News Section: Opinion
As One School Sex Scandal Moves Forward, Another is Revealed
On Monday night, the Manatee County School Board will officially hear Superintendent Rick Mills' recommendation that five administrative employees be fired for their roles in covering up the Manatee High School sexual abuse scandal. That mess is bad enough, but the vote will now take place under an additional cloud, as it was recently revealed that a district employee remained on the job for over a year after an ongoing sexual relationship with a student he later admitted to impregnating had first been alleged.
In July, Manatee assistant football coach and "parent-teacher liaison" Rod Frazier resigned before being charged with seven counts of misdemeanor battery for groping a female student whom he allegedly attempted to have a sexual relationship with. Four high-ranking administrators have since been charged with felonies for failing to report the abuse to a state hotline, as required by a new state law.
Mills, who came on the job after the whole incident blew up, will recommend to the school board termination for all four – former OPS investigator Debbie Horne, assistant superintendent Bob Gagnon, and former Manatee High assistant principals Matthew Kane and Gregg Faller. He will also recommend the dismisal of attorney Scott Martin, who has not been charged.
The degree to which each is alleged to be involved varies, though there seems to be a pretty clear understanding that all five were at least made aware of the allegations, which in itself triggers a mandatory reporting to the state.
On Thursday, the Herald Tribune reported that Leverna Williams, a cafeteria manager at Bayshore High School, had resigned from the position in September, after finally admitting that he had fathered a child with a student.
The student originally told investigators that she'd begun having sex with Williams when she was 16. She said that he had admitted to following her after school in order to approach her off campus, that he'd bought her a cell phone, and that the 40 year-old man would take her regularly to the dumpy motels on U.S. 41, where they'd have sex. She's recently adjusted her story to say that she jumbled the time line and hadn't started sleeping with him until she was 18. She also recently married him.
It turns out that two of the five administrators whose professional fate will be decided at Monday's meeting were also at the center of that case, in which the girl's mother reported concerns that Williams had impregnated her daughter. Back then, Horne "investigated" the allegations by conducting a four-question interview with the student, who told her Williams wasn't the father and hung up. That seems to be the extent of the "investigation."
There's no record that Williams himself was ever investigated, or even asked if he might have been having sex with the young student, as alleged. The girl's mother was not interviewed either. In fact, the "Office of Professional Standards" never even opened a case file. Along with Horne, district emails show that Martin, as well as former school board attorney John Bowen had been aware of the allegations.
In the midst of the Frazier scandal, Horne asked to be transferred out of OPS, which was left vacant until this summer, when Mills hired Troy Pumphrey as the school's internal investigator. Of course Horne never had any business being in OPS. She had no training, no investigative experience and the district never even bothered to create a manual for the department or a detailed job description for its director. As school board member Julie Aranibar put it, the Office of Professional Standards ironically turned out to be anything but professional, while operating with no discernible standards.
According to statements by Horne's attorney, he plans to argue the patsy defense, that she was unqualified and only following orders from her superiors – who were in fact actual attorneys, giving her every reason to believe they knew better. That's probably true at least to some extent, and there's good reason to believe that Horne was put in the position precisely because she could provide cover for Martin and Bowen, who could then make decisions, while having someone else to pull the trigger and muddle the chain of command.
Martin of course was not charged in the Frazier case, and for some wholly inexplicable reason, the BPD investigation and Ed Brodsky's State Attorney's Office have given Bowen a free pass as well, despite the fact he admitted publicly that he had reviewed the allegations in that case and didn't report them to the state.
The idea that Horne should be charged, while their more experienced superiors walk, even though they were privy to the same information, seems nothing short of ludicrous. But then again, this is Manatee County. For his part, Bowen has reportedly acknowledged that under the same standards, he should be charged. Though he then attempted to argue that in truth, neither he, nor any of the other officials should have been charged, explaining that since the state didn't charge Frazier with "child abuse," there was no need to report the allegations.
This nonsensical line of argument ignores the idea that the things Frazier was charged with all trigger a mandatory report according to the law. It also discounts the fact that what a school official is ultimately charged with after an investigation by law enforcement has nothing to do with reporting allegations to the state. The law makes it very simple. If anyone who works in a school witnesses, suspects or is made aware of allegations that fit the guidelines, it must be reported to a hotline monitored by DCF within 24 hours – period.
In the Frazier case, there were detailed allegations that he had told the student he loved her, touched her buttocks and upper thighs and asked that she text him naked pictures of herself – more than enough to require reporting it to the hotline. In fact, the law was specifically put in place to prevent people like Bowen, Martin and Horne from independently determining whether or not such serious allegations warranted action, and from considering other mitigating factors that wouldn't occur to an outside investigator – like whether a coach would be missed on the sideline during a nationally-ranked football team's first playoff game.
In his defense, no one's ever accused Bowen of being a good attorney. In fact, the school board ran into a bit of public embarrassment last year when it was revealed that after losing several expensive, high-profile and seemingly ill-advised cases, they sought to fire Bowen, only to learn it would cost taxpayers over $400,000 to do so. He quietly served out the rest of his contract before retiring earlier this year.
Bowen has, however, been accused of being a control freak whose constant machinations to consolidate power within the school district's top echelon created a culture of fear and compliance which helped to perpetuate many of the problems that ultimately led the board to clean house. When efforts by school board member Robert Gause and former board chair Harry Kinnan to position Gagnon as former superintendent Tim McGonegal's successor failed, however, the old guard seemed to lose its grip for good.
That failure to coronate Gagnon spared the district the embarrassment of having their top administrator perp-walked out of the big, gold building during the Frazier case, and ultimately ushered in the Mills era. Mills, a former Army colonel with no ties to the Manatee County good-old-boy network, replaced the entire top tier and brought in Pumphrey, a heavily-credentialed investigator who was also an outsider. His mop-up work on both the Frazier and Williams cases speaks well for the future of the disgraced department.
For her part, Horne seems far from innocent. While she was patently unqualified to fill the position, she was also an educated professional who'd been in education her entire career. I think it stands to reason that she knew she was unqualified, and if the average citizen can view her inaction and the directions of her superiors as nothing short of criminal, it would seem that someone with a master's degree and a supposed concern for the welfare of students could figure it out as well.
Instead, she took more than $80,000 a year in taxpayer money for the position and only asked to go back to being an assistant principal when it became clear that the chickens were coming home to roost. On Monday, the district will finally close the door on this shameful chapter in its histroy.
If any good can come from the fiasco, it might be the idea that there is finally a capable investigator working for the district, or that people who work in our children's schools might finally get the message that our kids are off-limits sexually. Nonetheless, it's another black eye on the district and one less reason for parents and taxpayers to feel good about the state of public education in Manatee – something they hardly needed.
*Correction: this article initially listed attorney Scott Martin among the list of administrators charged in connection to the Frazier case. Martin has not yet been charged by the state's attorney's office.