School Board orders training, review of how investigations of teachers are handled

‘I just want justice,’ says mother filing lawsuit against Miami-Dade School Board

The mother of Jane Doe, who was allegedly sexually harassed by Brownsville Middle School teacher Wendell Nibbs, speaks at a press conference in downtown Miami. She was joined by attorneys who announced a lawsuit against the Miami-Dade School Board.
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The mother of Jane Doe, who was allegedly sexually harassed by Brownsville Middle School teacher Wendell Nibbs, speaks at a press conference in downtown Miami. She was joined by attorneys who announced a lawsuit against the Miami-Dade School Board.

The Miami-Dade County School Board unanimously approved two proposals that will provide training sensitive to survivors of trauma for police and school staff and take a hard look at current procedures used to investigate district employees.

Both items were approved at the first school board meeting following the Miami Herald’s probe into how former Brownsville Middle School teacher Wendell Nibbs was able to stay in the classroom after multiple accusations of inappropriate sexual conduct with female students. Nibbs, who resigned from the district in November 2017, has been arrested twice on multiple rape charges against students.

Board member Larry Feldman called for Miami-Dade Schools Police personnel to receive trauma-informed practices training, particularly in techniques used in interviewing sexual abuse victims, as well as training for student service personnel, counselors and psychologists. Feldman requested an update on the trainings by August 14.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Violence Against Women, trauma-informed services are sensitive to the pervasiveness of trauma and its impact on survivors, including how trauma affects a survivor’s ability to cope, access services and feel safe both physically and emotionally. Those who are trained in trauma-informed practices take steps to identify potential trauma triggers, reduce re-traumatization, and attend to the quality of interactions between staff and survivors receiving services.

“Trauma-informed organizations provide survivors and staff with an environment and structure that is inclusive, welcoming, de-stigmatizing, and not re-traumatizing,” according to a document from the Office of Violence Against Women.

Feldman’s item was revised to strengthen official changes outlined in a February 2019 memo by Superintendent Alberto Carvalho: All allegations of sexual battery will be handled by law enforcement, not civilian district investigators, and all investigations involving allegations of a sexual nature that result in a finding of no probable cause be reviewed by the Miami-Dade Schools Police chief.

In his memo, Carvalho had called for a senior level administrator to approve the closing of cases of a sexual nature.

Investigators closed out the first six accusations alleging inappropriate sexual conduct against Nibbs, finding no probable cause. The Herald found that the same civilian district investigator handled three cases relating to Nibbs. She interviewed Nibbs prior to the 15-year-old victim who alleged that Nibbs had made sexually inappropriate comments toward her. The investigator and asked the student about her behavior in class and her failing grades. That student withheld information that she later revealed regarding a sexual relationship between her friend and Nibbs.

Miami-Dade Schools Police Chief Edwin Lopez said 10 to 12 schools police detectives and a few district civilian investigators will be attending trauma-informed practices training with Miami-Dade Police at the end of the month. The training includes sexual abuse victim interviewing techniques, Lopez said.

The second item, proposed by board member Mari Tere Rojas, calls for a review of the current procedures, timelines and staffing needs for the Personnel Investigative Model, which is a protocol for investigating school district employees accused of misconduct. Rojas’ proposal also calls for a training model for administrators and an online program available for all employees.

Rojas’ proposal also creates an opportunity for members of the leadership teams of labor unions to participate in training to familiarize themselves with the PIM program. Carvalho’s memo also included reviewing and revising the PIM “as appropriate.”

Nibbs was an active union steward who rose into United Teachers of Dade’s inner circle and campaigned as a delegate with UTD’s current leadership while under investigation for groping a teacher. The union has maintained that the district carries out investigations and deems teachers to be qualified and safe to be in a school environment.

Asked whether the union would participate in the training, UTD President Karla Hernandez-Mats instead through a spokeswoman gave a statement that she approved of the board’s items and encouraged “any and all procedures that would ensure thorough investigations into all allegations by the appropriate parties.”

“Better training and a common understanding of how the process is intended to work will allow for more effective and efficient investigations,” she said. “We look forward to collaborating and hearing the district’s thoughts regarding changes as we proffer ideas on how to improve a necessary process.”

Feldman and Rojas denied that their proposals were a result of the Herald’s report. Feldman, however, gave a non-specific example of sexual misconduct between an employee and a student in his presentation at a school board committee meeting. Minutes later, Rojas said Feldman’s item went “hand-in-hand” with hers.

“We’re dealing with many, many issues as we know, we pick up the paper every single day,” Rojas said at the April 17 board meeting. “We have issues that are occurring at our schools unfortunately more and more than ever before. It is imperative that we have a user’s manual and an understanding of all of our employees of what is expected of each and every one of those employees held to high standards.”

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.