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‘Gross miscarriage of justice’? Judge dismisses case against Palm Beach County assistant principal in failure to report sexual assault
South Florida Sun Sentinel - 12/1/2023
A Palm Beach County judge dismissed the criminal case against a high school assistant principal last week, months after he and four other Palm Beach Central High School staff members, including the principal, were arrested on charges of failing to report a girl’s allegations of sexual assault.
The boy accused of the assault is also the assistant principal’s son, according to court records, though that did not appear in Judge Scott Suskauer’s reasoning for the dismissal. Both were students at the school.
In the ruling, the judge argues that the wording of Florida’s mandatory reporting law, which Daniel Snider and the others are charged with violating, does not require him to report the allegations against his son to the Department of Children and Families because he didn’t suspect an assault had actually occurred.
Florida Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, a lead architect of the law and a survivor of child sexual abuse, described the ruling as “abhorrent.”
“Quite frankly, I think the judge’s interpretation of the law is wrong,” she told the Sun Sentinel on Wednesday. “It’s a gross miscarriage of justice and is putting children in harm’s way and making children in Palm Beach County far less safe, and quite frankly really sets a dangerous precedent for the reality of child protection beyond borders of Palm Beach County.”
The judge’s ruling draws attention to issues surrounding the law and its implementation. One of the toughest in the nation, it requires everyone to report abuse or risk felony prosecution, regardless of their profession or whether the abuser is another child.
Critics have argued that the law could lead to an increase in false reports or put innocent people on the line for allegations they didn’t think they needed to report. But advocates like Book believe that anyone who hears about possible sexual abuse should report it as soon as possible, and let law enforcement do the investigative work.
“This case would be completely different if the legislature made the decision to elect a different standard for reporting,” Suskauer’s ruling reads. “The State fails to make a prima facie case that Defendant Snider knew or had reasonable cause to suspect [redacted] was the victim of sexual abuse or juvenile sexual abuse stemming from the April incident.”
The alleged assault occurred in April 2021, according to police records. The girl told detectives that she and a friend had met up with two boys at Lake Worth Beach, one of whom forcibly touched her multiple times that day while she said no.
The five school staff members heard about the assault through various means: Some received a letter written by a classmate whom the victim told; others heard a statement from the friend, who witnessed the assault; and others spoke to the victim herself, who spoke to the school counselor and gave a statement to the principal. No one reported it, according to the probable cause affidavit.
In addition to Snider, the others charged are the principal, Darren Edgecomb; assistant principal, Nereyda De Garcia; the school’s behavioral therapist, Priscilla Carter; and the chorus teacher, Scott Houchins. All pleaded not guilty to the charges, and Suskauer is the judge assigned to all of their cases, which are still pending.
Snider heard about the assault from the classmate, who told him in person. He had her write down a statement that he passed along to Edgecomb, according to court records.
At the time, Snider asked to be involved in the investigation, but Edgecomb told him to stay out of it. Edgecomb later informed the girl’s parents that he had “conducted his own investigation” into the incident and decided it didn’t happen, according to court records. But he said that the boy would face disciplinary action, comparing it to a situation in which a student is caught vaping.
Snider had read text messages between his son and the girl that suggested to him that the interaction was consensual, according to the judge’s ruling, long before he heard about the assault in his capacity as assistant principal.
In the text messages after the beach day cited in the motion to dismiss and in the ruling, the boy said, “Thanks for letting me do what I did.”
“I enjoyed it,” the girl replied.
She would attempt suicide a few months later on a school trip, although she had talked about the alleged assault and her suicidal feelings with Carter, the school’s therapist. Carter had told the girl’s parents about her suicidal feelings, but they would not hear about the assault until later, according to the probable cause affidavit.
Suskauer’s ruling hinged on the idea that the mandatory reporting law requires people to exercise their own judgment in determining “reasonable cause” to suspect abuse, a threshold that Snider did not reach.
“Florida Statutes essentially requires the recipient of a report of sexual abuse or juvenile sexual abuse to be a fact finder of sorts, filtering out accusations that may fall below the known or reasonable cause to suspect threshold,” the ruling reads.
The ruling echoes the defense’s motion to dismiss, which argued that because Snider did not believe his own son had assaulted the girl, he had no obligation to report it.
The defense also argued that charging Snider under the law violates his right to privacy and freedom of speech by forcing him to report on his own child, though neither of these arguments were mentioned in the ruling.
The prosecution acknowledged that the statement made by the classmate, all that Snider says he received, is not sufficient probable cause for an arrest, the ruling states, and therefore not sufficient probable cause to mandate a report to DCF.
“Despite the standard for arrest being probable cause and the standard to require a report being probable cause, the State contends that a report should still have been made,” his ruling states.
Richard Hornsby, an Orlando-based defense attorney who represented an administrator in a similar case, believes that the judge interpreted the law correctly.
The text messages, which Snider saw first, suggested that the girl may have initially consented to the encounter, he argued, complicating the picture. If Snider had heard about it directly from the girl herself, without the texts, then his case might have gone differently.
“School personnel got conflicting stories,” Hornsby said.
Assistant State Attorney Joseph Kadis argued in a response to the motion to dismiss that the girl’s text messages to the boy “did not reflect that she consented” but rather “were borne from a traumatized Victim not knowing how to reply.”
But the investigative work should fall to law enforcement, Book said, not the assistant principal.
“That’s why DCF and law enforcement exist,” she said in response to questions over whether the law is too loose. “If something comes across my desk and I suspect a child is being harmed in some way, it is my duty and responsibility to report that so proper authorities can go and investigate it. I’m not a child investigator.”
‘Children don’t report’
Oftentimes, child victims of sexual abuse and assault do not tell anyone. Florida’s mandatory reporting law arose out of a need to make sure the abuse gets reported, even when victims don’t come forward.
“My abuse went on from the time I was 10 until I was 16,” Book said. “Children don’t report.”
But critics have argued that the law, and its varied interpretations, could lead to a surge in incorrect reports for caseworkers to sift through and situations where administrators are punished for not knowing what to do.
“I don’t know that we want laws that are designed to protect children from physical and sexual abuse be used to govern the sexual relations between two teens,” said Mical Raz, a history professor at the University of Rochester who focuses on child welfare and has written about mandatory reporting.
Adding penalties to mandatory reporting laws “is not a useful way to increase correct reporting,” she added.
Across Florida schools, teachers and administrators may also receive different training on how to interpret the law.
Michele White, executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators, declined to comment on the Palm Beach Central case, but said that the training administrators receive about mandatory reporting comes from the school districts.
“From an association standpoint, safety of students is paramount in making sure our administrators are ensuring a high quality of education for students in Florida,” she said. “It ultimately comes down to the training of administrators through the district as to what those requirements are … 67 school districts are all doing it their own way.”
Asked if there are better ways to ensure sexual assaults among teens are reported, Raz said, “When we wonder why victims don’t come forward or don’t complain, we can see how we treat victims who do … I think what would be a good start to get people to seek help from authorities is to know authorities are actually helpful.”
The four remaining cases are still pending. A calendar call is set for Jan. 4, but it is possible that other defendants might file motions to dismiss their own cases, citing Suskauer’s ruling, before then.
Flynn P. Bertisch, the attorney for Nereyda De Garcia, the other assistant principal charged, declined to comment Wednesday, saying he was “still in discussion about next steps.”
Marc Freeman, spokesperson for the State Attorney’s Office, also declined to comment, citing the pending cases.
Attorneys for Edgecomb, Carter and Houchins did not respond to requests for comment. Snider’s attorney, Leonard Feuer, also did not respond to emails or voicemails Wednesday.
Book said Wednesday that she thinks Suskauer should recuse himself, describing his ruling as “judicial activism.” Suskauer is a DeSantis appointee who previously served as a public defender.
She plans to talk to the assistant state attorney and look further into the case, as well as the law itself, in the coming legislative session in January.
It is unclear whether Snider will return to his position now that his case is over. The school district has not yet responded to questions about his employment sent Wednesday.
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