Avossa: I didn’t want to fire Boca Raton High teacher

Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa on Monday defended his decision to fire a popular Boca Raton High School teacher who failed to report a mentally troubled student’s claims of being raped years earlier, saying that the teacher’s refusal to accept a transfer to another school left him “no other option.”

But records show he moved at first to fire, not transfer, the teacher. And he later conceded that he didn’t need the teacher’s consent to reassign her.

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Teacher Samantha Major, whose case was the subject of a Palm Beach Post article on Sunday, is facing termination on Wednesday. After developing a close bond in late 2015 with a mentally troubled 15-year-old student, records show she admitted that she waited more than three months to report the girl’s claims of being sexually abused by another minor when she was in elementary school.

Major, who was Boca High’s reigning “New Teacher of the Year” at the time of the incident, said the girl had sought her out to share occasional frustrations about friends and family members but told wild tales and made repeated false claims.

State law requires teachers to notify state authorities if they have “reasonable cause to suspect” a child is a victim of childhood sexual abuse. But Major told investigators that she did not believe she had good reason to report the claim, saying that the student had a pattern of lying, that her account of the rape changed over time (first involving a neighbor, then a relative) and that the student said the incident was investigated years beforehand.

The school district tried unsuccessfully to arrest Major last fall for failing to report the abuse claim, then moved to fire her. The story of how the young teacher went from a rising star at one of the county’s highest-performing high schools to the target of a criminal investigation and termination shocked many residents and other teachers.

Avossa, addressing the case publicly for the first time, said in an interview that the 27-year-old teacher “made a very unfortunate set of decisions.”

Not only had she failed to report a claim of abuse, he said, she also developed an inappropriately close relationship with the student in which she texted her frequently without the parents’ knowledge. Records show that Major also agreed to meet the student one evening in March last year after the girl told her she ran away from home and planned to sleep in the streets.

“She put herself in a position where she stood to cross an ethical line,” Avossa said.

Even so, Avossa said he hadn’t wanted Major to lose her job. He said he had offered to suspend Major for 10 days and transfer her to a new school, but that Major and her attorney rejected the offer.

“I don’t want to terminate her,” he said. “I wanted to move her to a different school.”

But, he said, “they left me no other option,” referring to Major and her attorney.

Records, though, show that Avossa initially moved to fire Major. And Major’s attorney disputed Avossa’s account of the subsequent negotiations, saying that Major did not object to a suspension and transfer and that — even if she had objected — Avossa had the authority to carry it out regardless.

“He doesn’t need my consent to suspend her,” said Fred Schwartz, Major’s attorney. “Termination is something that he chose.”

In an interview Monday, Avossa initially told The Post that he did not believe he had the authority to transfer Major to a different school without her consent. Later he conceded that he had the power to do so but that such a move risked a costly legal challenge.

Records show Major eventually reported the girl’s rape allegation in April to the state Department of Children and Families, which investigated the claim but concluded it was “unsubstantiated” after the girl changed details of her account in interviews.

School district administrators typically decline to comment on pending personnel decisions, but they agreed to discuss the specifics of Major’s case Monday after her attorney disclosed details to The Post last week.

Records provided by the school district on Monday show that after the district completed its personnel investigation, Avossa moved to fire Major upon the recommendation of a district committee.

In later negotiations with her attorney, district attorneys offered to let Major instead serve a 10-day suspension without pay and be transferred to another school until the girl who made the rape claims graduated or left Boca Raton High.

As a condition of that offer, Major would have had to sign a “last-chance agreement,” allowing her to be automatically fired if she were ever accused of any “future act of misconduct” and to waive her right to an appeal.

On Feb. 13, email records show that Schwartz, Major’s attorney, told the district that Major was “willing to reluctantly accept the 10-day suspension and even the transfer.”

But he said that Major was unlikely to accept the deal unless the district revised the conclusions of its investigation, since the findings could prompt the state Department of Education to strip Major of her teaching license.

In an interview, Schwartz said that the “last-chance agreement” was also a deal-breaker.

“If there was ever any complaint against her, no matter how petty and how unfounded, she could be fired without a due-process right to fight the termination,” he said Monday.

District attorneys declined to make any further concessions, saying that they were obligated by law to report the investigation’s findings to the state.

At that point, records show, district attorneys ended the settlement discussions and said they would “move forward with the termination.”

In a memo released by the district, School Board General Counsel JulieAnn Rico wrote Monday that in recent past cases, employees found to have failed to report child abuse received 10-day suspensions, not termination.

But she also said that the district had recently fired another employee accused of “inappropriate interactions” with a student, a violation that Major also was cited for.

Major was removed from Boca Raton High in September and has been assigned ever since to a clerical job at a school bus depot in Boynton Beach. The school board is scheduled to consider the proposal to terminate her on Wednesday.

Among those who have praised Major since the school district began its investigation: the school’s principal.

“Samantha’s enthusiasm and dedication are unparalleled,” Boca Raton High Principal Suzanne King wrote in September, after Major was removed from the school. “I can’t say enough about Samantha’s love of teaching and the lasting, positive impact she has on all those around her.”

Among those pushing for Major’s termination are the parents of the girl, who say that their daughter suffers from a mental illness and was “victimized, enabled and groomed” by the young teacher.

“Samantha Major is not a psychiatrist, a doctor, a therapist or a hospital, a social worker or a judge,” the girl’s mother said Monday in an email to The Post. “She was there to teach world history. She should have done her job!”


Get more news every day about Palm Beach County schools at the Extra Credit blog. extracredit.blog.PalmBeachPost.com

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