After Hector Manley: Here's the federal policy that could help keep Florida schoolchildren safe

Kate Cimini Rachel Fradette
Naples Daily News

By Collier County Public Schools’ own admission, the district never conducted a sexual abuse investigation into former Parkside Elementary teacher Hector Manley’s crimes — and will not say if it plans to do so.

In January, Manley pleaded no contest to 20 charges of molestation of a child under 12. By number of survivors, this is the second-largest educator sex abuse case in Florida since 2014, according to data from the anti-abuse nonprofit Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation, or S.E.S.A.M.E.

Attorneys, policy writers and other state and national experts in sexual assault say conducting an investigation is not only the right thing to do but is an opportunity for the district to keep students safe from potential abusers.

“Doing an investigation could help identify the internal systems that need to change so this doesn’t happen again,” said Shiwali Patel, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center and a former Department of Education attorney. “It’s absurd and I can’t imagine anyone would be OK sending their kid to a school where there was a sexual predator and the school didn’t bother to investigate what happened, who knew and why it occurred.”

Hector Manley walks into the courtroom for his fingerprints, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, at Collier County Courthouse.

Manley, a former teacher at Parkside Elementary School, was found guilty on 20 counts of lewd and lascivious molestation of a child under 12.

But when this news organization asked the district for its Title IX investigation file and report on Manley, district public records supervisor Tiffany Myers said, “There is no such file in existence.”

“The District was first made aware of the allegations against Mr. Manley on Thursday, February 28, 2019,” she continued. “Upon learning of the allegations, CCPS immediately removed Mr. Manley from the school. On March 5, 2019, the School Board terminated Mr. Manley’s employment based on the arrest. Internal investigations are only conducted for active employees.”

Reporters pressed communications director Chad Oliver for clarification and were redirected back to Myers' original statement and told the district could not comment on pending litigation or criminal matters. 

What is Title IX?

Enacted as part of the Education Amendments of 1972 to protect people from discrimination in education programs, including sexual harassment, sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence, Title IX’s protections extend to K-12 education agencies and postsecondary institutions. 

The Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services enforces Title IX to make certain institutions that receive federal funds comply with all its parts. 

As of Feb. 2, the Collier school district has one sex discrimination case under investigation by the Office of Civil Rights. It is not related to Manley, and the district has never had one open for Manley.

“As previously expressed, several times, it is not appropriate for the District to comment, clarify, or explain matters pertaining to litigation, which involve serious legal issues and multiple interests,” communications director Oliver said this month.

Myers told reporters that the district does not conduct investigations into people no longer employed by the district.

However, in 2018 and in 2021, Collier County Public Schools carried out investigations and Title IX reports according to documents requested by this organization on coach Travis Westberry and teacher Brock Smith, both of whom were accused of inappropriate contact with students. Smith was convicted of having sex with a minor, and Westberry currently stands accused of misdemeanor battery and transmitting obscene material. 

Travis Westberry charged:CCSO: Former Immokalee High teacher, coach accused of sending lewd photos to student faces additional charges

More on Westberry:Before arrest, Immokalee High School teacher disciplined for prior classroom behavior

Brock Smith sentenced:Ex-Naples High teacher found guilty of sex with minor sentenced to four more years

Charol Shakeshaft, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor and national expert in educator sexual misconduct, said some districts delay investigations even when they don’t have to do so.

“A school district might want to wait until there was a trial or a determination of guilt before moving forward because otherwise they might be seen as manipulating the evidence or organizing the community,” Shakeshaft said.  

The school district could embark on its own investigation without a conclusion in the criminal case yet, she said. By doing so, it could lead to a quicker analysis of their own mistakes and discovering needs of those impacted by the abuse, Shakeshaft said. 

According to Shakeshaft, school districts are encouraged to hold off on conducting their own investigations into accusations of teacher sexual misconduct before the authorities have concluded theirs to prevent inexperienced administrators from putting potential survivors in unsafe situations. 

Afterward, however, she said the school should use the findings from its investigation to create a Title IX report, which is used to aid survivors. 

Why are these reports important?

A Title IX report should describe the investigation, the outcome and, in a best-case scenario, the changes a school will make going forward, Shakeshaft said. 

Shakeshaft said when children’s safety is questioned, school districts must figure out why and what went wrong.

“You would expect a school district to do some analysis of what went wrong,” she said. “What happened? How can we keep kids safe and why didn’t we this time, and we expect that from school districts and it’s part of their mission is to keep kids safe.”

Assistant state attorney Stacey Honowitz with the Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Unit for the 17th Judicial Circuit of Florida said schools are generally reluctant to talk to children about their genitals and reporting molestation in frank terms, instead using euphemisms like “bathing suit area” or “private parts.” 

This, she said, makes children more vulnerable to sexual predators as they become confused about what is an inappropriate touch and afraid or reluctant to report it. 

Court:'You tainted my life': Collier County teacher Hector Manley guilty of molesting 20 children

2020:Lawsuit: Collier school board, Parkside Elementary mishandled claims of sex abuse by ex-teacher

Many survivors of child sexual assault suffer through shame and guilt, which they carry for years and can affect their relationships, and even result in physical changes, said Jessica Leslie, vice president of victim services for RAINN, the national sexual assault hotline. 

Believing survivors of abuse and then providing a pathway to a safe space through support systems can determine what symptoms or concerns develop following the abuse, Leslie said. She added that letting survivors know you support and believe them can go a long way. 

“A lot of ... children have fear around whether or not an adult will believe them because it's their word against a trusted adult,” she said. 

Patel noted that survivor students often feel betrayed by their institution, which pushes them out of school. “They may face depression, have a hard time focusing, avoid activities and clubs and be less successful in school,” she said.

Kate Cimini is an investigative journalist covering Florida. Share your story at kcimini@gannett.com. 

Rachel Fradette is a general assignment reporter for IndyStar. She can be reached at rfradette@gannett.com.

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