BRADENTON -- Manatee County School Board members have expressed deep dismay over school board attorney John Bowen's recent comments in the press regarding allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct between a teacher and student at Manatee High School. Bowen was quoted speaking about the case in multiple media outlets, despite the fact that board chair Karen Carpenter says he was not authorized to do so.
Bowen, whom the board contemplated firing in late 2011, before they learned it would cost several hundred thousand dollars, has announced his intent to retire in June. That still didn't stop the board from taking the issue up again this January, when they asked to explore the costs of “accelerating” his retirement. Earlier this week, he was quoted by both the Bradenton Herald and Bay News 9 regarding an alleged incident at Manatee High involving assistant football coach Rod Frazier and a female student who alleged that Frazier had touched her upper thigh and buttocks on multiple occasions, while also requesting that she send naked images of herself to him.
"At the present time we know of nothing pertaining to criminal activity that should have been reported in this case," Bowen was quoted as telling the Herald while defending the district's decision not to inform the state of the allegations – a possible third-degree felony according to state law.
The student's letter, which was reportedly first given to Manatee High School Principal Don Sauer, made several allegations of actions which fall under the Department of Children and Families' definition of abuse, including improper touching and text communications. State laws, which were strengthened in light of the Penn State abuse scandal, require teachers, principals and other school personnel to report such allegations to a state hotline within 24 hours.
Instead, the district decided to keep the allegations quiet while they conducted an internal investigation through their Office of Professional Standards, meaning that more personnel would have had to become aware of the allegations and likewise fail to inform the state. Last Thursday, the Sarasota Herald Tribune broke the story, including a copy of the letter written by the student. Bradenton Police only learned of the allegations that day and began an investigation into Frazier, as well as the district's failure to report the incident. On Monday, the State Attorney’s Crime Against Children division also launched an investigation into the matter.
The state law does not allow provisions for school employees to escalate such a matter internally rather than reporting it to DCF through the hotline. The measure is intended not only to allow DCF and law enforcement personnel to quickly deploy investigative resources and determine if there is validity to the allegations, but also to prevent the sort broken chains of evidence which occurred at State College. In that case, campus personnel claimed to have reported incidents of sexual abuse internally, which were never properly reported to authorities, after versions of the reports began to get muddled as they we passed up the chain of command.
Lauren Book, founder and CEO of the Lauren's Kids Foundation, was one of the architects of the new state law and said that this is exactly the sort of case the new legislation was meant to combat.
“This is the clearest example I can imagine, as to why the law was put in place,” said Book. “The law is very clear that teachers, principals and other employees who even have suspicions of a potential abuse situation are to call the state hotline – period. If there are allegations made, it is not the school's roll to investigate whether or not something should be reported. That's what DCF exists for. They have the resources and trained professionals to investigate these matters that schools do not.”
Book explained that the new law supersedes any existing policies and said that each person within the district who saw the letter was obligated under the statute to report it to the state.
“Here you have a situation where this coach had been suspended in November over similar concerns,” said Book. “Whatever suspicions caused the school district to suspend and investigate him then, had to be reported to the state by law. For them to bring him back after one day and then not report when a student makes allegations of abuse a couple of months later is completely unacceptable. You have to put the children first.”
On Wednesday, school board member Julie Aranibar sent an email to interim Superintendent David Gayler. Aranibar was outraged that Bowen would speak publicly for the board without authorization from the chair or superintendent, and asked why the public information office has not corrected the statement, which she called “inaccurate.”
“I do not know the facts on this case,” wrote Aranibar in her email. “I do not know if it is true that he pulled students out of class, allowed students to leave in his car, and if he in fact is emailing or texting students at night and meeting students in local parks.”
School Board members were not informed of the investigation prior to the allegations becoming public. Once board member Dave “Watchdog” Miner learned of the investigation, he asked interim Superintendent David Gayler to call an emergency school board meeting so that the board could meet as a group and consult with their attorney (Bowen) on the matter. Gayler refused.
“I wanted to make a public statement as a board that we were not aware of these allegations, that we take them very seriously and that we would be cooperating thoroughly with local law enforcement,” said Miner, who is also an attorney. “The safety and welfare of our students needs to be the number one priority of this district above all else, and I don't think that is the message that is being sent at all in the way that this matter has been handled so far.”
Carpenter was the first to speak on the matter, issuing a public statement last Friday which read as follows:
"The School Board of Manatee County is cooperating fully with an investigation of employee Rod Frazier by the Bradenton Police Department. Any and all information collected regarding this case is in the possession of law enforcement and we will await their conclusions. Mr. Frazier is placed on administrative leave as of today and will remain on leave until such time as law enforcement advises. This School Board takes very seriously the safety and security of students. Upon receipt of all of the facts of this case, we will consider the appropriate action to take. We encourage our community to reserve judgment until all of the facts are known and the investigation is complete."
Ms. Carpenter said that she had no communications with Bowen between that time and Monday, when he spoke with members of the press. The chair admonished the board's attorney for commenting on the board's behalf.
“What matters is the safety and well being of our students,” said Carpenter, “not his legal opinions.”
Carpenter said that Bowen's actions contradicted the statement of the board and undermined the Bradenton Police Department's investigation of a very serious matter, and even said she went so far as to apologize to the BPD.
“It is not Mr. Bowen's place to opine on the matter on the district's behalf,” said Carpenter who was infuriated over the fact that the board had not been briefed on the matter prior to it becoming public. “This is now a police investigation, and Mr. Bowen has no place going out in public and making it sound as if a conclusion has already been reached. He has grossly overstepped his bounds.”
Miner voiced similar dismay.
“Regardless of the impression Mr. Bowen may have given, he does not speak for this board,” said Miner, “and he damn sure does not speak for me.”
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