School district investigates charge that Palmetto principal didn't report sexual assault

eearl@bradenton.comApril 10, 2013 

MANATEE -- The Manatee County School District has hired a private investigator to scrutinize a mother's claims that a Palmetto High School principal failed to report allegations of a sexual assault on a special needs student.

The mother of the Palmetto High student accused Principal Willie Clark during a meeting last month with Scott Martin, assistant superintendent of district support services and a parent advocate.

The mother told Martin her daughter was sexually assaulted by another student almost a year ago. She claimed the school failed to provide appropriate special education services and did not properly evaluate her daughter, who was also disciplined unfairly and subject to bullying.

Scott Tyler, deputy chief with the Palmetto Police Department, said the alleged assault did not occur at the high school, and police are not investigating any school officials in connection with the case.

Superintendent Rick Mills and Martin decided last week to hire Carol Springer Investigations, an outside agency used by the district before. The investigator will try to determine whether there was an assault and what happened during the incident if it occurred.

Under state law effective Oct. 1, officials have a legal obligation to report suspected child abuse to law enforcement or a state hotline. The law, known as the "Protection of Vulnerable Persons Act," passed in the wake of the Penn State child sexual abuse case involving assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Failure to report suspected abuse can bring a third-degree felony charge.

Palmetto Police Chief Rick Wells said an alleged sexual assault report was filed in December involving two Palmetto High students. The department investigated and filed recommendations with the State Attorney's Office.

"The alleged crime took place in April 2012, but was not reported until December," Wells said.

Wells said the incident was reported to them by the school board after a mother complained in a school board meeting.

Wells said his department has not filed any charges against Clark.

"I have no idea what is going on as far as administration," Wells said Tuesday. He said he has not spoken with the school board about the incident since the case was filed in December.

Clark, still serving as principal at Palmetto High, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

"The district cannot comment on the matter as it is an open investigation," Nanney told the Herald Tuesday.

Martin met with the independent investigator April 3. He said he cannot go into detail about the allegations or the investigation at this point.

In an e-mail to the school board last week, Martin said, "I can share that preliminary findings indicate no wrongdoing by Principal Clark or any other district or school personnel. I have drafted a letter to the mother informing her of my findings and have submitted it to the Superintendent for review."

Martin said the letter will go out after a final check with law enforcement.

Martin said he will have more information after a final report is issued.

He wrote in his e-mail: "this matter was fully investigated by an outside agency in an abundance of caution."

Per Mills' new restructuring plan, Martin has agreed to step into a staff attorney position after recommendations have been seen through. Martin was a staff attorney before being made assistant superintendent.

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-746-7081

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