Principal, assistant principals of Palm Beach Central High arrested on charges of failure to report sexual abuse

South Florida Sun Sentinel | By Shira Moolten | July 25, 2023

The principal, assistant principals, chorus teacher and behavioral therapist of Palm Beach Central High School were arrested Monday on charges of failing to report the sexual assault of a 15-year-old student to the Department of Children and Families, as required under Florida law.

The school principal “conducted his own investigation” into the incident and decided it didn’t happen, a heavily redacted probable cause affidavit states, though he said he would remove the student accused of the assault from school activities. That punishment is similar to when a student is caught vaping.

Principal Darren Edgecomb, Assistant Principals Daniel Snider and Nereyda De Garcia, chorus teacher Scott Houchins, and the school’s behavioral therapist, Priscilla Carter, knew about the abuse of the 15-year-old girl and all now face charges on one count of failure to report sexual abuse of a child, according to the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office. They had their first appearances in Palm Beach County court Tuesday morning.

The staff at the Wellington school knew about the girl’s assault and about her suicidal ideations afterwards, according to the affidavit, but never reported anything to DCF.

All staff have been re-assigned to positions that do not have student contact, Palm Beach County School District spokesperson Angela Cruz Ledford said in a statement. The statement does not say what those positions are or what they are paid. It is also unclear who is replacing them at the high school or whether school operations will be affected.

“We cannot comment on an open investigation,” Ledford said. “… The allegations involving students occurred off of school property and over a weekend. However, no matter when or where any alleged assault against a student occurs, our policy aligns with the law, which requires all personnel to report suspected abuse.”

The affidavits detail two major moments in which the school staff failed to perform their duties as mandatory reporters, instead keeping key information away from the student’s parents and choosing not to talk to witnesses of the assault.

The letter

In June 2021, just before the end of the school year, another student at the school who was a friend to the girl wrote a letter about the girl being sexually assaulted, voicing concern for her mental health. She gave the letter, handwritten in pink ink, to Houchins, the chorus teacher.

The victim “has had many problems with guys and has been sexually assaulted by two of them,” the letter read. “I have witnessed both of them not taking no for an answer.”

The letter continued, “many anxiety and panic attacks were caused by this leading to self-harm.”

Houchins read the letter but did not report the described assaults to DCF. Instead, he told investigators he gave the letter to someone in the guidance counselor’s office, but couldn’t remember who, according to the affidavit.

The letter had been given to Carter, the school’s behavioral health professional, the affidavit states.

Carter called the girl to her office, evaluated her and determined she was not a risk to herself and did not need to be admitted involuntarily to a hospital for psychiatric observation, the affidavit states. She did not ask about the assault or report it to DCF. She only asked the girl about her suicidal thoughts and if she was safe in her current relationship. The girl said yes, because she was not dating the boy who assaulted her.

Carter then called the girl’s mother, whose name is redacted in the affidavit, following the meeting. She told her that there was a letter in a counselor’s mailbox about the girl’s thoughts of suicide and cutting, but did not say anything about the letter’s mention of sexual assaults.

The girl attempted suicide that summer, while on a school function in Washington D.C., according to the affidavit.

“The [redacted] did not learn that the letter addressed sexual assault” until August of that year, only requesting a copy of the letter in late September, the affidavit states.

Carter initially denied knowing about the letter, according to the affidavit, then said it was HIPPA-protected, then that she didn’t have the letter. When Principal Edgecomb was asked, he said that he did not have the letter either. He and Carter did not respond to multiple subsequent requests.

Only in October, after receiving nine requests, did Carter respond in an email that a typed transcript was available in the front office.

Carter later told detectives that she had typed it out because Karen Whetsell, Edgecomb’s supervisor, had told him to type it out as it wasn’t safe for the person who wrote the letter or anyone involved. She said she didn’t know who had the letter because the District was investigating.

Reporting the assault

In August 2021, another person, whose name was redacted, had reported the assault to Assistant Principal Snider. In a written statement, she told Snider who assaulted the girl.

Snider did not report the assault to DCF. Edgecomb then received the statement. He also did not report the assault to DCF, the affidavit says.

The next day, the victim was called to the main office to provide her own statement, according to the affidavit. In the statement, she described the assault and identified someone whose name was redacted as a witness. She said that a boy, also a student at the school, continued to assault her while she said “no” repeatedly.

The statement was taken by Assistant Principal Cayado De Garcia and given to Edgecomb. Again, no one reported the assault, according to the affidavit.

In a meeting two days later, Edgecomb said that Snider brought the situation to his attention, saying he wanted to be involved, according to the affidavit. Edgecomb told Snider he could not get involved, and that he had conducted his own investigation into the assault and would not share his findings.

He said he did not contact law enforcement or DCF because he “felt that a sexual assault did not occur, based on his investigation,” the affidavit states.

Another person’s interpretation of the assault was different, Edgecomb said, adding that “we weren’t going by hearsay.”

He added that the girl should have told her parents, who should have been the ones to report the assault to law enforcement, according to the affidavit.

The girl’s parents did report the assault to the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office in August 2021, according to the affidavit. Detectives had opened a criminal investigation into the “lewd and lascivious molestation,” but the parents decided not to pursue charges against the 15-year-old suspect, according to the affidavit. The case was closed and cleared that October.

De Garcia also said she decided not to interview one of the people the girl said intervened during the assault because she “didn’t feel” the person was involved, according to the affidavit.

Edgecomb said that he and his “superior” had received an email from SafeSchools, a company that gives school staff safety and compliance training, requesting a meeting about the incident, according to the affidavit. It is unclear what happened in that meeting.

He said the student accused of the assault would receive disciplinary action, according to the affidavit. Asked why he would discipline the boy if he didn’t think he did anything wrong, Edgecomb said, he “is aware of how it looks.”

Edgecomb was previously removed from his post at Palm Beach Central after an Office of the Inspector General report found that he had changed students’ grades in an unrelated incident.

In 2017, when Edgecomb was principal of Turning Points Academy in West Palm Beach, a teacher said that he demoted her after she became pregnant. The district agreed to pay her $350,000 in back pay and damages.

School Board members Marcia Andrews and Karen Brill declined to comment Tuesday, citing the open investigation. Andrews represents the district that includes Palm Beach Central.

A voicemail left for Board Chairman Frank Barbieri was not returned on Tuesday afternoon.

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