School officials’ delay in reporting misconduct thwarts prosecution of teacher
(PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla.) A lawsuit filed today in federal court charges Broward County Public Schools with failing to address and remedy sexual harassment of a former student with an intellectual disability, a violation of the federal prohibition of sexual harassment under Title IX.
The complaint was brought in U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida, by Albert and Barbara Saphir, legal guardians for the plaintiff, Michael Saphir, an intellectually disabled adult who was a minor during his tenure at Broward County’s Cypress Bay High School. According to the lawsuit he was repeatedly harassed by a former teacher, Nubia Lorenz, while school officials did nothing to address the situation, and, in fact, made it worse. The Saphirs are represented by attorneys Michael Dolce and Leslie Kroeger of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC.
According to the lawsuit, upon knowing of Michael Saphir’s abuse and harassment by Lorenz, school officials failed to protect him. Instead, they misled the Saphirs about whether Lorenz was still on campus and in contact with their son. The suit also alleges that Broward County Public Schools were negligent in properly screening, hiring, supervising, investigating, and disciplining staff who had a duty to protect and provide a safe environment for students under Title IX, and for failure to report a complaint of sexual harassment and abuse to proper legal authorities.
“With this lawsuit, Michael Saphir’s parents are demanding accountability for the Broward County Public Schools’ having tolerated and minimized this type of behavior by an employee of the school district,” said plaintiff’s lead attorney Michael Dolce. “As an intellectually disabled student, he was more vulnerable to the potential for harassment, and as a direct result of the school district officials’ breech of duties, he suffered multiple incidents of sexual abuse and ongoing harassment and the perpetrator was not prosecuted. The duty to report known or suspected abuse to proper authorities for immediate investigation is critical to stopping the epidemic of sexual abuse and harassment of students. This suit demands accountability for violation of that duty.”
According to the lawsuit, the harassment began in April 5, 2012, at a school-sponsored dinner-dance in which Lorenz’s escalating sexual harassment and abuse forced Michael Saphir to prematurely leave the dinner-dance feeling humiliated, anxious and confused. The following day, the Saphirs, who had been at the dinner-dance with their son, sent a complaint to school officials detailing Lorenz behavior and demanding that action be taken.
Upon receipt of the written complaint, Cypress Bay High School administration assumed responsibility to address the complaint and concluded that there was nothing “inappropriate” about the actions of Lorenz that the Saphirs’ had detailed, despite express statements that Lorenz was repeatedly caught in sexualized, physical contact with their son and refused to let go on demand. Then, in violation of several laws, school officials never notified police, child welfare services or the Florida Department of Education that a complaint of sexual harassment and abuse had been made against Lorenz.
In addition, school officials willfully misled the Saphirs into believing that Lorenz had been removed from campus and would have no further contact with their son. Instead, and unbeknownst to his parents, Lorenz continued to have direct contact with Michael Saphir over the next two years, including on field trips and on campus, causing him ongoing mental distress. Michael Saphir disclosed these details to a therapist in 2014 and the therapist immediately contacted law enforcement authorities resulting in a criminal investigation.
At this point, the school district officials finally scheduled a disciplinary hearing to investigate charges against Lorenz, but since Michael Saphir was no longer attending Cypress Bay High School, this action was too late to uphold the school district’s duties under Title IX. Lorenz refused to answer questions from law enforcement officers and resigned from the school district prior to the disciplinary hearing. The State Attorney’s Office issued a written statement that because the misconduct was not reported in a timely way by school officials, prosecution of Lorenz that would have been instituted, could not be.
The Saphirs are seeking a jury trial to address the long-term harm Michael Saphir has suffered as a result of the sexual harassment and the family’s charges against the Lorenz, including having to endure an intolerable and hostile environment that ultimately forced him to leave the school prematurely, psychological harm, and occupational setback.
“In regards to sexual abuse, inaction by officials to act timely and properly is unacceptable,” said Dolce. Parents expect and demand more from our teachers and school officials. "We hope this litigation will shed light on the dark actions of school administrators who behave in this fashion.”