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Is Manatee Schools' Office of Professional Standards Finished?


When teachers reported that a football coach at Manatee High was suspected of inappropriate student relationships, the school district decided not to report it to the state, but to instead investigate it internally through their Office of Professional Standards. Later, when a student came forward complaining that the same coach had groped her on numerous occasions and even asked her to send him a naked photo, it did the same. It seems that those decisions were not only questionable, but against state law.

In the ongoing saga that is the Manatee County School District, it sometimes seems as if no issue can come to pass without revealing a couple of more that were unknown – at least to taxpayers. The district clearly has much to explain regarding how it has handled the allegations at Manatee High, which are still under investigation by both the Bradenton Police Department and the State Attorney's Office. But in looking into that case, it becomes clear that the problems run much deeper than one employee or even the look-the-other-way culture which seems to have been fostered at the district's flagship high school.

In 2005, the district expanded its administration, creating an in-house legal department, as well as something called the Office of Professional Standards, which it said would ensure equal treatment of all employees who came under investigation by doing them internally. The change would prove expensive to taxpayers, while creating what's been described as a climate of mistrust among teachers and other district employees. 

The board hired attorney John Bowen, who, with a compensation package worth about a quarter million dollars per year, cost significantly more than any employee in the district. Despite hiring full-time in-house counsel, legal expenses skyrocketed. By the 2009-10 school year, they passed the million dollar mark (more than twice the $400,000 legal had cost the district the year before in-house came on), as Bowen led the district down a road of expensive litigation, losing several high-profile cases. Taxpayers not only had to foot the bill for settlements, but were still paying more than a hundred grand a year (and sometimes significantly more) for outside counsel, even with the internal department.

The new Office of Professional Standards was also a bust. Rather than look to an attorney or trained investigator, the district promoted Debbie Horne, an assistant principal at one of its elementary schools. The district maintained a policy where non-union employees were not afforded the right to legal representation when they met with OPS, even firing those who refused to attend investigation meetings without a lawyer. Again the district lost lawsuits, this time for wrongful dismissal, and again they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on outside legal services, even though they had an in-house department. There were complaints that investigation meetings weren't recorded and relied on handwritten notes, and there were administrative law judge opinions that admonished disciplinary cases for lacking a factual basis.

Having a department dedicated to conducting investigations – many of which would obviously be related to students – one might expect that the person in charge would be versed in applicable statutes, or at least be aware of something like their state having passed the strictest law of its kind related to school employees reporting abuse incidents. The Protection of Vulnerable Persons law requires that any school employee who suspects, witnesses or is made aware of allegations of child abuse report it to a hotline maintained by the Department of Children and Families within 24 hours. Not doing so subjects them to third-degree felony charges and is punishable by fines up to $5,000.

The district was made uncomfortable enough by reported suspicions related to Manatee High assistant football coach and “parent teacher liaison” Rod Frazier to suspend him for one day last November. However, everyone involved in the escalation from the school to district level failed to report it to the hotline, and Frazier was reinstated the next day – just in time for Manatee's first playoff game of the season.

The Herald Tribune later reported that on January 9 of this year, a letter was delivered to Manatee principal Don Sauer, in which a student very directly alleged, in specific detail, multiple incidents in which Frazier would have met the legal criteria of the state for child abuse, including fondling her upper thighs and buttocks, texting that he “loved her” and requesting that she send him naked pictures of herself, while also alleging that another student had shown her a naked picture she claimed to have sent the coach in response to an identical request.

Still, everyone in the chain failed to report the allegations to the hotline, including the legal department (Bowen) and OPS (Horne). The Bradenton Police Department, who would have been notified by DCF in such an instance once the call to the hotline was made, didn't find out about any of the allegations until the story broke in the press. Then, Bowen made an unauthorized public statement that the district's investigation found “nothing pertaining to criminal activity that should have been reported in this case," for which several board members ripped into him for contradicting the board's statement and undermining a police investigation they had pledged to support.

Horne, who was paid just over $80,000, has since been moved from OPS back to assistant principal, though she has not been reprimanded by the district. However, having someone in the position of assistant principal – where they are again likely to be directly involved with things like allegations of teacher misconduct – after they failed to report previous allegations to the state hotline, seems questionable at best. Now that there is no more Office of Professional Standards, or at least not anyone staffing it, it remains unclear how such matters will even be handled in the future, but it would seem as though school-level administrators would have an even bigger role.

What's most disappointing about this particular aspect of the district's ongoing woes is its direct impact on the safety of the children we entrust to their stewardship. The district has always wasted taxpayer money to the benefit of a handful of well-compensated employees – nothing new there. Rather than hold all employees to a common standard of excellence, some are rewarded for nothing more than loyalty to the status quo and punished for their failures only by being shell-gamed into another high-paying position. Meanwhile, those less compliant either see their careers languish or worse, find themselves the target of one of the many investigations the district is known to produce.

Obviously, that sort of waste detracts from resources which could go to the classroom, while sapping employee morale at the school-level, where it is felt most. But when both policy and practice impede the safety of our children by subverting the very laws put there to protect them, that crosses a line that needs to be held. This ongoing experiment with a secretive and expensive bureaucracy within the administration – one that other districts do without, while faring better in terms of both costs and consequence – has been an abject failure. Here's to hoping that the new superintendent can figure out a way to give students, teachers, parents and taxpayers something closer to what they deserve. 

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.


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