As predicted, the criminal trials of a handful of Manatee School District administrators who were facing charges for their roles in failing to report allegations of sexual abuse didn't yield much. However, the notion that the outcomes somehow mean there wasn't a huge problem, or that those administrators lived up to what kids, parents, teachers and taxpayers should expect from them is misguided to say the least.
In the wake of the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal, Florida passed what was hailed at the time as the “toughest failure to report law in the country.” The moniker referred to the third degree felony charge someone who works with children could face, should they fail to report suspected or actual child abuse. However, as we saw in the three Manatee High cases, which were the first trials under the new statute, the law remains far from perfect and does not fully empower its intent.
The Protection of Vulnerable Persons Act expands section 39 of the state statutes to employees who work with children and requires that known or reasonably suspected child abuse be reported to a hotline monitored by the Department of Children and Families within 24 hours. The “reasonably suspected” part apparently gives much latitude to the judge and seems to be at odds with the law's intent.
When the scandal first broke, I spoke with Lauren Book, a sexual abuse survivor and noted activist who started the non-profit advocacy group Lauren's Kids. Book helped craft the legislation and said that they were trying to remove such allegations from the purview of district administrators, where they might get mired in politics, incompetently handled, or just swept under the rug, instead directing them toward the state and its trained investigators.
The problem seems to be in that the word “allegations” is missing from the language of the law. The charges stemmed from the idea that a former female student at Manatee High wrote a letter that was delivered to administrators by her mother, alleging detailed abuse suffered at the hands of former assistant football coach and parent-teacher liaison Rod Frazier. Despite those allegations, the letter was never shared with local law enforcement and the DCF hotline was never informed.
The girl later said she spoke up once she learned that a previous investigation into Frazier's behavior was judiciously expedited, seemingly without much enthusiasm. When teachers and other employees voiced concerns that the coach's behavior with young women at the school was troubling, Frazier was suspended with pay while an internal investigation was launched. He returned to work exactly one day later, just in time for the number-one ranked team in the nation's first playoff game of the season.
It turns out that very little investigating was in fact performed, and it wasn't until the girl's allegations – which included having her privates groped by Frazier on numerous occasions, including an after school meeting he'd arranged, being asked to text him nude pictures of herself and having seen a nude picture another student had claimed to have sent him – came out in the press, that law enforcement became involved. Had the story not broken, the Bradenton Police Department would not have known that the crimes had been alleged, despite the fact that at least a half dozen administrators had been well aware. That's exactly what's not supposed to happen under the new statute.
After the story ran, police investigated, while the district continued to sit on its hands and its attorney at the time, John Bowen, publicly defended everyone involved. However, after an exhaustive investigation, the BPD recommended charges for Frazier along with four administrators, including then-assistant Superintendent Bob Gagnon, who'd previously been the principal at the school. Hence, the idea that Gagnon's fate was somehow a "witch hunt" orchestrated by the new administration – which had not even yet been hired when BPD launched its investigation – seems dubious at best.
Frazier of course resigned from his job and cut a deal, while former “Office of Professional Standards” director Debbie Horne also resigned, entering a pre-trial diversion program. District attorney Scott Martin (who replaced Bowen) resigned as well, though he hadn't been charged criminally. Gagnon, along with former assistant-principals Mathew Kane and Greg Faller, went to trial to fight the charges.
Gagnon was acquitted based on Judge Peter Dubensky's determination that while “everyone can recognize that Mr. Frazier's behavior was outrageous,” nonetheless, “no reasonable person could believe that abuse was taking place,” based on what he was proven to have known. Kane was acquitted later the same week, while Dubesnky decided that the state had proved Faller had reason to suspect that abuse was taking place, though he only convicted him on the misdemeanor failure to report count and didn't even give him a slap on the wrist (Faller was sentenced to one day in jail that he doesn’t even actually have to serve).
Now that the criminal portion of the proceedings have ended, there's been much speculation as to what should happen in the professional arena. When current superintendent Rick Mills came on board amidst the scandal, he hired a new (and finally qualified) internal investigator. The district re-investigated the alleged incidents, noting that it had nothing to do with the police investigation but instead related to the standards and expectations of the district as an organization.
When it was completed, Mills followed the recommendation of his newly-formed and highly-credible disciplinary committee and recommended to the school board that Gagnon and the others be suspended indefinitely. Gagnon's position was eliminated in an administrative reorganization shortly after Mills came on board, and though a provision that he'd been given during his two-week stint as acting superintendent when Tim McGonegal resigned in 2012 guaranteed him employment until June, his contract was not renewed after that time elapsed.
Gagnon was never a candidate for the position which replaced his – Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum. His resume was curiously thin for an assistant superintendent already, especially when compared to Dr. Diana Greene, who was awarded the curriculum post and has overseen marked improvement in academic performance, especially in the beleaguered Title 1 schools. Having avoided prosecution, he's free to resume his career in academia, but it's hard to imagine him having a place in the district, at least one that is comparable to his old post.
All that being said, the idea that so little came of the criminal charges somehow means there wasn't an enormous problem in the schools and the culture of those who administer them is nothing short of laughable. The fact that Frazier's behavior so long went unaddressed, despite so many teachers, students and former administrators asserting that it was commonly known, is a deplorable comment on how we take care of our most vulnerable citizens – our kids.
The investigations shone light on a culture where it was commonplace to be dismissive of such misgivings, one in which internal investigations were little more than a formality and were not performed by anyone with knowledge or training in conducting them; where “parent-teacher liaison” positions were routinely used as a way to give full-time employment and benefits to secure the services of part-time athletic coaches, and even assistant principal positions could be awarded to college buddies, rather than one of the many more qualified if less-connected candidates within the district. In short, it suggested a good old boy system in which one high school and its football team were held above nearly everything and everyone else, while loyalty to those running the show seemed to be the chief criteria in getting ahead.
I'd say we're more than a little bit better off today than we were when the events of this scandal took place. Mills and company deserve credit for creating an environment in which it has been made clear that unethical behavior will not be tolerated and discipline will be administered evenly across the board, without concern for its impact on something as non-essential to public education's mission as the outcome of varsity sports.
The events of recent years, from the Frazier scandal to a minor child having sex with a school employee who later impregnated her, do little to inspire taxpayer confidence in public education and need to be remembered as what they were: a stain on our district – not some sort of technicality. Just because something isn't illegal, doesn't mean it is acceptable.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.