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7th-grader had a funny feeling about her math teacher — what she found got him fired

The Homestead campus of Miami Arts Charter School. (Nancy Tyler)

MIAMI — A seventh-grade student at Miami Arts Charter School had a funny feeling about her math teacher, so she went home and Googled him.

It didn’t take her long to find a 2007 newspaper article from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune detailing troubling allegations against Scott Manas.

While he was teaching at a middle school in Hillsborough County in the mid-1990s, the article said, Manas had allegedly taped a photo of a female student inside a cabinet and collected mementos from her — including a lock of her hair and a tissue she had used to blot lipstick — in a desk drawer.

Investigators later discovered that Manas had also written “inappropriate” notes to other girls and that he’d told one student he loved her, according to the article. As a result, Manas had been sanctioned by Florida’s Education Practices Commission, the body that evaluates allegations of teacher misconduct, but had kept his teaching license. No criminal charges were filed.

Manas could not be reached for comment. He told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 2007 that he was “unfairly singled out and made an example of for other teachers.”

“The School Board took what she said and just ran with it, despite her reputation at school and the way she dressed and presented herself to others,” he told the newspaper.

The Miami Arts Charter School student posted the results of her sleuthing on Snapchat on Feb. 7. By the time she got to school the next morning, everyone was talking about the allegations. And by Monday morning, Feb. 12, the teacher had been fired.

But questions remain. Parents said they don’t understand why school administrators didn’t find out about the allegations when they hired Manas last year. They said the lapse is symptomatic of broader problems at the publicly funded, privately managed arts school, which recently made the news after principal and founder Alfredo de la Rosa responded to an email from a concerned parent with sarcasm and a poop emoji.

“I just don’t feel that they’re doing a thorough job of vetting the teachers and making sure they’re safe for the kids,” said Evelyn Benitez, the mother of the seventh grader. “If this slips through, and this is pretty obvious, what else slips through?” At the parent’s request, the name of the seventh grader is not being published.

Since the Hillsborough County allegations resurfaced in early February, some female students at Miami Arts Charter have told their parents about interactions with Manas that made them uncomfortable, said Elizabeth Miller, a parent whose daughter goes to the school. In addition to teaching math, Manas tutored some students and sponsored the school’s anime club, parents said.

“They have completely lost my trust,” Miller said, referring to the school’s administration. “We need everyone to be properly vetted. Now I’m questioning every last person you have given access to my kid.”

De la Rosa said he was not aware of the allegations against Manas when he hired the teacher in 2017, but conceded that he “probably should have Googled him.” When de la Rosa interviewed Manas for a job, Manas was already working at another Miami-Dade charter school, Miami Community Charter Middle School, which meant he had already been cleared to teach by the school district.

Miami Arts Charter submitted Manas’ name to the school district for a background check and drug testing, but the district instructed the school to fill out a transfer form instead, emails de la Rosa provided to the Miami Herald show.

In Miami-Dade, the school district processes background checks for teachers at both traditional public schools and charter schools. Teachers moving from one county charter school to another within a 30-day period don’t have to go through another background check.

“When they come to me from another charter school I’m assuming that they’re OK,” de la Rosa said.

Sanctions from the Education Practices Commission don’t appear in a background check because they’re not criminal charges, and Manas doesn’t have a criminal record in Florida, a Department of Law Enforcement background check shows.

The Department of Education has an online database the public can search for disciplinary actions against teachers, however.

A search for Manas’ name shows that the commission gave him a letter of reprimand and one year of probation in 2000 for alleged misconduct while teaching in Hillsborough County. Teachers placed on probation by the commission are closely monitored and have to notify the state immediately if they change jobs. The settlement agreement Manas signed with the commission is not an admission of guilt.

Manas was also required to complete a college-level women’s issues course as part of the settlement agreement, records show, and to undergo an evaluation through the Recovery Network Program, a state program that helps teachers struggling with drug, alcohol or mental health issues.

The administrative complaint, which details the allegations against Manas, no longer appears in public records. The Herald was unable to independently verify that the description of the allegations that appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune article matches the allegations in the complaint. Administrative complaints are exempt from public records if they have been sealed or expunged or deemed confidential for another reason.

De la Rosa said he had not previously searched for sanctions in the Department of Education database before hiring a teacher but would now add that step to his hiring checklist. “We hadn’t been doing that before, and it’s obviously a very good practice and we’ll certainly be doing it in the future,” he said. “This is the first time anything has come up from a search like that.”

De la Rosa added that he had not previously received any complaints about Manas from students. Since the Hillsborough County allegations resurfaced, he said some students have complained that they felt uncomfortable when Manas took photos of them in his classroom. De la Rosa said Manas explained the photos as an effort to document the school’s Spirit Week.

Miami Arts Charter, which first opened in 2009, has received acclaim for its arts and music programs and in 2016 was ranked as one of Florida’s top 100 public schools by U.S. News & World Report. The school has earned A’s and B’s in its state ratings.

Several other teachers have recently been arrested or fired, however, and some parents said this undermines their confidence in the school.

In January, a 30-year-old teacher at the school’s Wynwood campus, Valeria Ashley Costadoni, was arrested on charges of having sex with a student beginning when the teen was 15. Through her attorney, Costadoni declined to comment.

Two months earlier, a teacher at the Homestead campus had been arrested and charged with driving under the influence and resisting arrest with violence. She was subsequently fired.

Last year, another staff member was fired amid rumors that he had taken a student on a spring break trip to Mexico. De la Rosa said he investigated the allegations and found no evidence a trip had taken place or that anything inappropriate had happened between the staff member and the student. “There seemed to have been a friendship problem among several young ladies,” de la Rosa said. “The student did admit she was friends with this teacher, which I was not comfortable with.”

De la Rosa fired the employee “in the interest of safety and just to be sure,” he said. He later reported the rumors to the Homestead Police Department. Police investigated and found no evidence of any wrongdoing, said Homestead Police Detective Fernando Morales.

The issues at the school stem in large part from teacher turnover, said parents and former employees. At the Homestead campus, numerous teachers have either quit or been fired since the campus first opened in 2014.

One former student said that during her first year at the Homestead campus she saw three different teachers and a substitute come and go in one class before a fourth teacher finally finished the year.

These were some of the concerns that prompted Nancy Tyler, then the parent of a student at the Homestead campus, to email de la Rosa in January. When Tyler asked why parents in Homestead hadn’t been told about Costadoni’s arrest, the principal responded by telling the parent: “You live many miles away. In fact, I’m sure nobody there even knows who you are. You just like the drama. You will have to satisfy your need for gossip by watching TV.” Then he signed his email with a poop emoji. (De la Rosa said the emoji was an accident.)

The turnover at the Homestead campus “is higher than we would like,” but no worse than at other schools, de la Rosa said. He added that of the 37 teachers hired for the 2017-18 school year, six have left.

“This has to a lot to do with the overall teacher shortage in Florida, particularly in Homestead due to the location and lower population of available qualified teachers,” de la Rosa said. He added that only a small group of parents have raised concerns about the school.

Some parents said they have little recourse when there are problems at Miami Arts Charter. De la Rosa is the principal at both campuses and owns the for-profit charter school management company that helps run the schools, although he said the company has waived its fees in recent years and hasn’t actually made a profit.

While charter schools are publicly funded, they aren’t directly overseen by the Miami-Dade school district. That independence is a draw for many families because it gives schools more flexibility with their curriculum, allowing them to offer robust arts programs like the one at Miami Arts Charter, for example.

But the lack of oversight can also become a problem when there are issues at the school. Charter schools have a board of directors to make sure the school follows the law and is financially sound, among other oversight functions. In general, however, when parents have an issue at a charter school, “There isn’t a lot they can do about it,” said Laura Dinehart, the executive director of Florida International University’s School of Education and Human Development.

“That’s part of being in a charter school,” she said, speaking hypothetically. “It’s like if you have an issue with a private school principal. In the public system, if there’s somebody at the head that’s not doing their job, perhaps you call the district because there’s some district oversight, but in charters or private schools, the school is generally on their own.”

Joyce Slattery, a parent with children at the Homestead campus, said she went to de la Rosa in early February when the allegations against Manas first resurfaced and demanded an explanation. She wanted to know why Manas had been allowed to finish the school day instead of being immediately removed from the classroom while the school investigated.

“We just want more transparency,” Slattery told the Herald in February. “We don’t know who’s who and what’s what.”

De la Rosa has since held a meeting with parents in which he discussed Manas’ firing, among other topics.

Slattery isn’t taking any chances. She has taught her children to check online to see whether their teachers are certified and whether they’ve been disciplined by the state. She has encouraged them to search the names of any teachers they have doubts about and has been checking names on her own as well.

“I didn’t do this beforehand,” she said. “I had confidence the school did this.”