Herald-Tribune | By Ryan McKinnon June 29, 2020
The Office of Professional Practices Services issued a memo that suggested an investigation into former Sarasota superintendent Todd Bowden was biased from the start.
The Florida Department of Education has determined that allegations against former Sarasota Schools Superintendent Todd Bowden do not warrant further investigation, and in a rare move, the DOE openly questioned the legitimacy of the investigation that led to Bowden’s resignation.
Bowden negotiated a settlement and resigned as superintendent in December as the School Board weighed allegations that he ignored complaints about his top deputy sexually harassing Cheraina Bonner, an administrative assistant.
Bowden’s exit was hastened by a damning outside investigation conducted by Sproat Workplace Investigators that concluded the superintendent had ignored Bonner’s pleas for help, even as she said she feared for her life.
However, the DOE’s preliminary review of Bowden’s case, which was issued on June 22, came to much different conclusions.
Not only is the DOE not pursuing a case against Bowden, the review took the highly unusual step of concluding that an outside investigation into Bowden may have been biased from the start.
Professional Practices Agency Chief Randy Kosec Jr. attached an unsigned document to the letter with a timeline of events that clears Bowden and questioned the integrity of Sproat’s investigation.
“The outside firm seemed to show signs of bias toward Bonner. I noted that when they interviewed Bonner, they asked her leading questions, basically feeding her the answers,” Kosec wrote. “When they interviewed Bowden, however, the questions were closer to those of a prosecutor.”
On Monday, Bowden said the report was an “exclamation point” on his career in Sarasota, and School Board Vice Chairwoman Shirley Brown said the DOE report exonerated the former superintendent.
“I’ve had no doubts from the start that I did the best I could under the circumstances, following district policies,” Bowden said.
Vicki Sproat, who led the investigation, could not be reached for comment Monday.
Bowden’s resignation came as a result of a slowly unfolding saga involving allegations that Chief Operating Officer Jeff Maultsby was sexually harassing his assistant, Bonner, sending her inappropriate text messages, making sexual comments and ultimately sending a message she considered threatening when she raised the possibility of reporting him.
The initial investigation concluded that Bowden dragged his feet on launching an investigation. Bonner went to Bowden on April 12, 2019, and shared some of her initial concerns with him.
After weeks went by with seemingly no action, Bonner went to Bowden again on May 8. At this meeting, Bowden said he learned that Maultsby sent Bonner a text saying “Snitches get stitches,” along with an article about a whistleblower being murdered.
Maultsby remained Bonner’s direct supervisor until May 24, when school officials learned that the Herald-Tribune had submitted a public records request for a criminal complaint Bonner had filed with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. At that point, Bowden moved Maultsby to another department.
Sproat concluded last fall that Bowden had not followed a “reasonable” course of action and had ignored legitimate sexual harassment complaints.
The DOE concluded that Bowden’s delayed response was largely due to him getting the information in bits and pieces and Bonner not wanting to file a written complaint. At the time she said she did not want to file a complaint because none of the options on the complaint form matched her situation.
“Much of the delay was caused by Bonner’s refusal to write a complaint and failing to provide complete information,” the memo states.
The DOE’s decision to include a sweeping exoneration in an unsigned memo was described as highly unusual and “bizarre” by several legal experts on Monday.
School Board member Bridget Ziegler said she wants to know who wrote the memo, but, even more than that, she wants to put the Bowden-Maultsby era behind the district.
“The indirect cost of this is a lack of trust,” Ziegler said. “That is my focus that we continue to move forward with our community.”