full of children, according to documents.

Deputies say the gun was obtained legally, and Soto had a concealed carry permit.

However, firearms of any kind are not allowed on school grounds. 

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