The price of mentoring? Why this Boca Raton teacher is being fired

The school year was already veering into winter when the girl began approaching Samantha Major after class.

It was typical adolescent banter at first: college plans, boys, difficulties finding a part-time job. But as the last weeks of 2015 wound down, school records show that Major, an up-and-coming world history teacher at Boca Raton High School, began to sense the girl was troubled.

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This was no problem for Major. The second-year teacher – a former high school soccer star and the school’s reigning “New Teacher of the Year” – had been singled out by supervisors for her empathy and easy rapport with students.

She’d been asked by her principal to participate in the school’s mentor program, in which teachers took struggling students under their wings, and she’d accepted gladly. At 26, this was what she had decided she was meant to do. It was why she wanted to teach.

But the 15-year-old girl reaching out to her wasn’t like the others. Her grades were solid, but records indicate she had problems much deeper and less obvious – a behavioral disorder that manifested as a desperate need for attention and a penchant for lying elaborately and often.

With time, the teacher grew wary. But she didn’t put the girl off. What good, after all, was a mentor who shirked the most troubled cases?

Later would come the teen’s tales of family abuse, the desperate nighttime phone call, the teen’s suicide attempt and the school district’s attempt to put Major in jail after accusing her of mishandling the situation, a jarring sequence of events laid out in copious detail in a school district investigation.

In a matter of months, the mentoring efforts would culminate in Major – who a supervisor once dubbed “an absolute powerhouse of compassion, kindness, thoughtfulness, professionalism and excellence” – banished from the classroom, relegated to months of paperwork duties in a school bus depot, targeted for criminal investigation and slated for termination. The county school board will consider the proposal to fire her Wednesday.

Her dizzying reversal of fortunes is, in large part, a story of the pitfalls that await teachers who make extended efforts to aid troubled students.

It is also one of how public schools push teachers to make extra efforts, often with little guidance or preparation, and then leave them to face the fallout.

School to teachers: Give ‘extra support’

Major’s suspicions about the girl first arose after the teen came to her with concerns about college. The girl was upset, she said, because her parents didn’t want her to go to college. The purported reason: No one in the family ever had attended before.

This, it turned out, was not true. Her father was a lawyer, with bachelor’s and law degrees.

Inconsistencies in other stories emerged. The girl claimed her mother suffered from agoraphobia and could not leave the house. Yet the mother was often seen on campus picking her up.

The girl claimed, falsely, that she was adopted. She said she spent her lunch periods meeting a math teacher for tutoring. In fact, she was serving detentions.

She accused a classmate of calling her an ugly name. When the student denied it, the girl admitted she had made it up.

Some other teachers warned Major: The girl was troubled and not to be trusted, according to a copy of the investigative report provided to The Palm Beach Post by Major’s attorney.

She was not one of Major’s official mentees, but the teacher felt a compulsion to help her all the same. “She needed somebody to talk to, is what it seemed like,” she said. “It’s just sort of understood that you are there to aid these hurting and at-risk students.”

Indeed, Boca High explicitly encouraged such efforts, pointing to them as key to the school’s academic success. At one point, the organizer of the school’s mentoring program had emailed teachers to ask them to give students “extra help, guidance, and encouragement.”

“As a mentor, you would be responsible for working with a student that is at-risk and in need of extra help, guidance, and encouragement on a day-to-day basis,” according to a copy of the message obtained by The Post.

Yet the school district had given Major no special training in relating to students with mental health disorders, she said. Major was on her own, and dealing with a sort of student she had never encountered.

Encouragement in Bible verses

One day, Major says, the girl noticed a Bible verse on the screen of her phone. Their conversations about the girl’s struggles with family and friends took on a religious element as they discovered they shared a Christian faith.

Soon, they were texting after school, records show, with Major citing Bible verses as she offered the girl encouragement.

“I’m happy we were able to talk today,” Major texted on Nov. 13. “I’ll be thinking and praying for you.”

“Thank you so much for everything,” the girl replied. “I really felt it was God coming through in your words.”

In those text-message conversations, Major made clear that she saw a divine hand at play in the girl’s growth.

“I was telling my family tonight how proud I am of you,” she texted the girl in December. “God is transforming you into the perfect princess you were created to be!”

“I love you so much Sam,” the girl responded. “Thank you so much for showing me the way to the lord.”

Things soon took a dark turn. According to police reports, the girl shared stories of abuse, tales of how, several years ago, she had been raped by a boy.

First, the perpetrator in her stories was a neighbor. In later tellings, the perpetrator was a relative. The girl told Major that she had told police and child-welfare investigators, but they had not believed her, records show.

Though she didn’t fully realize it at the time, those stories put Major in a quandary. State law requires teachers to notify state authorities if they have “reasonable cause to suspect” a child is a victim of childhood sexual abuse.

Major was familiar with the law. But in this case, the allegations were years-old, key details kept changing, and the girl said they’d already been reported and investigated.

Considering the girl’s history of lying, and warnings from other teachers, Major told investigators she dismissed them as further untruths, ones that she had no “reasonable cause” to believe. She decided not to report them.

Their relationship continued to develop. The girl expressed problems at home. When the school day had ended, the teen would shuffle into her classroom, seeking a sympathetic ear.

And then, in March, came the encounter that would change both of their lives.

A call of distress 

On a Tuesday night the girl placed a frantic phone call.

Major missed the call, she later told police, but the message left on her voice mail was distraught. Something had happened at the girl’s house.

When Major called back, the girl said she had been in an argument and her father had pushed her. She left the house, she told Major, and planned to spend the night outside.

Worried about the prospect of her alone on the streets, Major told investigators she drove to meet her. She parked down the street from the girl’s home in a Boca Raton neighborhood and let her into the car.

Inside, they spoke for nearly an hour. Major said she listened to the story of the girl’s dispute with her parents, about how they had taken her phone but she had yanked it back and fled the house. She had a bruise on her leg, she claimed, but she refused to show it.

A few minutes later a text message lit up the girl’s phone. It was her parents, saying they had called the police to report her missing. Major told police she persuaded the girl to return home, telling her that she would be safe because the police were there.

That evening, the parents seized their daughter’s phone and discovered her text message conversations with Major. They were shocked. On the following day, they complained to the school that the relationship was inappropriate.

A day later, Major told Principal Geoff McKee about her meeting with the girl. She described the girl’s claims about her parents, about the old claims of a sexual assault by a relative, about her penchant for lying. Major told McKee she didn’t believe the girl’s claims were credible. McKee told her to call DCF anyway.

That evening, Boca Raton police and a DCF investigator showed up at the girl’s house. They questioned the girl, who, according to school district police records, repeated claims of sexual assault and added a new charge of physical abuse.

The family vehemently denied the claims. They called the rape allegation a cry for attention. They told police their daughter was mentally troubled, and that they were trying to get her medical help to deal with her anger and psychological issues.

Nonetheless, the girl’s allegations were so serious that reports show DCF removed her from the house while they investigated. For the time being, she would stay with the parents of a friend who lived nearby.

Teacher faces criminal probe

During that time, investigators examined the girl but found no physical injuries or signs of a sexual assault. After the girl altered her story once more, reports show they labeled her allegations “unsubstantiated” and returned her to her parents’ care. No one was ever accused of or charged with a crime.

The girl lived with the neighbor for nearly three weeks. At school, the girl told Major about the move and her fears of foster care. The teacher told investigators she gave information about a website that explained how foster care worked.

The girl returned home, upset and against her will. On her first evening back in the house, police records indicate she tried to kill herself, ingesting 32 pills of extra strength Tylenol. She was rushed to the hospital, her mother told police, to be treated for depression and possible liver damage.

Around that time, the girl called Major several times, leaving a message asking her to call back. But the girl was being removed from Major’s class at her parents’ request. Major did not answer the phone or return the call, and she never spoke to the girl again.

Six days later, the mother contacted the school district’s police department. She said she feared that Major was trying to indoctrinate her daughter religiously, that Major had lured her from the home. She claimed that Major was grooming the girl to turn her away from her parents.

In an email to The Post, the mother said that Major “took advantage” of her daughter’s mental illness, and that their relationship was a contributing factor to her suicide attempt.

“If at any time Ms. Major legitimately felt there was any reason for concern, she had a duty to follow school protocol and notify the school dean or other school officials, which she did not,” she said.

The police department questioned the parents, Major, DCF officials, police investigators, administrators and teachers. But officers were never able to speak with the girl, whose mother prevented any police interviews.

As the 2015-16 school year wound down, the problems seemed to have subsided. The girl was back at school, and Major did not hear from investigators again. Then came summer break and the start of a new school year. Major reported for duty in August, thinking everything had been resolved.

It was the second week of September when things came crashing down once more. Major received a letter from the school district announcing she was being removed from her classroom.

She was reassigned to a job filing paperwork at a school bus depot in Boynton Beach while the investigation proceeded anew. She was blocked from teaching and forced to abandon her coaching position for the school’s soccer team, a team that, as a student, she had once starred on.

Later in the fall, school district police moved to charge Major with a crime: failure to report child abuse. It’s a third degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison. They applied for an arrest warrant, but the move was rejected by prosecutors, who, records show, said the evidence was “insufficient to support a criminal prosecution.”

Unable to arrest her, the school district moved to fire her. The personnel investigation proceeded, and on Feb. 14, Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa sent a letter to Major announcing he was moving to fire her.

‘Interacted inappropriately’

Nearly a year after the events in question, records show that school district investigators had concluded that Major violated policies by waiting three months to report the girl’s claims of sexual abuse.

They also said she “interacted inappropriately by texting the student after school hours and agreeing to pick up the student in her car for an evening meeting.”

Invoking the religious content in some of her messages, they say she violated a district rule that teachers “not use their position to advance or disparage any religion or religious belief.”

Major’s attorney, Fred Schwartz, disputes each claim. State law and school district rules require teachers to call DCF if they have “reasonable cause” to suspect abuse, but they are not required to report claims that they don’t believe, he says.

“No reasonable person would have believed the girl had been abused,” he said.

While it is well established in law that teachers cannot advance religious beliefs during the school day, legal experts say courts have held that schools cannot bar them from sharing or espousing their faith after school.

“A teacher is a person and they have a right to express their faith outside of their contract day,” said Charles Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute in Washington D.C. “The question is whether this was outside the contract day or as part of her core duties.”

It is not clear how school district officials determined that Major “interacted inappropriately” in her communications with the girl. The investigation does not cite any explicit prohibition against texting students or meeting with them after school hours. Indeed, teachers say both such interactions are common.

“A lot of teachers text students and meet students,” said Kathi Gundlach, president of the county teachers union. “If a student calls you to meet, that’s what you’d think we’d want teachers to do.”

The school district declined to comment on the case and did not respond to questions about its policies on teacher interactions with students or the guidelines for its mentoring programs. (Update: After this story was published, Avossa defended his decision to fire her, saying that her rejection of a settlement offer that included a 10-day suspension and a voluntary transfer left him “no other option.” Records show, though, that he moved first to terminate her, and he later conceded that he could have reassigned her without her consent.)

The girl’s mother called Major a “teacher gone rogue.” And while the school district wants to firher e Major for waiting too long to contact DCF, the mother told The Post that she wants her fired for contacting DCF at all, claiming that she “filed a false DCF report in an attempt to embarrass our family and shift the spotlight away from her egregious misconduct.”

Gundlach said she was unfamiliar with the details of Major’s case but said it was worrisome for an apparently well-intended teacher to be fired for perceived missteps while trying to help a troubled student.

“We’re going to make it so nobody wants to be a teacher,” she said, “because you try to do the right thing and you get in trouble.”

With the county school board scheduled to consider her termination Wednesday, Major is winding down her days at the school bus depot, where she fills hours alphabetizing files and mulling whether she will be forced to find another career.

“I don’t even know how I got here,” she said. “I was just trying to help a student.”

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