News Section: Opinion
Manatee High Scandal Should be a Wake-up Call for School Districts and Their Employees
As classes resumed this week, the Manatee County School District had plenty to celebrate. But none of it garnered as much attention as the fallout at Manatee High, where complaints of sexual abuse and a failure to report the allegations to the state have led to six arrests including the school district's attorney and several assistant principals. The release of a criminal investigation report on the matter depicts a grim culture in which turning a blind eye seemed to be the status quo at the top, while doing the right thing within the ranks could be a risky proposition.
In 2012, Florida passed perhaps the strictest child abuse reporting law in the nation, making it a felony for teachers, administrators and school employees not to report witnessed, alleged or suspected abuse to a hotline monitored by the Department of Children and Families. If that seems a bit stiff, the Manatee High case is perhaps the ultimate example of why such a zero tolerance statute is not only necessary in order to keep kids safe, but in the best interest of all parties involved. In fact, the new law should probably be seen as a blessing by school districts, as it effectively removes the onus and therefore liability of making decisions as to whether such matters are referred to law enforcement agencies.
As such, internal investigations in this arena should be limited to school policies on employee conduct. The law seems very intent on making sure that there is absolutely no instance in which districts are left to make a judgment call in terms of reporting potentially criminal behavior. The new law supersedes any district policy. Employees no longer have to go through district channels and hope follow-up occurs, especially when there is a potential conflict of interest. You hear that there is potential abuse occurring – report it directly to the hotline. You see something that raises suspicions that such may be the case – report it directly to the hotline. Someone alleges a child is being abused – report it directly to the hotline. If you don't, you face potential felony charges. That should be incentive enough to err on the side of caution and reason enough for others to understand someone doing so, regardless of the outcome, which of course seems to be the whole point.
The investigation into the incidents at Manatee High reveals a troubling pattern of inaction. Investigators with the Bradenton Police Department had no trouble finding teachers and students alike who gave statements depicting an environment in which it was well known by both that Frazier had, at best, routinely engaged in behavior that was highly inappropriate. Even before any laws were broken, it's troubling to think that so much had been witnessed by so many, without Frazier being removed from the position for inappropriate conduct. He wasn't even seriously investigated by a district administration that had its own internal investigator on its taxpayer-funded payroll (who is also now facing felony charges for failing to report).
While the report notes that several employees did come forward prior to the allegations going public or a criminal investigation being initiated, the district's administration is portrayed as an organization that was more concerned with protecting certain employees, than protecting our kids. The statements given by teachers at Manatee High as to what they had witnessed should have left little doubt that something was amiss even before the new law went into effect last October. But the district's investigation into Frazier began after.
The district also seems to have failed its employees by not adequately making them aware of the new state law, training them on handling such instances under the statute, or even developing a written policy that was in compliance with it. Instead, it seems that administrators continued the long-standing practice of being almost intentionally vague in terms of certain policies in order to allow them the greatest degree of flexibility in dealing with the same sorts of situations differently, depending on who was involved.
In a district where cliques were commonplace and treatment was often said to vary accordingly, the report speaks of teachers who said they felt ostracized for reporting what they had seen, with one teacher who'd reported concerns even telling investigators that one of the assistant principals in question had advised her that it would be best to perhaps forget a few things when speaking to the authorities. Again, this is the exact reason the law was crafted in the manner it was – to remove the ability of administrators to bury complaints they promise to look into.
Remember, the law was passed in the wake of, and as a direct response to the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State University – the one in which so many people asked how something like this could happen. Once the most horrid crimes surfaced in that case, a swell of acknowledgment arose that near everyone had heard rumors and/or suspected that something was not quite right – even if they didn't have firsthand knowledge of a crime. Why hadn't they said anything? Well, it turned out some of them had. But a circular chain of command and questionable follow up proved inadequate to say the very least.
While no one is accusing Frazier of actions on par with Sandusky, who was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuses against minors, there are still too many similarities in terms of the culture which allowed the unthinkable to occur. Both schools had powerhouse football programs that had become big enough to take on a life of their own and ultimately cast a far larger shadow than any and all other facets of the institutions, including their primary function – education.
Manatee High's football team was ranked number one in the nation by every major high school poll, including ESPN and USA Today when the first investigation into Frazier was launched – the one that was closed after just one day, without all of the people said to have had knowledge of the alleged incidents even having been interviewed, and just in time for Frazier to return to the Hurricanes' sideline for their first post-season game. There are multiple references in the report to Frazier's presence on the sideline having been a consideration in wrapping up the investigation quickly and apparently after only a cursory look into those concerns.
Several of the administrators charged last week were big proponents of the football program while at Manatee High and could regularly be seen on the sidelines during games, wearing the same red polo shirts as the coaches and rooting just as intently. As silly as it may sound, when the fervor of sport rises to a certain level of mania, judgment can be severely compromised. How do we know something really happened? Do we really want to start something this big if it's possible it's just a rumor? Think of the players, the season will be ruined. The environment created at both institutions is unfortunately all too common in our culture – again, part of the reason the new law was made so direct and unambiguous.
Some people have pointed out that the five administrators are facing felonies, while Frazier is only facing misdemeanor charges. However, that shouldn't seem odd. When it comes to abuse, people in power creating a culture of inaction is sometimes the most dangerous crime of all, as it not only enables but emboldens perpetrators. Frazier seems to have acted in a highly inappropriate manner right out in the open for a very long time. Whether intended or not, that sent a message to him and other potential perpetrators that even the rules of common sense might be subverted.
It should also be noted that Frazier's apparent lack of success in soliciting interactions with young women is perhaps the biggest reason he's not facing a much more serious outcome. The report describes a litany of accusations from girls who claim he attempted to get them to consent to interactions that could have put him behind bars for a very long time. So far, police or the state attorney's office have not disclosed evidence or even accusations of him having any sort of sexual intercourse with students at the school, who all reported that they spurned such solicitations and made him aware of their discomfort regarding the alleged groping of their bodies.
However, the administrators involved made almost no effort to ensure this was the case. Rather than truly investigating all accusations and parties involved (which it seems would have led to several disciplinary actions and/or dismissals), there were multiple instances where people who were purported to have knowledge about certain activities were never interviewed or where specific concerns voiced by teachers were never addressed. It seemed as though unless someone brought them irrefutable evidence on a silver platter, those in charge were content to chalk it up to rumors and innuendo. That is why their charges are more serious. By failing to properly address such allegations, they could have been enabling a much more serious situation and there's no evidence that they had any reason to believe they weren't.
Thankfully, the district seems to be moving in the right direction. Frazier has resigned, and the five other employees facing charges have been placed on leave. The district has a new superintendent who has already hired a much more credible internal investigator and announced that a new policy and employee training program are being developed to ensure that everyone in the district is fully aware how to handle such situations in the future. That's a good start, but perhaps more important will be efforts to ensure that the environment in which something so repulsive was made possible is thoroughly dismantled.
Tragedies like the one at Penn State happen slowly. They are the result of breeding a culture in which consistent action and/or inaction changes social norms, blur what should be very clear lines and teach people that doing the right thing will rarely bring a just result – and maybe quite the opposite. The state of Florida has taken a commendable step in changing the rules to address this sort of dynamic. The education system, along with everyone in it should take note: it is no longer up to you to decide whether actions or allegations regarding the abuse of children are true, relevant or worth looking into. The trained investigators in the department that oversees such matters will take it from there. Deviate from that simple procedure and you are jeopardizing not only your career but your freedom.