Three teachers at Western High School in Davie are being charged with failing to report an alleged rape that a 15-year-old girl described in a class essay.
The State Attorney's Office filed misdemeanor charges in August against Cathy Schwartz, 35, of Tamarac, Mirtha Fernandez, 47, of Weston, and Pamela Devine, 54, of Coconut Creek. The three have been transferred to jobs with no student contact pending the outcome of their cases.
The teachers read an essay in October 2011 in which a learning disabled girl described being pushed in a closet and raped by a 15-year-old boy she was dating. State law requires teachers to report suspicion of child abuse to law enforcement authorities or to a child abuse hotline. The law was toughened in 2012 in the wake of the Penn State scandal to make it a third degree felony for anyone, not just teachers, to fail to report suspected abuse.
"Any teacher's failure to report suspected child abuse is a crime. But when this teacher works with special-needs children who often struggle to communicate, this failure to report -- and thus failure to protect -- is even more saddening, sickening and unacceptable," said Lauren Book,. founder of Lauren's Kids, a South Florida-based organization that supports victims of sexual abuse and attempts to raise awareness about the issue.
Schwartz had assigned students to write an essay about a life-changing event, according to a State Attorney's Office report. She showed the report to Fernandez and Devine and graded it, but did not inform authorities, according to the report. Neither Schwartz, the daughter of Broward County Commissioner Lois Wexler, Fernandez or Devine could not be reached for comment.
The student's mother said she first read the essay in May 2012, when school officials turned over the girl's work for the year. The mother said she was shocked that no one from the school contacted her after reading it.
"This is the sixth largest school system in the country. These people are trained for this stuff. How can this happen?" asked the mother, who is not being named since she and her daughter share a surname. "I still cannot fathom why you would not report it. It just doesn't make any sense whatsoever."
The mother said that even after she complained to district officials, no action was taken until October 2012, when she met with Superintendent Robert Runcie and he notified the State Attorney's Office.
She said the district's inaction has made it difficult for prosecutors to charge the boy who allegedly committed the rape.
Runcie said he doesn't see this as a widespread problem in the district.
"Our teachers get trained, and we have a full-time person who heads up our work in mandatory reporting," he said. "We're a large district, although I don't like the fact that we have one incident. We're using this in our ongoing training and professional development for administrators and employees."
The mother and her attorney, Todd McPharlin, said the three teachers were not the only district employees who knew of the essay.
David Jones, principal at the time, could not be reached. He has since been demoted to an assistant principal job at an off-campus learning center, although Runcie said the move was unrelated to this case.
Runcie and school district spokeswoman Tracy Clark said they are not aware of anyone being investigated in this case other than the three teachers.
Schwartz and Fernandez are scheduled for hearings Oct. 10. No hearings are listed yet for Devine.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-243-6637 or 954-425-1421