Saturday, October 20, 2018

Pinellas principal’s lewd comments created ‘fear and intimidation’ at school, report finds

In his year as principal of Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School, Anthony Francois sexually harassed at least three female employees, according to an investigation by the Pinellas County school district.

His offenses included inappropriate comments about the employees' bodies, to both the women and others, at least one unreasonable visit to a female teacher's classroom during her planning time and repeated sexual vulgarity, records show.

"The continued inappropriate comments have resulted in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation for the affected employees," the investigative report said, adding that the district also found "significant management issues" at the Pinellas Park school.

Francois, 50, resigned Aug. 30, before the investigation by the district's Office of Professional Standards closed. He is not eligible for rehire.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Francois denied the allegations. He downplayed many of the instances as "locker room talk" with other administrators behind closed doors.

"As an administrator, there are people you can trust and let your hair down a bit with," he said in the interview. "I was under the impression that if everyone was participating, then it was all good."

Francois said female employees told him on a "regular basis" how attractive he is and it never raised a red flag for him.

"They told me all the time, 'You're a good-looking man, everyone wants your attention,'" he said in the interview. "It never registered as anything to be taken offensively or anything. … We're all sort of in a friendly environment."

Dywayne Hines, Pinellas' executive director of middle school education, approached Francois about written complaints against him in January, requesting that the inappropriate comments stop. But his behavior did not change, the report said.

Hines asked Francois about an allegation that he had been "sitting in his office looking at cameras," or campus monitors, when an image of a female employee came across the screen.

The principal allegedly made a sexual comment about the woman, the report said.

Francois denied the incident to Hines, saying another administrator made the comment. In the interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Francois said Hines was his mentor and told him their talk wasn't an "official visit."

According to the investigation, one teacher reported Francois saying: "Hey, why don't you walk ahead of me so I can check you out from behind?"

The teacher said the principal made a comment about her breasts in the hallway, then another comment about her calves in his office, the report said.

Once, Francois came to her classroom and said, "Why don't you bend over so I can get a better look?" the report said. All four incidents happened at the start of last school year.

Two female administrators who filed complaints with the district approached Francois about his comments in December.

According to the report, he responded: "Oh you are right and I have to do better. Baby needs new shoes."

Francois made sexual comments to one of those same administrators as recently as Aug. 22, the report said.

It said that, while in the cafeteria, he used explicit language to compare a microphone the woman was holding to his genitals. Francois denies the incident.

He also referenced a student's breasts in conversation with the administrator the same day, the report said.

Harold Behar, a Pinellas Park police officer who serves as the school resource officer at Morgan Fitzgerald, confirmed to the district that he heard Francois say, "I'd like to get me some of that," in reference to a teacher.

A male administrator reported Francois making a reference to having sex with a teacher, the report said. Francois responded to investigators and the Times saying that administrator often made comments similar to his.

In all, the investigation found 12 incidents of inappropriate comments by Francois. Five were corroborated by witnesses or video.

Still, Francois told the Times he is "dumbfounded."

"No one ever said I was making them uncomfortable. … If they had, I would have very quickly stopped," he said. "My career is hanging by tatters right now. … My reputation is mud."

Francois has worked in Pinellas schools since 2010, when he was hired as a teacher. Since 2012, he has worked in administrative roles at various schools. He started as principal of Morgan Fitzgerald in July 2017.

He has no criminal record in Florida, according to Department of Law Enforcement records. However, in his application to the district, he listed a 1990s conviction in Oklahoma for attempted embezzlement, stating that he was pardoned by the governor.

School Board members on Tuesday approved Francois' replacement: Ija Hawthorne, who moves to Morgan Fitzgerald Middle from Gibbs High, where she was assistant principal and coordinator of the Business, Economics, Technology Academy. Her first day is today.

Contact Megan Reeves at mreeves@tampabay.com. Follow @mareevs.

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