School Board won’t hire investigator to review inappropriate touching allegations

South Florida SunSentinel | By Scott Travis | April 18, 2023

The state Ethics Commission should review allegations of improper touching involving two Broward School Board members, but no other investigation is needed, the board decided Tuesday.

The School Board had discussed paying an outside investigator to review whether board members Allen Zeman and Brenda Fam had engaged in any misconduct. But General Counsel Marylin Batista said Tuesday that’s not necessary since the district’s Special Investigative Unit had already referred the matter to the Ethics Commission.

“It would seem superfluous at this point to have another investigation by an outside investigator,” Batista said.

The School Board agreed Tuesday to require awareness, sensitivity and sexual harassment training for all board members as well as develop a policy on how to deal with allegations against board members in the future.

Zeman was accused of slapping a district employee on the buttocks during the recess of a Dec. 13 board meeting. The employee told then-Superintendent Vickie Cartwright he didn’t wish to file a complaint, but the matter became public as Cartwright was negotiating her separation from the district.

Zeman, who recused himself from discussing or voting on the matter Tuesday, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel earlier this month he was trying to tap the employee on the back and missed and called the incident a “nothing burger.”

Batista said she recommended in January that the district’s Special Investigative Unit review the matter. Craig Kowalski, chief of the department, told the board he spoke with the State Attorney’s Office and was advised it was not something the office would review, since the subject of the touching didn’t wish to file charges. The office recommended the matter be referred to the Ethics Commission, Kowalski said.

In the second incident, an 18-year-old student reported that Fam touched him on the behind during an event March 27 “and that the student was embarrassed by the incident,” Batista told the board.

The student alerted a district administrator and the school resource officer at his school but did not wish to file a formal complaint, Batista said. Since it involved a student, the administrator notified the Department of Children and Families. That department declined to review the case since the student was an 18-year-old adult, Batista said.

“Even in the absence of a formal complaint, there are certain protections that students and employees possess,” Batista said. “If there are incidents that are brought to the attention of management, it is incumbent upon management to review and determine the appropriate next steps.”

Fam, who didn’t attend Tuesday’s meeting, told the Sun Sentinel in early April she accidentally brushed against someone during a photo at an awards banquet and the person acknowledged it was an accident.

Both incidents were reported to the Ethics Commission on April 11, Batista said. All board members initially agreed to the outside investigation at the April 4 meeting but started having second thoughts at an April 11 meeting and tabled the matter.

“I just don’t want to create redundant efforts where we have multiple sources reviewing it,” Board member Jeff Holness said Tuesday.

A spokeswoman for the Ethics Commission would not comment on the incidents. State law prohibits the commission from confirming or denying the existence of complaints unless a formal recommendation for action is made or the case is dropped.

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