How did this middle school teacher stay so long while girls said he was molesting them?

Middle school physical education teacher Wendell Nibbs sat down with a detective looking into allegations that he had asked a 14-year-old student when she would let him see her genitals.

He spoke like a man who had been here before — and he had, many times.

“I can see why the district is looking into this allegation,” said Nibbs, who was an imposing presence at Brownsville Middle School at 6 feet 4 inches and about 250 pounds. “I have a few other allegations attached as well. I guess when there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

That account comes from Miami-Dade Public Schools Police Detective Bernise Charley’s investigative report from 2015. It was the fifth allegation of sexual misconduct involving a student Nibbs had faced in 11 years. Four more students would come forward after that. The Department of Children and Families was contacted three times.

But as that detective would later write — repeatedly — “nothing came of the allegations.”

That changed when Miami-Dade Schools Police arrested Nibbs on Nov. 30, 2017. Nibbs, 53, is set to stand trial in June on charges that he sexually assaulted two students inside the private office in his classroom. On Wednesday, Nibbs was arrested again on two more charges of raping students. One girl said she believes he may be the father of her child. Three former students are suing Miami-Dade Schools, and their lawyers say they plan to bring two more lawsuits on behalf of the two girls who recently came forward.

That’s four criminal sexual assault cases and allegations of sexual misconduct made by nine female students from Brownsville Middle School in the 15 years since Nibbs became a teacher.

The Miami Herald reviewed more than 400 pages of documents obtained from Miami-Dade Schools and the State Attorney’s Office in public records requests. Their contents raise questions about how two powerful institutions — the United Teachers of Dade and Miami-Dade County Public Schools — dealt with 12 years of allegations against the veteran educator.

While his students filed complaint after complaint against him, Nibbs rose into the teachers union’s inner circle. He spent eight years as a building steward and was a forceful advocate for the current UTD leadership. He campaigned with that group three years ago — while under investigation for groping a fellow teacher, an allegation found to be unsubstantiated.

Former Brownsville Middle physical education teacher Wendell Nibbs, front and center in black, poses with United Teachers of Dade leadership in a photo posted on Facebook November 16, 2017. He was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting two students two weeks later. Screenshot from Facebook

Through a spokeswoman, UTD President Karla Hernandez-Mats said that if employees are hired by the school system, they are deemed to be qualified and safe to be in an school environment, “as far as UTD and other district employees are concerned.”

There are also issues with how the district handled the allegations and how it conducted investigation after investigation that went nowhere.

“He really preyed on the most vulnerable in our society,” said attorney Pedro Echarte, who along with attorney Aaron Karger, represents the former students in their civil suit, “and the School Board didn’t do anything to protect them.”

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“The allegations against this former employee are clearly reprehensible,” said Miami-Dade Schools spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego in a statement Thursday after Nibbs’ latest arrest. “We will continue to provide whatever assistance is necessary to ensure swift prosecution of the individual charged with these disturbing accusations.” The district would not comment further, citing pending litigation.

‘One day you’re going to be mine’

The first complaint of a sexual nature against Nibbs came in May 2004 when a 14-year-old girl told an assistant principal that Nibbs pulled her toward him and told her, “One day you’re going to be mine,” while rubbing her waist. She waited a day to report it, records show, because she didn’t think anyone would believe her.

Nibbs denied the allegations. A school police detective said he tried to re-interview the girl who complained, records show, but she refused to speak to him. Her allegations were deemed unsubstantiated.

That incident convinced another girl, also a 14-year-old, to come forward, too. “He asked me was I having sex + I told him no then he said ‘That’s Good,’ ” the second girl wrote in her statement. Then, she said, Nibbs told her he wanted to perform a sex act on her and touch her inappropriately. She left his classroom, according to the statement found in Nibbs’ district file.

Nibbs denied this as well. It was also deemed unsubstantiated by schools police.

From those first two allegations to now, a total of nine female students at Brownsville Middle would accuse Nibbs of inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature. In the allegations that resulted in the criminal charges Nibbs faces in June, a student said in a sworn statement that she had intercourse with Nibbs five times during her eighth-grade year.

In March 2006, a student said in a handwritten statement days before her 15th birthday that Nibbs had asked her for a kiss during gym class. “This is not true,” Nibbs wrote in his statement, underlining the word “true.” Nibbs received a verbal warning, but the allegation was deemed unsubstantiated by the Office of Professional Standards, citing “lack of sufficient information.”

In May 2013, a 14-year-old accused Nibbs of making sexual passes toward her on the P.E. field, documents show, including telling her that he will give her “the best present of her life when she turned 18.” She also said Nibbs showed her photos of pierced genitals and buttocks on his cellphone, “always” hit her leg close to her thigh, and in front of her would discuss her developing body with a security guard. He told her she needed to bring shorts, “so that she could get her butt in shape because her future boyfriend would be smacking it.”

Nibbs denied ever engaging in inappropriate conversations. “This is all a lie,” he told civilian district investigators. No probable cause was found, “since there is no evidence or witnesses,” a civilian district investigator determined.

In April 2015, a 14-year-old student said she didn’t immediately tell anyone that Nibbs asked her, “When are you going to let me see your p---y?” She didn’t even tell her mother, the student said in a statement, “because she was always extremely tired from working and did not want to bother her.”

Nibbs denied the allegation and told an official he had five years left until he was “out of the system.”

“I need a job. I have two disabled kids, my mother and my father are deceased, and this is ludicrous,” Nibbs said, according to documents. “I am not perfect, but I did not say this.”

Charley determined that there was no probable cause to support the allegation of inappropriate comments, but she did find that Nibbs was in violation of not reporting that the girl was bullied. For that, he was reprimanded. The girl told Charley later that she was forcibly raped by Nibbs in his classroom, which led to one of the two charges he faces in the June trial.

In December 2015, a fellow teacher accused Nibbs of touching her buttocks. In an interview with investigators, Octavia Johnson said Nibbs “should not be working in this capacity, especially around children,” an Office of Civil Rights Compliance investigator wrote. “She stated that a day does not go by that she wonders why Mr. Nibbs is still at the school and around children.”

Nibbs was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing. Johnson did not return requests for comment.

In May 2016, a 15-year-old alleged that Nibbs would tell her she had a “fat ass” and questioned why she was wearing a thong, records show. She recalled that Nibbs one day came over while she was talking to a boy and insinuated that she couldn’t date him because he had a girlfriend. The student told Nibbs she was gay.

“You’re gay?” Nibbs allegedly told her. “All you need is for a boy to put that d--k once in your life.” A classmate corroborated the girl’s allegations. Nibbs said the allegations were a “flat out lie,” but on June 6, 2016, the investigator ruled that Nibbs acted inappropriately toward a student — the first time in 12 years.

The student from the May 2016 complaint told the civilian investigator she saw nude photos on her 17-year-old friend’s phone. It was also rumored, records said, that the 17-year-old had been having intercourse with Nibbs. Though the girl denied having intercourse with Nibbs to police officers, she later said they had intercourse five times in her eighth-grade year, which started when she was 16. Her sworn testimony later led to charges against Nibbs.

The two girls who came forward with statements that led to Nibbs’ latest arrest are not included in the documents the Herald reviewed.

One of those girls said Nibbs was her track coach in eighth grade at Brownsville in 2013-14, according to an arrest affidavit. Nibbs would make inappropriate sexual comments to her and touch her while driving her home. In December 2013, Nibbs gave the girl keys to his office and asked her to get an item. While she was alone in his classroom/office, Nibbs came in. He told the girl to get undressed and they had intercourse. The girl asked Nibbs to stop, she told police, but he continued.

“[The girl] remembered the unbearable pains she endured while being sexually assaulted by Mr. Nibbs in the classroom,” the arrest affidavit read.

The second girl provided an audio statement in December 2018 to Miami-Dade Schools Police. Her abuse by Nibbs began when she was in sixth grade and he was her P.E. teacher, according to the arrest affidavit. Nibbs also made inappropriate comments, took nude photos of the girl and raped her in the girls’ locker room, Nibbs’ classroom/office and at an apartment in Miami Gardens the girl said belonged to Nibbs’ sister.

She stated that Nibbs occasionally did not wear a condom and she now believes Nibbs may be the father of her child.

Nibbs’ lawyer, David Peckins, said neither he nor Nibbs can comment while the case is pending.

Former Brownsville Middle physical education teacher Wendell Nibbs posted a photo on Facebook promoting United Teachers of Dade’s Frontline caucus. Nibbs at the time was under investigation for groping a fellow teacher. Screenshot from Facebook

Vulnerable teenage girls

The girls who complained about Nibbs were ones who would have a hard time being believed.

They skipped classes, violated the dress code, cussed out school staff and struggled academically. If someone was looking for vulnerable students, they could be found at Brownsville Middle. Many of them were bullied for being overage for their grade, and Nibbs is said to have comforted them and given them food.

It is the only Miami-Dade school on the state’s list of persistently low-performing schools. Its enrollment is 100 percent minority and economically disadvantaged. For years, Brownsville was the only school in the district that had a clear backpack policy because of concerns about weapons.

That’s also where Nibbs got his start. After stints as a substitute teacher and security monitor, Nibbs was hired as an in-school suspension teacher at Brownsville in November 2003.

The first allegation against him came just six months later.

From May to September of that year, Nibbs was moved to a non-student work site during the investigation. According to district records, Nibbs would not be reassigned away from students until the seventh allegation of sexually inappropriate behavior in 2016.

Many of the girls who came forward did so because they heard their classmates were victimized, according to testimonies documented in Nibbs’ files.

‘When there’s smoke, there’s fire.’

Nibbs’ comment of “I guess when there’s smoke, there’s fire” stuck with detective Charley in 2015.

A year later in 2016, Charley was contacted again. The school resource officer told the detective that he heard a 17-year-old student was having intercourse with Nibbs. The officer said the girl denied the allegations, though he “felt that she was not being completely truthful with him,” and impounded her cellphone with permission.

That tip came from the student who alleged Nibbs made sexual comments toward her. She said she saw nude photos of her friend and Nibbs on her friend’s phone. Charley began to look more into that allegation.

The detective interviewed the friend who saw the nude photos. The friend said she knew the girl and Nibbs were having intercourse but “said she did not tell Ms. Sanchez [district civilian investigator Ana Sanchez] about those allegations because she was afraid of the defendant.”

She came forward with the truth now, because that girl had transferred out of Brownsville, and her own younger sister would be attending Brownsville soon. “She did not want her younger sister to be victimized by him,” Charley’s report read.

The girl said she found text messages sent through a “KIK” account, including naked photos of her friend and of Nibbs’ genitals. The girl asked her friend if they were having intercourse, and the girl admitted to her that they had intercourse during school hours in Nibbs’ classroom.

Charley located that girl, who had transferred out of Brownsville after begging her parents. Word had gotten around the school, records said, that she and Nibbs were having intercourse.

Years later, as a 19-year-old, she was ready to tell all in a sworn affidavit. She said she and Nibbs had oral and vaginal intercourse five times between October 2015 and May 2016 in his office during her eighth-grade year. They sent each other nude photos, which Nibbs would tell her to delete. A forensic examination was able to recover deleted photographs on the girl’s phone.

“Mr. Nibbs told me not to tell anyone because it would ruin his career,” she stated. “He also stated that he had a wife and two children and he wouldn’t be able to see his son graduate.”

Another revelation

Detective Charley began to backtrack and find girls who had reported allegations against Nibbs. She found the girl who said Nibbs asked when he could see her genitalia in April 2015.

Just like the other victim, the girl was 14 at the time and said Nibbs befriended her as she was continuously bullied, she told Charley. He would invite her into his classroom and listen to her complaints.

On a Friday in April 2015, she said, he lured her into his private office inside the classroom. Nibbs started to grope, squeeze and fondle her, according to Charley’s account.

She said she was startled and told him to stop, but he didn’t. He pinned her against the desk and undressed her. She kicked, screamed, yelled at him to stop. She said he began to rape her.

“As she continued to scream, the defendant placed his hands over her mouth,” Charley’s report read.

Then, he forced her to perform oral sex on him, she said. The girl said she didn’t disclose what happened because she was afraid.

“She said the defendant threatened her with bodily harm if she told the school officials or police about what had happened,” the report read.

Charley found the other students, now women in their 20s, from the 2004, 2006 and 2013 allegations. They gave similar accounts to Charley that they had given to investigators years ago.

Their stories made it into the arrest warrant, authored by Charley, that was signed Nov. 28, 2017. Two days later, Nibbs was booked into jail on two counts of engaging in a sexual act with a child in familial custody. He resigned from the district the same day, citing a “personal reason.” Charley also authored the arrest affidavit served on Nibbs on Wednesday, March 20, 2019.

Before the second arrest, a reporter knocked on the door at Nibbs’ home near North Miami, where he was believed to be on house arrest. A camera was trained on the door’s entrance. No one answered the door.

Nibbs’ wife is still listed as employed as a counselor at a North Miami Beach middle school.

Potential flaws in investigations

School administrators and investigators — sworn and civilian — cycled through more than a decade of allegations against Nibbs.

District investigator Ana Sanchez, for example, looked into three of those allegations. On the third case, involving a student’s claim that he made inappropriate comments about a 15-year-old girl’s body and sexuality, Sanchez interviewed Nibbs prior to the alleged victim.

Nibbs told Sanchez about the girl’s poor behavior, even giving her a copy of a referral he wrote for her. Sanchez then questioned the girl about her failing grades, her use of her cellphone during class, the time she cussed at Nibbs and the time she walked out of class without permission.

The girl’s classmate who testified had already told Sanchez that the girl was failing Nibbs’ class because she wouldn’t change into P.E. clothes “because of the way Mr. Nibbs looks at her when she wears her P.E. shorts.”

The alleged victim Sanchez interviewed withheld information about a sexual relationship between Nibbs and her friend, the one who had nude photos on her phone.

In February 2019 after the Herald began researching Nibbs’ teaching history, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho wrote a memo to the Miami-Dade County School Board detailing changes to employee training and investigative protocols. In November 2018, a year after Nibbs’ arrest, Carvalho ordered a review of all processes that addressed allegations of inappropriate interactions with students in November 2018, according to the memo. He held a meeting with all principals to go over their duty of reporting inappropriate conduct.

From now on, the memo read, all allegations of a sexual nature will be investigated by Miami-Dade Schools Police. If the case involves alleged sexual battery, it will be handled by Miami-Dade Police, with schools police shadowing the investigation.

Investigators will no longer be able to independently close cases of a sexual nature, and an internal team will “continue to consider” an employee’s past history. The same investigator will not be able to investigate an employee in a subsequent allegation.

The sanctity of childhood is something that must be vigorously protected,” the memo read.

Carvalho told the Miami Herald he didn’t know about the numerous allegations against Nibbs until the case that led to his 2017 arrest. He said he has directed staff to retroactively find employees with multiple allegations and possibly reopen those cases.

Former Brownsville Middle physical education teacher Wendell Nibbs, right, poses with current Florida Education Association president Fedrick Ingram and United Teachers of Dade’s First Vice President Antonio White, center, in a photo Nibbs posted to Facebook in 2016. In the comments, White thanked Nibbs for his “commitment to improving the lives of our members and the children and families that we serve.” Screenshot from Facebook

Teachers union’s ‘bloodhound’

The United Teachers of Dade knew Nibbs was frequently in trouble.

A UTD representative accompanied Nibbs through investigations of five of the allegations that were sexual in nature, including one where a fellow teacher accused him of groping her. The same UTD representative was present for two of the investigations.

Nibbs was elected as a UTD building steward by his peers at Brownsville. Several stewards said UTD leadership used Nibbs to intimidate other stewards who would question leadership at meetings.

Josh Paolino, a former steward of six years at South Miami Middle, said he knew Nibbs as the guy who would approach or stand behind stewards who got up to speak. If a steward raised concerns about the executive board, Nibbs would tell them, “You need to stop your bitching and moaning.”

“The way I thought it was, it was a form of intimidation,” Paolino said. “He was a pretty large dude.”

Paolino said he immediately recognized Nibbs in the news after the first arrest as the steward from the meetings.

“It makes this profession look bad and by a larger extent, it makes the union look bad because he was in the in-crowd,” he said.

Mary A. Milan, who spent seven years as a steward at G. Holmes Braddock Senior High, described Nibbs as UTD’s “bloodhound.”

“He was their attack dog,” she said. “Any time someone opposed, the leadership stood up and said something. He was one of the loudest voices who said, ‘Shut up, you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ ”

She, too, immediately recognized Nibbs on the news as the steward from UTD meetings.

“When that news broke, I said, ‘This was the guy who was so loud and so adamant about not making problems when problems were made,’ ” she said. “I was like, this is amazing. This is the kind of people that Frontline is aligning themselves with.” Frontline is the caucus within the union that includes the current union leadership.

Nibbs ran as a delegate in 2016 with the Frontline caucus. That slate, which includes the current leadership of Karla Hernandez-Mats, Antonio White and Mindy Grimes-Festge, was widely re-elected for another three years last month.

Nibbs often defended the group against critics online and traveled with UTD to lobby in Tallahassee. There are multiple photos of Nibbs posing with UTD’s executive board, many of which Nibbs posted himself in Frontline’s Facebook group.

One photo shows Nibbs posing with White and current Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram, who previously served as UTD’s president. White posted a comment on the photo thanking Nibbs for his “commitment to improving the lives of our members and the children and families that we serve.”

Ingram said he knew Nibbs as a building rep who came and spoke at meetings and advocated for his school. He said he didn’t know of the allegations against Nibbs until his arrest.

Asked whether UTD considers teachers’ history when serving as a steward or running in elections, Ingram said, “If it’s a person that’s hired by the district and in good legal standing and they pay their dues to the union and they meet whatever qualifications there are, those are the qualifications we have.”

There are multiple photos and selfies online of Nibbs and UTD President Hernandez-Mats, including one from February 2016 where they are posing under Brownsville Middle’s marquee, which reads “UTD we are keeping kids safe.”

Former Brownsville Middle School physical education teacher Wendell Nibbs poses with United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats in front of Brownsville’s marquee in a photo Nibbs posted to UTD’s Frontline caucus Facebook page. Nibbs posted the photo while under investigation for groping a fellow teacher. Screenshot from Facebook
Colleen Wright returned to the Miami Herald in May 2018 to cover all things education, including Miami-Dade and Broward schools, colleges and universities. The Herald was her first internship before she left her hometown of South Miami to earn a journalism degree from the University of Florida. She previously covered education for the Tampa Bay Times.