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Ethics commission to review reports of 'inappropriate touching' by two Broward school board members

Charles Trainor Jr.
Miami Herald
In this file photo, a person addresses members of the Broward County School Board at the district's headquarters in Fort Lauderdale.

The Broward County School Board has decided all of its members will get additional sensitivity training, following reports that two members inappropriately touched others. Though no formal complaints have been filed, the two incidents will also be reviewed by a third party.

During a special meeting on Tuesday, the board opted against hiring an outside firm to investigate the allegations — at a cost of up to $12,500 — reasoning that the review by the Florida Commission on Ethics would be sufficient.

The alleged incidents are separate — one involving Board Member Allen Zeman and an employee, and the other involving Board Member Brenda Fam and a student.

In both cases, the alleged victims declined to file an official complaint.

Even if the affected parties don’t think an investigation is necessary, Board Vice Chair Debbi Hixon says the district has a responsibility to look into such incidents.

“If it was your student … and they felt uncomfortable or something had happened to them, you would demand that we did something. So I just want to make that clear,” Hixon said. “If you are an employee and you are uncomfortable or something happened or someone saw something, you would expect people to address it.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, the school board also voted to draft new policies on how to address potential misconduct by board members — after staff determined that the district doesn’t have any formal procedures in place on how to respond to allegations against board members.

The allegations

According to School Board Attorney Marilyn Batista, on Dec. 13, 2022, a board member witnessed Zeman “slap an employee on the buttocks” during a recess of a board meeting. Zeman has described the incident as a “nothing burger” — saying it was akin to two athletes smacking each other on the butt.

The board member who witnessed the incident later approached the employee, asking if he was ok and if he wanted to report anything.

Ultimately, the employee told Batista and then-Superintendent Vickie Cartwright about the incident but made it clear he did not want to file a formal complaint.

“He did not want to file any type of report — verbal or written,” Batista said. “He also mentioned that he had forgotten the incident until it was mentioned to him the following day by the board member who witnessed it.”

Batista said the employee made the report as a “preemptive” way to establish the facts, in the event that a witness came forward with a complaint.

Zeman has recused himself from any discussions and votes related to the school board’s response to the allegations, on the advice of his private attorneys.

In Fam’s case, an 18-year-old student reported to a district employee that on March 27, 2023, Fam had touched him on the bottom. Fam has said the encounter happened during a crowded group photograph and the touch was accidental, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Batista says the employee then reported the student’s allegation to the Florida Department of Children and Families. Under state law, school district employees are required to report “all actual or suspected cases of child abuse, abandonment, or neglect”. According to Batista, DCF did not proceed with the case because the student is 18.

Superintendent Earlean Smiley said she was also involved in the response to the incident, reaching out to the student’s principal, who contacted the student’s parents. The student also gave a written statement of their account for the record, but did not file a formal complaint.

Tense discussions

The discussions around the allegations grew tense at times, with members of the public repeatedly raising their voices and talking over board members. Supporters of Fam and Zeman alike claimed the allegations were politically motivated and that any investigations should be mothballed, since no formal complaints were filed.

“We need to drop both complaints if there is no complainant,” a Fort Lauderdale resident named Sandra Diaz told the board. “I mean, my God, how many agencies are you going to involve in non-complaints? … We have students here to educate.”

Board members insisted that the district has a responsibility to properly address allegations like this, particularly when it pertains to students. Under Florida law, school district employees are mandatory reporters – meaning they must report any cases of potential child abuse or risk criminal penalties or losing their teaching license.

“It's your name, your reputation, your livelihood, your ability to not be in prison on the line if you do not move forward and report those things,” said Board Member Sarah Leonardi.So to claim that an employee reported a matter that a student brought to them is political is simply not true.”

The allegations raised particular concerns for some, especially at a time when elected officials are worried that any perceived missteps could catch the eye of Gov. Ron DeSantis. He has been centralizing his control over state and local education policy — including the removal of Broward school board members from office.

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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