Broward School Board postpones investigating two members accused of inappropriate touching
Miami Herald | By Jimena Tavel | April 12, 2023
After an awkward discussion that stretched for nearly three hours, the Broward School Board voted 5-2 on Tuesday to postpone a decision on whether to investigate allegations that two board members inappropriately touched a student and a staff member in separate incidents.
The details of the touching incidents remain unclear, but the board members facing the allegations are Brenda Fam, who represents District 6, and Allen Zeman, who represents the entire county through the at-large Seat 8.
Fam faces accusations that she inappropriately touched an 18-year-old student on the buttocks in late March at an awards banquet at the Signature Grand in Davie, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Fam said that she “inadvertently brushed against someone” with her hand, but didn’t specify where on the body it was.
Last week, she told the Herald she would cooperate with an investigation.
In Zeman’s case, a male employee told then-Broward Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright in December that Zeman had hit him in the buttocks during a meeting, but he didn’t wish to file a complaint, the Sun Sentinel reported. Cartwright and the board mutually parted ways at the end of January.
Zeman, in an interview last week with the Herald, called the incident a “nothingburger.”
On Tuesday, Interim Superintendent Earlean Smiley didn’t provide details about the cases and didn’t specify how the complaints escalated. She said one case involved a written complaint and the other a verbal one. Both cases had willing witnesses, she noted, and one was reported to a school resource officer.
The board postponed its decision on hiring an external investigator to look into the allegations until a special meeting next Tuesday, April 18. The board voted to require Marylin Batista, interim general counsel for Broward schools, to attend that meeting and asked her to recommend future actions.
Batista couldn’t attend Tuesday’s meeting because she was on vacation, said John Sullivan, a district spokesman.
BATISTA’S VACATION AN ISSUE
The board members in favor of pushing back the issue — Torey Alston, Lori Alhadeff, Jeff Holness, Sarah Leonardi and Daniel Foganholi — pointed to Batista’s absence as the main reason to delay the vote on the investigation. Without her, they said they didn’t have all of the information. The two who dissented in the 5-2 vote were board member Nora Rupert and board vice chair Debra Hixon.
Batista was the only top district employee who worked closely with both Cartwright and Smiley during the time the allegations surfaced. In February, Batista told the South Florida Sun Sentinel she found the Zeman allegations “to be without merit.”
“I think it’s important for us to have all of the facts, all of the information,” said Alhadeff, the board’s chair. “There’s holes right now, and we need to be able to look at this with confidence and then make a decision.”
The Tuesday meeting grew confusing at times not only because of Batista’s absence but also because Batista’s substitute, Kathelyn M. Jacques-Adams, told board members not to mention the names of their fellow board members involved in the alleged incidents nor the names of the alleged victims. Alhadeff also asked audience members to not name any board members, not even those facing allegations.
Foganholi argued the issue should be thrown out completely — a position the vast majority of the people present at the meeting supported.
Holness tried to throw out Zeman’s case but keep Fam’s — saying Zeman’s alleged victim hadn’t filed a complaint and Fam’s had.
Alston accused Holness and Leonardi, the sole board member who supported Holness, of politicizing the issue. Both Holness and Leonardi denied it.
Hixon said the board doesn’t have all of the information it needs before deciding on the scope of the investigation.
“We’re not here to make judgment on anyone. We’re here for an item to have an investigator look to see if there’s a concern. Waiting a week isn’t going to change whether we should have an investigator or not — there was an incident,” Hixon said.
Rupert, for her part, argued the board needed to launch the investigation immediately on both incidents. She pointed to her own case: In 2016, she and then-board member Robin Bartleman were accused by an employee of harassment but were cleared by the investigator.
“As somebody who was accused, it was horrifying, but it was the right thing to do and I think that we need to do this,” she said.
WHAT DO ZEMAN, FAM THINK OF THE ALLEGATIONS?
Zeman didn’t comment or vote during the Tuesday meeting because state law requires him to recuse himself.
Last week, he told the Herald every complaint must be listened to, but noted the employee involved hadn’t filed a complaint in the alleged incident concerning him.
Fam didn’t attend the meeting because she said she needed to go to the emergency room.
“Was diagnosed with pneumonia and will be on bed rest for a few weeks,” she told a Herald reporter.
She directed questions to her attorney, David Bogenschutz, who didn’t respond to a request for comment from the Herald.