The former head of mental health services for Miami-Dade schools will start a new job in Oregon next month, leaving South Florida amid an internal investigation into complaints about her and the district’s use of state law to commit students for involuntary psychiatric evaluations.
Suzy Milano, formerly Milano-Berrios, has been hired by Portland Public Schools to direct the district’s education options department. She will oversee programs for students with special needs, alternative schools and charter schools, which together involve more than 3,000 students. She will be paid between $112,500 and $137,700 annually, said Matt Shelby, spokesman for Portland Public Schools.
Her departure comes before the Miami-Dade school district has finished an investigation into a host of employee complaints about Milano and allegations that counselors were being coerced into removing students from the classroom and having them transported by police for involuntary psychiatric evaluations under the Baker Act.
“Because the case remains open, the district is not able to discuss the investigation,” said John Schuster, spokesman for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
The district has maintained that the rise in Baker Act cases echoes a statewide trend and reflects more training of teachers, counselors and police to be alert and sensitive to the emotional problems of students, who face more pressure than ever.
The allegations prompted the temporary reassignment of former schools police chief Charles Hurley, as well as Milano, pending the outcome of the probe. In June, she was transferred from mental health services to attendance services.
Milano did not respond to email or phone requests for comment.
Portland’s director of human resources told The Oregonian that officials there did not know about Milano’s reassignment or the open investigation, despite a vetting process that included a background check, talking with references and an Internet search.
Portland’s chief academic officer, Sue Ann Higgens, told the paper that the district’s rising use of the Baker Act had come up in interviews for the position, which was posted in July, and that Milano had an explanation.
While Milano was director of the department of mental health services and crisis management, Miami-Dade schools confronted a number of high-profile crises, including the death of Miami Gardens teen Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed while serving an out-of-school suspension, and a growing national concern about bullying.
A series of complaints obtained by The Miami Herald portray Milano, charged with the district’s bullying prevention programs, as a bully herself.
“We are scared to displease her, so we have been faking all our smiles. We are scared because she has mentioned to us that if someone does anything to her they will pay and have actually seen it happen. She will make that person’s life a living hell,” wrote Annette Fernandez, a secretary who has worked for the school district for 15 years.
Several employees wrote that Milano harassed, humiliated and intimidated them. Among the allegations: She cursed at employees; expected them to work without compensation at weekend and evening activities; required gifts for holidays and admonished them for forgetting her birthday and her son’s birthday, even Mother’s Day since she was the “mother figure in the office and that day was an opportunity to show gratitude to her.”
Milano is set to start Oct. 1 in Portland, Shelby said.
Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.