Broward News

Cypress Bay Teacher Groped and "Masturbated" Special Needs Student, Lawsuit Says

In 2012, Michael Saphir was a student at Cypress Bay High in Weston. Saphir has severe developmental disabilities and functions at the level of a 10-year-old. Because of this, Barbara and Albert Saphir say they found it strange when a Cypress Bay teacher danced "all over" their son at the school's JROTC Military Ball that year. In a lawsuit, the Saphir parents allege that a former teacher rubbed her face on Michael's, held his hand, and stroked his leg. They say that they complained but that the teacher was allowed to keep seeing their 16-year-old son and that she continually sexually harassed him.

Days after the dance, the parents sent a letter to the school. In it, the pair claimed Michael "talked about the 'crazy lady' that was 'all over him' that slapped his bottom on the dancefloor" after the dance. "We would not want her to have any interaction with Michael and it should be made clear to her that her behavior was completely out of line," the letter says. But the Saphirs say the teacher in question was allowed to continue seeing Michael.

"They complained to school, and the complaint made its way to Assistant Principal Jeff Nelson," the Saphirs' lawyer, Michael Dolce, said. School officials "said the matter would be reported to authorities."

But the Saphirs say police never found out about the alleged assault. "The case was riddled with inappropriate procedure," Dolce says.

According to the lawsuit, Michael told a therapist in 2014 that the teacher — whose name New Times is withholding until she can be reached — had "masturbated him" at one point during their relationship. Upon hearing this, the therapist contacted authorities, and the State Attorney's Office opened an investigation.

According to a memo from August 20, 2014, Assistant State Attorney Lauren Covitz interviewed Michael, who told her that during the dance,"the Subject was rubbing his penis and saying 'fuck you' and telling him that she 'wants to touch (his) shit' and that she 'wants to beat the crap' out of him."

Covitz wrote that she could not prosecute anything that had happened at the Military Ball, as the statute of limitations had run out.

"It was my professional opinion that the misdemeanor charge of 'Battery' could have been pursued if this had been investigated and presented to this office in a timely manner," Covitz wrote. She added, however, that she was also unable to corroborate Michael's story.

So now, the Saphir family is suing Broward County Public Schools, alleging that the district failed to properly investigate their complaint and continually put their son in harm's way.

"He used to be very, very outgoing, very personable," Barbara Saphir said. "It's good, in the sense that he's never going to let this happen again. But trying to trust people again has been hard for him."

District spokesperson Nadine Drew said the teacher in question resigned on April 3, 2015. She added that the district does not comment on active litigation. New Times was unable to reach the teacher for comment.

Michael's mother, Barbara Saphir, tells New Times the ordeal has turned her son into an anxious young adult.

The suit comes at a time when Broward Public Schools, the nation's sixth-largest school district, is trying to overhaul its oft-embattled police force. The district has long been criticized for mishandling personnel investigations — according to the Sun Sentinel, the district has lost most cases that were appealed to administrative law judges in the past two years.

"The district's discipline for employees accused of such allegations as insubordination or moral turpitude have been either too harsh or entirely without merit, judges have said," according to the paper. Critics have also said investigations have dragged on for months or years.

The district has also been lambasted for the way it treats special-needs students. In February, two parents sued Broward Schools, claiming their autistic son had been placed in a trailer and denied food or a bathroom for hours.

This February 19, Superintendent Robert Runcie assigned Jillian Haring, formerly a behavioral support teacher at Cypress Bay, to overhaul the school's investigations unit. The entire school police force, Runcie said in a memo, would now report to the school's human resources department. Days later, then-School Police Chief Anthony Williams resigned without explanation.

Said the Saphirs' attorney, Dolce: "Had this been put in hands of child welfare officials or law enforcement officials, who are trained to handle these types of situations, none of this would have happened."
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Jerry Iannelli is a staff writer for Miami New Times. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He moved to South Florida in 2015.
Contact: Jerry Iannelli