Under mounting public and political pressure, Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa Tuesday abandoned his plan to fire a popular Boca Raton High School teacher accused of violating district policies while she informally mentored a mentally troubled student.
History teacher Samantha Major will be allowed to continue teaching at a different county school and will receive only a written reprimand under a new settlement agreed to by Major and the school district.
The reversal by Avossa, whose administration tried unsuccessfully to arrest Major and then moved to fire her, came in the wake of a large public outcry and opposition from some school board members after a story about the case in The Palm Beach Post on Sunday.
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Earlier Tuesday, school board member Marcia Andrews indicated that she would not support Avossa’s recommendation when the school board considered it Wednesday, calling the attempt to fire her “very upsetting” and “really disturbing.”
Hours later, Avossa summoned Major to a private meeting at the school district’s central office. There, they spoke about the case and shared their mutual concerns.
A short time afterward, a settlement was announced.
The details of the settlement prevent Major from teaching at Boca Raton High while the student, now a junior, attends the school. That could allow Major to return to the school — where she starred on the soccer team as a student and had been named “New Teacher of the Year” — in August 2018.
In the meantime, the 27-year-old teacher is expected to be assigned to another middle school or high school in the south-county area.
Major will also have to receive extra training regarding child abuse reporting and maintaining professional barriers with students. She is not required to admit to any wrongdoing but waives her right to sue the school district over its handling of the case.
Reached after the meeting, Major said Avossa’s decision to let her keep teaching is “a huge weight lifted off my chest.” Since September, she has been banned from the school and assigned to clerical duties at a school bus depot in Boynton Beach, but she said she was buoyed by the outpouring of support for her this week.
“I’m just absolutely overwhelmed and thankful for all the support I received,” she said. “It’s been really overwhelming and encouraging.”
She said that she had been nervous about her meeting with Avossa but that it “ended on a good note.”
“We both spoke,” she said. “I heard from him and he heard from me. We both had the best interests of Boca High’s students and parents at heart.”
Avossa said that the two spoke for more than an hour and described it as “a good meeting.”
“My number one priority at the meeting was to get a good sense of the circumstances that led to this situation,” he said.
PBC school board member: I won’t support firing Boca Raton High teacher
Hours before that meeting, Andrews had announced her opposition to Major’s termination, signaling the likelihood of a messy public showdown over the teacher’s fate if Avossa moved forward with the proposal at Wednesday’s board meeting.
Teachers and parents who supported Major were also planning to fill the board room to speak out against the firing.
Andrews said she believed Major made “a few mistakes” in how she handled her relationship with the 15-year-old student. The young teacher 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 also texted with the student frequently without the parents’ knowledge and 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, records show.
Andrews said those alleged missteps appeared to be partially a result of Boca Raton High School’s pressures on teachers to mentor at-risk students without providing them with proper training.
She said Major appeared to be “a great teacher” who had received repeated praise from supervisors and had no record of disciplinary problems.
“This has caused me a lot of anguish,” Andrews said in an interview. “We didn’t train her well. We didn’t help her go through that process. It’s really disturbing to me that we didn’t have anything in place.”
“Here we have a student that really needed a teacher and a teacher who was trying to help a student,” she said.
Indeed, praise for Major had been widespread, both before and after district officials banned her from teaching.
During her first year as a teacher, a supervisor had dubbed Major “an absolute powerhouse of compassion, kindness, thoughtfulness, professionalism and excellence.”
After she was pulled from her school, Boca Raton High’s principal wrote a letter of praise, saying her “enthusiasm and dedication are unparalleled.”
“I can’t say enough about Samantha’s love of teaching and the lasting, positive impact she has on all those around her,” Principal Suzanne King wrote.
Major was a second-year teacher and a participant in Boca Raton High’s mentoring program for struggling students when she bonded with a 15-year-old student.
She told investigators that, beginning in late 2015, the girl sought her out to share occasional frustrations about friends and family members but also told wild tales and made repeated false claims.
Among the claims that the girl made to Major: that she had once been raped by another minor while she was in elementary school.
The young teacher later admitted that she waited more than three months to report the girl’s claims of being sexually assaulted.
State law requires teachers to notify state authorities if they have “reasonable cause to suspect” a child is a victim of 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 to arrest Major last fall for failing to report the abuse claim, a third-degree felony carrying a potential five-year prison sentence, but state prosecutors rejected the case. They then moved to fire her this year.
After The Post published a story on the case, Avossa defended his decision, saying that he had been forced to fire Major because she wouldn’t agree to a voluntary transfer to another school.
But correspondence released by the school district showed that Major had been willing to accept a transfer, and Avossa later conceded that he could have transferred her without her consent in any case.
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. All week, board members had been inundated with emails and phone calls about the case.
Board member Frank Barbieri said Tuesday that his cell phone has been ringing “every 10 minutes” with calls in support of Major.
“I haven’t heard from one person that supports the district’s position on either termination or suspending this teacher,” he said.
Tuesday evening, Avossa sent an email to all of the district’s teachers, announcing that Major would be permitted to return to the classroom. In the email he also said the case underscored the need for principals to set clearer guidelines for teacher-student interactions.
“The recent incident has made it clear that we, as a district, must do a better job in providing clarity, training, and resources for our teachers who are compelled to help students in need,” Avossa wrote. “I will be having additional conversations with principals about this in the very near future.”
Major said she told Avossa about the importance of ensuring such guidelines are in place to prevent other teachers from getting into similar situations in their efforts to connect with troubled students.
She said the large degree of attention to her case had been nerve-wracking but ultimately gratifying.
“It is worthwhile to speak up,” she said. “It is definitely scary, but I can definitely say it’s good to be heard, no matter who you are.”
What The Post Reported
The School District sought to jail and then, when not successful, fire Boca Raton High School teacher Samantha Major after she tried to help a troubled child.