With the suspensions of five Manatee County school district administrators, Superintendent Rick Mills sent a strong and clear message to employees and the community: Staff will be held to the very highest standards -- especially regarding student safety.
That fact that four face felony charges of failure to report suspected child abuse and three are accused of providing false information to law enforcement to thwart an investigation into a district employee is deeply troubling. While the district's investigation continues, the state prosecutor found enough evidence to pursue criminal charges.
This case could be precedent-setting in Florida under a new law that increased the penalties for failure to report suspected child abuse and included more people obligated to inform authorities. The 2012 law, which took effect in October, came in the wake of the sexual molestation case at Penn State University in which an assistant football coach was convicted of abuse and several school administrators were accused of covering up the crimes and failure to tell authorities.
Manatee school officials could be the first in Florida to stand trial for these felonies. Old statutes required teachers to report suspicions of child abuse but the new law requires everyone to contact authorities.
This all stems from the highly publicized allegations of inappropriate behavior by Rod Frazier, the former Manatee High assistant football coach and parent liaison charged with seven misdemeanors of battery and three misdemeanor charges of interfering with a student's class attendance. Those charges include allegations that Frazier inappropriately touched four female students and three female school staff members.
Former Manatee High principal Bob Gagnon, former Manatee High assistant principals Matthew Kane and Gregg Faller and former school district investigator Debra Horne were charged last week with failing to report child abuse. All but Horne were charged with impeding an investigation.
The Bradenton Police Department investigation report, released to the public Friday, contains more disturbing implications of wrongdoing and a cover-up to protect an assistant coach of the nationally ranked Manatee Hurricanes football team.
Horne, acting as the district's professional standards investigator, conducted a one-day probe into allegations against Frazier -- not even interviewing the students involved in the complaint about misconduct. She told Bradenton detectives that Scott Martin, school board attorney who has also been placed on paid leave, and she agreed to drop the investigation since they figured the allegations could not be proven.
Plus, several teachers told investigators that assistant principals were intimidating staff members during the probe.
If all this proves to be true, it would confirm widely held public perceptions -- on a terrible scale, no less -- that a culture of favoritism and cronyism exists in the district.
That Mills selected a veteran law enforcement officer, Troy Pumphrey, to serve as the district's new director of the Office of Professional Standards, speaks volumes about a commitment to accountability.
We welcome the school district administration's strong stance on this issue. This case highlights Florida's new law, too -- that we are all assigned the responsibility that should not require a mandate: report suspicions of child abuse.