Manatee County school district probe depicts alarming administrative culture

October 13, 2013 

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Manatee County School District Superintendent Rick Mills. GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald

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The Manatee County school district's detailed investigation into the conduct of key administrators involved in the case of a male school employee accused of inappropriate interactions with female students makes numerous damning statements.

One in particular stands out in support of termination of the five administrators, as recommended by Superintendent Rick Mills. The school board will address the issue Monday night.

The administrative report by the new investigator for the district's office of professional standards, Troy Pumphrey, concludes that all five violated various policies that "demonstrated immorality, misconduct in office, incompetence, gross insubordination, and willful neglect of duty" and "knowingly failed to report actual or suspected child abuse as required ... or report alleged misconduct" by a district employee that "affects the health, safety or welfare of a student."

This all stems from allegations against Rod Frazier, the former Manatee High parent liaison and football coach who resigned in the wake of misdemeanor charges of battery and school interference.

The five administrators recommended for firing, all on paid administrative leave, are:

• Bob Gagnon, former principal of Manatee High School and assistant superintendent.

• Former Manatee High assistant principals Gregg Faller and Matthew Kane.

• Debra Horne, former investigator for the office of professional standards and assistant principal of Prine Elementary.

All four face felony charges of failure to report suspected child abuse. Gagnon and Kane are also accused of giving false reports to law enforcement.

• Scott Martin, staff attorney and former assistant superintendent of operations. He has not been charged in the case.

When student accusations against Frazier became public in November 2012, Horne conducted a swift investigation. On the eve of a state playoff game for the Manatee High football team, Frazier endured a one-day suspension only to be reinstated the next day for the Friday contest.

Only when a written student complaint reached Manatee High in January 2013 did the investigation resume, a troubling delay and lack of professionalism.

Despite Gagnon's repeated denials during his interview with Pumphrey that football influenced his interference as circumstances unfolded, the investigator wrote in his report:

"At this point in the investigation the evidence suggests that decisions were being made to protect the image of Rod Frazier and his importance to the football team as a coach. There is no evidence at this point to suggest a concern for known victims or possible victims yet to be identified. Based on the recorded interviews of Martin and Gagnon, it appears that Martin and Gagnon influenced the investigation process in order that Frazier be afforded the opportunity to coach in the upcoming football playoff game. It is a fact that Martin and Gagnon provided conflicting information to the Bradenton Police Department and/or the Office of Professional Standards, as evidenced by the inconsistent answers to similar questions asked during both departments' recorded interviews."

This apparent deference to a nationally renowned football program reflects a sport-crazed culture where winning athletic contests can trump integrity and character. We expect the highest of professional and personal standards from educators and administrators -- especially regarding student safety.

On Monday the school board is scheduled to decide whether to elevate the suspensions to those without pay for the five administrators -- and not on whether to affirm the superintendent's recommendation of termination. The process will then continue as the five decide whether to file a request for an administrative hearing.

While the criminal cases play out, the district's administrative cases -- as outlined across 182 pages -- look strong. The kind of corporate culture laid bare in the report cannot be tolerated, especially in a school district trying to rebuild public trust after years of deep suspicions about the administration's priorities and actions.

The new administration under Superintendent Mills, only months in office, has brought the district back from the brink. There's more work to be done, though, as this investigative report indicates.

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