A substitute teacher in Polk County was arrested Thursday, accused of choking a middle school student during gym class at Westwood Middle School in Winter Haven.

  • Robert Knight, 39, charged with negligent child abuse without bodily harm
  • Knight employed by Kelly Educational Staffing
  • School district has banned Knight from all school facilities

Polk County deputies said Robert Knight, 39, took off his shirt and challenged one of his students to a fight on Wednesday, April 12. When the 12 year old declined to engage, Knight allegedly wrapped his hands around the student's neck and pushed him against the wall before students separated the two.

Knight is a substitute teacher employed by Kelly Educational Staffing.

School staff reportedly became aware of the incident a day after it happened, when the student reported it to the school resource officer on Thursday.

Both Knight and the student allegedly told deputies that trash talking led up to the physical altercation. Deputies said the student reported he and Knight had gone back and forth verbally that way before. 

Knight reportedly told investigators, "I guess I finally let it get to me. Not excusing it, just being real with you."

Deputies charged Knight with negligent child abuse without bodily harm. Knight’s wife answered the door at their Bartow apartment and declined to comment.

Parent, student reaction

While some parents said they received a phone call about the incident, others said they had no clue.

"It's ridiculous,” said Lisa, a parent who declined to giver her last name. “They should've let the parents know about it. They don’t let us know about anything. Westwood needs to be closed down, in my opinion."

Her son said he was shocked.

"I'm disappointed in him," said 13-year-old Ruben. "Like, he should've walked out and go tell the principal, or should've done something instead of putting his hands on another student.”

Ruben and another student, Sergio Ibarra, said they didn’t expect this from Knight.

"He was like, nice, a good teacher, a good PE coach,” said Sergio.

Banned from Polk schools

Polk County Schools said Knight had been substituting at Westwood Middle since last spring. District leaders said they never had any issues with him before, but he has now been banned from all of the district’s properties.

Polk County Schools Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd released the following statement in reference to the incident:

"There is no excuse for any person working in our schools to treat a child this way. This person will no longer be allowed to serve in our schools, and we have directed the company that provides substitutes for our classrooms to remove him from the list of available substitute teachers.”