In the fall of 2019, a William T. Dwyer High School graduate met a police officer on campus in order to report a decades-old crime. The now 34-year-old woman was there, she said, at the behest of her therapist, to expose a man who over the course of three years — from her sophomore through senior years — had engaged in sex with her more than 100 times.
The accused, a one-time football coach and paraprofessional nearly 20 years her senior, still worked at the school.
Michael Dolce, an authority in child sex abuse litigation who has reviewed hundreds of sex crime investigations to weed out missteps for national news organizations, says the district's effort falls short of what he sees in 98% of those investigations.
"Put simply, I am shocked at how poor the investigation was, at least of its initial closure in September 2019," Dolce said. "I've never seen anything quite as lax as this."
In the weeks since Dolce first reviewed the case for the newspaper, an attorney in his firm, the Palm Beach Gardens offices of Cohen Milstein, was retained by the victim to represent her as the case proceeds in criminal courts.
The young woman, who was accompanied by a different lawyer when she met with police in 2020, sought one of Dolce's colleagues earlier this month. The attorneys work with one of the only practices in the region that does such work exclusively. Dolce said his firm won't be pursuing any civil claim relating to this matter.
The school district fumbled in several respects, Dolce said.
He said police ignored telltale signs that pointed to the credibility of the woman's story, and misdirected their efforts in proving or disproving her claims.
In his experience, Dolce said it is standard practice to interview people in the accused's personal and professional circles and the friends and family of the accuser as well. The goal is to determine if there was opportunity, if timelines match, if the girl told her story to anyone else.
"I hate to be cliché, but it's kind of like the game of 'Clue.' You've got to check every room," Dolce said.
"The 2019 complainant's recitation of what was done to her was inherently credible," Dolce said.
The behavior she describes follows a script Dolce and those who advocate for the victims say are the hallmarks of sex crimes against children and teens. In the reports, Dolce finds all of those elements.
"From there, he escalated to overt romantic/physical contact with kissing," Dolce said.
She's paralyzed when he first kisses her. "She feared being rejected and not believed." That, too, is textbook, Dolce said.
By the time they're having sex in his apartment with his wife not present, he has created a situation where she feels responsible for the abuse, Dolce said, "reinforcing in her young and naive mind that she was now also part of an adulterous relationship, further inhibiting disclosure of the crimes."
The details she described should speak to her credibility, Dolce said.
"The investigation was woefully incomplete when it was first closed in September 2019. The investigation was open for only five weeks, an unbelievably short period of time for a first degree sex felony against a student by an in-service teacher," Dolce said.
Why would a person wait until their 30s or beyond to report abuse that happened to them in childhood?
"I get asked that question all the time," said Dolce, a sex abuse survivor who spearheaded a campaign to extend the Florida statute of limitations for reporting.
Though some victims will tell a close friend or confidante bits of their story, telling authorities is a big step, one that can then disrupt whatever bit of a normalcy from family to job that the now-adult has built, Dolce said. Of those who do report the abuse, only 6% to 15% report it to legal authorities.
"Credible accounts of child sexual abuse are constantly questioned because of a failure to understand that delayed disclosure is common for survivors," ChildUSA concluded in its factsheet on the phenomenon.
"There's a number of reasons why that happens. You have to look at who the individuals are, the relationship between them at the time and the nature of how the abuse is perpetrated," Dolce said.
Once she began pushing for an investigation, the former Palm Beach County student did not stop. “To her credit, it appears she persisted in 2020 to motivate a reopening of the case when she located additional evidence," Dolce said.
"I feel that the lackluster and painfully incomplete police investigation, at least as of September 2019, gravely disrespected the courage exhibited by the survivor coming forward when she did.”
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