Pat Raia, [email protected]
An employee of the Suncoast Elementary School in Spring Hill is being held at the Hernando County Detention Center on multiple counts of sexual assault on a minor after his arrest at the school last week. Meanwhile, the parents of some students at the school said that they were not informed of the arrest or whether the employee had routine contact with students before he was taken into custody.
Michael Terry, public information officer for then Hernando County Sheriff’s Office said that on March 2 Sheriff’s Office personnel acted on a warrant and arrested Dwaine Anton Francis at the Suncoast Elementary School on three charges of sexual battery on a victim younger than age 12 years and one charge of lewd and lascivious behavior.
The arrest and the charges stem from an outstanding warrant from a South Florida law enforcement agency, Terry said.
Hernando County Sheriff’s Office personnel would have notified authorities at the school before making the arrest, Terry said.
“We would have talked to the principal or vice principal – the school administrator – before we went to the school to serve the warrant,” Terry said. “It (the arrest) would have been pretty low key – they (school administrators) might have called him (Francis) to the office – we don’t want to arrest the (person) in public and traumatize the kids.”
According to Karen Jordan, public information officer for the Hernando County School District, Francis was hired as a Physical Education (PE) para-professional on Feb. 1.
“As a para-professional, he would assist a PE teacher by coordinating activities in physical education classes,” she said.
Before he was hired, Jordan said that Francis underwent a background check, a reference check and was fingerprinted as prescribed by school hiring protocol.
“No employee is permitted to report for duty until all steps are completed,” she said “Francis had no known criminal history prior to the arrest on March 2.”
He was still in his probationary period when his employment was immediately terminated on March 2 when he reported to the office, she said.
After Francis’ arrest and subsequent termination, the school’s principal notified parents by telephone of the incident, Jordan said. The telephone message reached 780 phone numbers and did not include the name of the employee or details of the accusations, she said. It did describe the nature of the message as “serious.”
Still some parents said that they did not receive the telephone message. That may be because the school did not have updated phone contacts for parents, Jordan said.
“Generally, when parents do not receive a notification from the school, it is because of a new phone number that has not been updated with the school or the voicemail may have been declined or deleted by a member of the household or calls from the school were inadvertently opted out of,” she said. “On March 5, the school provided a follow-up post on the school’s Facebook page.”
According to Jordan, whenever there is an allegation of wrongdoing against an employee or an arrest, the school district follows state statutes 119.07 and 1012.31.
Under State Statute 1012.31 personnel files must be maintained by the school. Under State statute 119.07, every person who has custody of a public record shall permit the record to be inspected and copied by any person desiring to do so, at any reasonable time, under reasonable conditions, and under supervision by the custodian of the public records.
Still, Rep. Blaise Ingoglia (R-Spring Hill) said that the school’s response to the incident was inadequate.
“They (the school’s administrators) are quick to notify parents when a child comes in contact with a person who is COVID-19 positive, but they don’t tell parents when a child comes in contact with an alleged pedophile,” Ingoglia said. “They went out of their way to neglect to tell parents.”
In response to the incident, Ingoglia said that he plans to offer an amendment to another education bill that would require schools to notify parents whenever children come in contact with an accused pedophile.
“If you were a parent with a child in school who could have come in contact with an alleged pedophile, wouldn’t you want to know?” he asked.
Meanwhile, Francis is being held without bond at the Hernando County Detention Center pending his extradition to the South Florida law enforcement agency that initially obtained the warrant.