Education Writers Association third-place award for investigative reporting
By Chris Evans / FLORIDA TODAY
Students, teachers, counselors and administrators at Merritt Island (Florida) High School talked for months about rumors that Karen Roberts had sexual relationships with students, long before anybody called police.
The extent of their suspicions and knowledge is spelled out in hundreds of pages of court testimony and sworn statements compiled during a monthlong investigation by School District Security Chief Jack Sidoran.
The security chief concluded that only Assistant Principal Ken Gaslin, who is now retired, failed to tell a supervisor what he knew about students’ claims against Roberts. No one else was found to have acted inappropriately. Gaslin says he is being made a scapegoat to protect educators still in the school system. He claims the investigation’s documents, which most top School District officials have not read, support his view.
“I was hung out to dry,” Gaslin said. “The cover-up starts when the chief of security gave his final report. It takes the heat off the (other) ones.”
Roberts was confronted by school officials in March 1994, then arrested Aug. 25. 1994, and charged with performing oral sex on three learning-disabled students. She later faced the same charge on a fourth student.
On Aug. 26, 1995, a jury convicted her on 64 of 101 counts of sexual assault on four students. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Trial testimony revealed that Merritt Island High administrators might have known of Roberts’ sexual acts but failed to report her to police, as required by law.
District officials, who said they were shocked at the revelations, asked Sidoran to investigate as soon as the trial ended.
Sidoran’s five-page report cleared all current employees of wrongdoing, but the documents be compiled give a broader picture of what happened at Merritt Island High and how the system responded:
- A student first told a teacher about having sex with Roberts In November 1993.
- By the time school officials called the Sheriffs Office in March 1994, at least four administrators and six teachers or counselors had heard some hint of Roberts’ actions.
- A teacher said she told Principal Henry Smith in February 1994 that Roberts might be involved with students. Smith said he didn’t find out until late March. Sidoran’s report concludes he knew nothing of Roberts’ acts until her arrest in August.
- Superintendent David Sawyer said he did not learn of the administration’s failure to act until Roberts’ trial this summer. The investigation shows that his office was given a report on the school’s handling of the Roberts case more than a year earlier.
The law is clear on abuse
Any educator who suspects child abuse but fails to report it to police could be charged with a third degree misdemeanor under Florida law.
The law “is very concrete and specific and states that all educators have an obligation to report all cases of known or suspected child abuse,” said Betty Coxe, bureau chief for human resource development with the Florida Department of Education. “They are to report that to the criminal justice system, more than the educational system.
“The law doesn’t say that if you think the abuse is being perpetrated by a teacher, you should report that to your principal. The law doesn’t say that.”
Coxe said she could not comment on whether the Education Department was investigating any Merritt Island High educators. The department is looking into revoking Roberts’ teaching certificate, so state officials cannot discuss her case specifically, she said.
According to Sldoran’s investigation, discrepancies about officials’ level of knowledge are not limited to the staff at Merritt Island High.
School Board Chairwoman Lynn Demetriades said in August of this year that she and Sawyer learned during this summer’s trial about administrators’ knowledge of Roberts’ activities.
However, the report includes a document from former Assistant Superintendent Jerry Copeland, who said be sent a copy of all documents on file to Sawyer and other officials in July 1994.
Sawyer and Demetriades said last month that they had not seen that report, which also went to the state’s Educational Services Commission.
“The only thing I knew about the case is what I was reading” in the newspaper during Roberts’ trial, Sawyer said.
Demetriades intimated that Copeland—who left the district in December—might not have passed on all information to top district officials.
“We now have a new assistant superintendent for personnel who shares that kind of Information with the board,” Demetriades said. “Need I say more?”
Unfamiliar with report
Neither Sawyer nor Demetriades nor most other board members have read all of the investigation.
Only School Board Vice Chairwoman Paula Velbl bas read all the documents.
“As an individual board member, I don’t think enough was done by the individuals who knew about this,” Veibl said Monday. “I guess, technically, after they reported it to their supervisor, they felt they were off the hook.
“I can only think, ‘Would things have turned out differently if some of these complaints had been acted on earlier?’ “
While Sawyer and Demetriades haven’t read all of the investigation, they have read Sidoran’s summary, and they agree with his conclusions.
“I think the investigation was complete, and I think we acted properly,” Sawyer said. “I’ll have to depend on the people who conducted the investigation. I was not directly participating in that.”
Demetriades, too, said she was confident Sldoran’s investigation was thorough. The School Board chairwoman, who read a few documents in the investigation, said she agreed with the security chief’s conclusions.
Most of the other board members either gave Sidoran a vote of confidence or offered other reasons for not reading his report:
- Board member Bobby Bechtel, who read Sidoran’s report, said, “I trust Jack (Sidoran). I am satisfied with the report.”
- Board member William Powell said he started to look at the report before a School Board meeting, but he got distracted.
He said he is not concerned that be has not read any of the report.
“I don’t know what point that is going to come back up where (the School Board) will have to make a decision,” he said. “I feel very comfortable with the decisions Mr. Sidoran makes in his investigations.”
- Board member Fran Pickett likewise said her view of the report, as a policy-maker for the district, had been that she would need to read it only if it would affect an upcoming board decision.
“I don’t know if I have to (read the report), because we aren’t being asked to take any action, (but) I feel like I probably ought to read it,” she said.
Learning from mistakes
Sawyer said the system for handling the Karen Roberts case might not have performed “100 percent correctly,” but it did work. Most educators, with the exception of Gaslin, reported what they knew to a supervisor at the school, he said.
”We felt that they had properly reported it to their supervisors,” Sawyer said. “We are looking at procedures to make sure that everyone understands that” police should be contacted in future cases.
“What we need to do is follow up and use this experience as a learning experience.”
That follow-up will include:
- Training sessions by the Brevard County State Attorney’s Office to ensure that principals and assistant principals understand requirements for reporting child abuse.
- Possible review of district policy to ensure that suspected abuse in a school is reported immediately to the principal and to authorities. Both Demetriades and Veibl said they would support such a review.
District officials said they already had done some follow-up. In September, they sent letters to the Merritt Island High educators who were targeted in the probe and emphasized that all proper reporting procedures should be followed.
“What the letter says is that in the future, any issue (of suspected child abuse)… should be reported directly to the principal,” Demetriades said.
Board member Bechtel said, “We learn from our mistakes, and obviously we hope that we will all be more aware of sexual harassment, whether it be with student complaints or teacher complaints. We will be acting more rapidly.”
Teacher seeks openness
Most Merritt Island High educators involved in the case declined to be interviewed or failed to return phone calls. Those who did return calls—Coach Michael Hill, Dean Marvin Gaines and teacher Felicia Fehl—said they wanted to put the case behind them.
“I feel like I have been treated badly (by press coverage), and so have many other people,” Gaines said. “I just want it to die.”
Some Merritt High School parents and teachers are concerned that the Roberts case—and how the school handled it—has not been discussed at the school.
“It would be nice to inform parents, but in a way, you can see the school being embarrassed,” said parent Maria Pye, whose daughter is a senior. “The kids were embarrassed over that. In one way, they (school officials) probably try to protect parents and kids from that until they know what is going on, because they would be embarrassed.”
Teacher Fehl was candid in a letter she sent to Sidoran on Aug. 30 of this year.
She wrote: “Something that has very much troubled me during my seven-plus years here is that (Principal) Smith and (Assistant Principal William) Dugan keep a lot of relevant information from the faculty and from the students.
“We have experienced student suicides, fatal automobile accidents, deaths of staff family members, etc., and it seems to be the policy here to NOT openly discuss the facts and the feelings that result from these tragedies. I feel this has created an environment of fear, suspicion and gossip.
“No school wants negative publicity, but that very desire to hide or deny ‘family problems’… has caused the whole situation to explode!
“Trust and honesty is key to providing a ‘safe’ environment so that learning can take place. I don’t believe that type of honesty has always been nurtured here.
“It’s a shame something like this had to happen to bring this problem to light.”
This story appeared Nov. 7, 1995, in Florida Today.
Teacher Karen Roberts maintains innocence
School district security chief stands by controversial report