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Police on the hunt for Sebring murder suspect

Tex Gifford, 40, of Sebring, is on the run after allegedly killing Bruce Spry, 42, of Bradenton on Father’s Day – Sunday, June 20.

That’s according to the Lake Wales Police Department, which stated the following: Gifford and Spry were arguing late Sunday night. Gifford walked off, but returned with a gun and shot Spry six times as the older man sat on the tailgate of a pickup truck.

An unidentified, 28-year-old Lake Wales man was also hit with gunfire during the shooting, but he was taken to the hospital, treated and released, the police department said.

Gifford has been charged with first degree murder and police are asking for the public’s help in finding Gifford, who they consider a “dangerous individual who is armed and dangerous.”

Lake Wales Police Sgt. Shawn Smith told the Highland News-Sun that Gifford hangs out with friends in Sebring, may not have a permanent address and travels between Sebring and Lake Wales.

“He frequents down there but doesn’t live there,” Smith said. “He has some acquaintances down that way.” Gifford is described as medium height, dark complected, with a muscular build. He is balding with a slight beard, Smith said.

Anyone who knows his location should immediately call 911 and notify law enforcement. Heartland Crime Stoppers is offering a $5,000 reward for any information leading to his arrest. Also, anyone with information to contact Lake Wales Police Detective Ricky Hartwell at 863-678-4223.

  • If readers would like to stay anonymous and be eligible for a cash reward through Heartland Crime Stoppers, call 1-800-226 TIPS (8477); or from a cell phone, dial TIPS

Or, visit the website www.heartlandcrimestoppers.com and click on “Submit A Tip,” or download the free “P3tips” app on your smartphone or tablet. Anonymity is assured, police say.

Mother, daughter, unborn child lost in Atlanta crash

SEBRING — Family members and friends said Queenie Roux of Sebring left for Atlanta in hopes of a new future.

Instead, she met tragedy. She, along with her 3-year-old daughter, Queen, and her unborn child died in a crash Wednesday on Interstate 75 in Atlanta.

Family said that four other children of hers – ages 9, 7, 4 and 2 – were also in the car. They survived the wreck, as did another child who was not along for the trip.

It happened near the Forest Parkway at Exit 237, about 10 miles south of the city center where road crews have the road narrowed for construction. Details of the crash are not yet available from local law enforcement.

Her younger sister, Savannah Roux, said her 27-year-old sister was loving, sweet, caring and always putting others ahead of herself.

“If someone needed some shoes, she would get them some shoes,” Savannah said, “and she loved, loved, loved her children.”

Savannah said that 3-year-old Queen had a sibling almost the same age, born “back-to-back” less than a year apart.

Queenie had also been expecting a new baby, Savannah said, for two and a half months at the time of the wreck.

Savannah said her sister was also close with their older brother, Kenny Roux Jr. and their father, Kenny Roux Sr., as well as other members of the family. What Savannah remembers and will miss the most, she said, was all of the memories they made together.

“Family trips [and] going to do stuff,” Savannah said. “She was so vibrant and fun.”

Keandra Bowens, Queenie’s coworker at McDonald’s in Sebring, had just seen her Thursday last week. The two talked about Queenie’s pending trip. Bowens, whose mother had recently died, said Queenie, who grew up with her, had also promised to send some flowers.

Funeral arrangements for Queenie and her young daughter have not yet been made. Reports from Atlanta-based news outlets state that family members are trying to arrange to have Queenie and Queen brought back to Sebring for a funeral, along with all of the surviving children.

Jail inmate, 49, collapses and dies

SEBRING — A 49-year-old Highlands County Jail inmate died Thursday at the jail.

Pedro Jose Clemente-Haddock collapsed just before 1:34 p.m. Thursday while exercising with other inmates in a recreation yard. Deputies and medical staff immediately responded and rendered aid, including cardiopulmonary resuscitation and an automated external defibrillator.

Emergency Medical Services arrived five minutes after his collapse and took him to Highlands Regional Medical Center, were he was pronounced dead.

Everything that happened was recorded by surveillance cameras. Sheriff’s Office officials reported there were no altercations or suspicious incidents prior to his collapse. The Sheriff’s Criminal Investigations Unit is investigating his death, and is awaiting an official cause of death by the District 10 Medical Examiner.

Clemente-Haddock had been in jail since April 20, charged with violating sexual offender registration requirements.

Teachers union/district start contract talks

SEBRING — The annual contract talks began this week between the School Board of Highlands County and the teachers union — Highlands County Education Association – with teacher salaries being the major issue to be settled.

Deputy Superintendent Andrew Lethbridge provided the School Board with a brief update Tuesday of that day’s initial contract talks.

The day went very well as they dug into language and he doesn’t believe they are too far apart on the majority of the contract language, Lethbridge said.

“We are probably further apart on the money issue, but we really didn’t dive deep into that,” he said. The School Board hasn’t closed out its current fiscal year and that needs to be done and then have many more conversations between the district and union.

Florida Education Association representative Jim Demchak, who negotiates for teachers and school support personnel, said Federal funding sources flowing into Highlands can be used to supplement employees to make up for the very small amount of money in the state budget available for raises for all employees this year.

The Federal funding is from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund known as ESSER.

These are all non-recurring but may be renegotiated for future years as funds become available, he noted.

The teacher salary allocation money increase is less than $300,000 total, however CARES Act and ESSER funds have been used in place of budget funds so quite a bit of money should be freed up to add to negotiations (such as total cost of summer school program), Demchak said.

“One key area is to use some of this money to recruit and retain employees,” he said.

Demchak said, “We have sent a request across the table: The district shall pay all new hires and all returning teachers a one-time signing/rehiring bonus of $1500 from ESSER/CARES funding payable as soon as the funding is available to the district after Sept 1, 2021.”

Another area we are pursuing are longevity supplements to bring veteran teachers back inline with the large increases given to the starting teachers last year, he said. These would also be funded out of ESSER Funds and not general budget.

The union proposes that the following stipends will be paid to teachers who have been employed by the School Board of Highlands County as part of the instructional bargaining unit for five consecutive years:

• 5-9 years: $1,000

• 10-15 years: $2,000

• 16-20 years: $3,000

• 21-25 Years: $4,000

• 26+ years: $5,000

These stipends would be payable when funds ESSER/American recovery monies are received by the School Board.

The next negotiation session is scheduled for 8:15-11:30 a.m. Tuesday, July 20.

Highlands' 3rd grade ELA scores trail state

SEBRING — The Florida Department of Education released a report showing that 54% of third-grade students this year scored “satisfactory” or above on the state English-language arts exam.

Student test scores fall into five achievement levels (1 — 5, from low to high) on the ELA Florida Standards Assessment. Level three is now termed “satisfactory.” It was previously known as “on grade level” with levels 4 and 5 considered “above grade level.”

Now Level 4 is termed “proficient” and Level 5 is called “mastery.” Level 1 is “inadequate” and Level 2 is “below satisfactory.”

County-by-county the percentages of students who scored “satisfactory” or above ranged from a high of 78% for St. Johns to a low of 28% for Jefferson.

Highlands was at 46%, which means 54% of the district’s students were in Level 1 or Level 2. Of Florida’s 67 counties, 55 had a higher percentage of students than Highlands who scored “satisfactory” or above.

The percentages of “satisfactory” and above for area counties are as follows: Hardee — 51%, Okeechobee — 51%, Polk — 47%, Glades — 38%, Hendry — 37% and DeSoto — 32%, which was third lowest in the state.

Highlands’ school-by-school listing of percentages of “satisfactory” or above shows Lake Placid Elementary School with the lowest percentage in the district at only 24%, Memorial Elementary School had 35% and Fred Wild Elementary School had 39%.

At the high end, Sun ‘N Lake Elementary School had the highest percentage with 56%, follow by Lake County Elementary School at 53%, Cracker Trail Elementary School with 52% and Avon Elementary School with 51%.

Woodlawn Elementary had 49%, Park Elementary had 47% and Highlands Virtual School had 46% at “satisfactory” or higher on the ELA Florida Standards Assessment.

Florida Statutes require any third-grade student who does not score at Level 2 or higher on the Grade 3 statewide FSA ELA to be retained unless the student qualifies for a good cause exemption.

Due to the pandemic, for 2021 an FDOE Order provides additional provisions for student promotion to the fourth-grade.

The FDOE reports, while the statewide percentage of Grade 3 students scoring Level 3 or above on the Florida Standards Assessment ELA assessment saw a slight decrease, the data clearly shows that, on average, districts with higher rates of in-person instruction weathered the “COVID slide” better and saw lesser declines between 2019 and 2021 than districts with higher rates of virtual instruction.

Overall, in 2021 performance at Level 3 and above (on grade level and above) decreased by 4 percentage points compared to 2019 (58% to 54%).

The Highlands District also had a decline of 4 percentage points from 50% in 2019 to 46% in 2021.

The assessments were not administered in 2020 due to the pandemic.