Trial for 3 ex-Manatee High administrators in Frazier case starts Monday

jdeleon@bradenton.comJune 15, 2014 

MANATEE -- After months of state and local investigations, three former Manatee High School administrators will stand trial this week to determine whether they knew and had the legal obligation to report allegations coach and disciplinarian Roderick Frazier inappropriately touched female students while employed there.

Frazier, 36, pleaded no contest to four counts of battery and two counts of interfering with a student's attendance after he was charged with improperly touching students and other staff at Manatee High School. In exchange for his plea, the State Attorney's Office dropped three counts of battery and one count of interference.

Robert Gagnon, a former principal at Manatee High and a former assistant superintendent, and former assistant principals Gregg Faller and Matthew Kane each face one felony count of failing to report child abuse and one misdemeanor count of failing to report child abuse.

Judge Peter Dubensky will hear and decide the case, since the three have elected to waive their right to a jury trial.

Investigators say Gagnon, Faller and Kane were aware of allegations that Frazier had improperly touched students, yet never reported them to the state child abuse hotline.

If convicted, the three face up to five years in prison.

"What it's going to come down to is what they were told and if it gave them a reasonable suspicion that a child had been a victim of child abuse or child sexual abuse," Assistant State Attorney Dawn Buff said.

According to Florida State Statute, school teachers, officials and other personnel are mandatory reporters.

In addition to defending themselves from the criminal charges, Gagnon, Faller and Kane are also fighting to keep their jobs after the school board last October voted to fire them.

Administrative hearings on those challenges have provided a preview of what might be seen during the criminal trial starting Monday.

By the third administrative hearing, questioning

was narrowed down to focus on what each administrator was actually told, whereas in the earlier hearing, testimony was given that was not pertinent to the individual case.

During the administrative hearings, several Manatee High School staffers testified to some of Farzier's alleged inappropriate behavior they witnessed and how they reported it.

Jacqueline Peebles, a Manatee High School teacher, said she reported to Kane seeing a student eating cake while in Frazier's office while sitting in his lap and also brought to Faller issues with Frazier sending inappropriate text messages students.

Each time Peebles said she was told they would address the issue with Frazier.

Manatee High teacher Keltie O'Dell also said she witnessed text messages exchanged during her class between Frazier and a female student, according to her testimony.

Faller testified that he recalled addressing the text messaging with all the parent liaisons but could not recall if he had addressed it with Frazier specifically.

Adinah Torres, a former Manatee High parent liaison, also said she reported to Faller that Frazier had inappropriately touched her leg during a training session. During his testimony, he said he did not address the issue because she did not put the complaint in writing.

One of the concerns brought to Gagnon's attention, according to testimony, was an incident in which a female student was called into

English teacher Patricia Aragon's class by Frazier to ask about her menstrual cycle.

Aragon said she took the concerns to Gagnon and he promised to investigate it further.

Following Barber's advice, Aragon said she went to Gagnon with concerns about the inappropriateness of Frazier talking to a female student about her menstrual cycle. Gagnon promised to look into her complaint, Aragon said.

Gagnon testified that he sent Kane to handle the situation.

He later testified his concerns were put to rest when Kane reported what Frazier had told him -- that the student had gone to him before class and said she was starting her period and would need feminine protection but was afraid her teacher would not allow her to go see the school nurse. Frazier said he was just following up as promised.

Richard Reinhart, Gagnon's attorney, said the administrative hearings have helped him focus on the actual facts in the case.

"I think the story has changed," Reinhart said. "It helped focus on what people knew and didn't know."

Still, Reinhart said he doesn't expect any surprises.

The decision to waive the right to a jury trial was a consensus decision reached by the three defense attorneys, who believe that trying the case before only a judge will be easier and more convenient, Reinhart said. Had they opted to go before a jury, it would have been necessary to separate the trials.

The verdict should be based more on law rather than the facts, according to Jon Weiffenbach, Faller's attorney.

"Is it really the judge that needs to decide what evidence is relevant, and does that rise to the point of a mandatory reporting obligation on the part of the administrator?" Weiffenbach said. "The difficult part of this case is there are no appellate cases out there to give any guidance. It will be interesting to see."

The rules of evidence are much more strict in criminal proceedings, he said.

"You have to fine tune to your evidence and objections because in the administrative hearing are extremely lenient in allowing heresy into testimony," Weiffenbach said. "A lot of the evidence is not relevant."

He expects that the trial will also be much more focused on only allowing testimony into evidence that is relevant to the individual administrator.

"There is a lot of information," Buff said. "There is still a certain amount of hearsay that will be admitted."

There will also still be some redundancy, she added. Each witness could be cross examined as many as three time by each defense attorney.

Brett McIntosh, Kane's attorney, said the administrative hearings offer insight on how the cases against the defendants were built.

"Some of the manner the evidence was gathered by the school board and the Bradenton Police Department left a lot to be desired," McIntosh said. "It has helped to get to the specifics and get to the facts of the case."

Bradenton Police Chef Michael Radzilowski, whose officers investigated Frazier and the administrators, declined to comment, saying any questions should be directed to the State Attorney's Office.

The timeline

The allegations against Frazier were first investigated on Nov. 15, 2012, and he was placed on a one-day paid suspension.

Debra Horne, the school district investigator at the time, went to Manatee High School that Thursday and Friday and began to question staff and faculty. On the second day of the investigation, however, Frazier was placed back on active duty before Horne had interviewed any students or completed her investigation. The decision to end the investigation was made by then-school district attorney Scott Martin, Horne's supervisor.

That night, Frazier was back on the sideline for a first-round playoff game won by the Manatee High Hurricanes football team.

In January 2013, the allegations resurfaced when one of the victims wrote a letter to the school and her mother dropped it off at the district.

Within days, Horne was once again sent out to the school, this time interviewing students as well. Among those interviewed by Horne were the female student who wrote the letter and her mother. For the student's mother, it was the first time she had heard from the school district regarding any of the allegations.

On Feb. 7, 2013, after media reports of the accusations against Frazier, the Bradenton Police Department began its own investigation of Frazier and the school district's handling of the allegations.

Almost at the same time, Horne was transferred to an assistant principal position at Prine Elementary, and school district attorney Martin then took over the investigation.

On July 19, the State Attorney's Office, which conducted its own investigation of the matter, filed charges against Frazier. After he was charged, Frazier resigned from the school district.

On Aug. 5, Gagnon and Martin were both placed on paid administrative leave. On Aug. 15, Faller and Kane were also suspended.

That same day, the state filed charges against Gagnon, Faller, Kane and Horne.

In September, Superintendent Rick Mills recommended to the school board that Gagnon, Faller, Kane, Horne and Martin be terminated.

On Oct. 14, the school board voted to terminate Gagnon, Faller and Kane. Earlier in the day, Horne submitted her decision to retire and Martin resigned.

Horne in February avoided trial when prosecutors allowed her to enter a pre-trial intervention program that, if she successfully completes, will allow the charges against her to be dropped. Taking the deal is not an admission of guilt.

On April 9, 2014, the State Attorney's Office filed amended charges against the former administrators, dropping the one count of giving false information to law enforcement.

"I did some more research, and I found that the law applies to a situation where someone falsified information rather than just lying to the police during the course of their investigation," Buff told the Herald in April. "Nothing has changed as far as the allegations of failing to report."

On April 30, Frazier pleaded no contest to three counts of misdemeanor battery and three counts of school interference.

He avoided jail time, but he currently is serving six months of house arrest and three years of probation.

He also voluntarily surrendered his teaching and coaching certificates.

Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.

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