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Innocent in court, but school has yet to decide

A jury decided that Mark Fronczak wasn’t guilty of assaulting students. But the school is hesitant to bring him back.

By By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published May 6, 2006



LARGO — The trial lasted four days and now the six people who could send Mark C. Fronczak to prison for life filed into the jury room to deliberate.
“My God,” thought Fronczak, an elementary school music teacher, church organist and divorced father of two teenage sons. “This could be it.”

Charged in May 2004 with sexually violating two 8-year-old girls in the presence of 20 other second-graders at Southern Oak Elementary in Largo, he had recieved “The Talk” from his lawyers. If the verdict was guilty, the bailiffs would haul him away on the spot.

He began to savor simple liberties: walking the courthouse hallways; a cold sip of water; just knowing he could stroll outside.


Then word came that the jury was done. It had been only 40 minutes. Fronczak turned to one of his lawyers, Gail Conolly. Surely they would not condemn a man this fast, he said.

She told him juries were hard to figure.

In nearly 20 years as a prosecutor and defense attorney, Conolly had rarely seen a jury so poker-faced. Sometimes jurors would look away as they re-entered the courtroom after a verdict, almost ashamed. Others would smile or give a thumbs-up. This group revealed nothing as they took their seats.

“My heart was just pounding,” Conolly said. “It was awful, awful, awful.”

***

The verdict, to Fronczak’s enormous relief, was “not guilty.”

Afterward, he removed the electronic ankle bracelet that tracked his movements while he awaited trial. Emotionally spent and financially ruined, he sobbed, thanked his lawyers and left the courthouse to hug his sons. A Pinellas teacher for 18 years, he assumed the school system would give him his job back.

That was last July.

This week, the school district will push for Fronczak’s dismissal in a three-day hearing beginning Tuesday before a state administrative law judge.

The final decision rests with the School Board.

In a separate matter, the district is fighting Fronczak’s claim for nearly $200,000 in legal fees. Florida law says school districts must reimburse legal costs for employees who successfully defend against lawsuits or criminal charges that arise in the course of their jobs. Also at stake is about two years of back pay at more than $52,000 a year.

Despite the jury’s verdict, the district alleges that “something inappropriate” occurred in the classroom where Fronczak, now 51, saw 700 kids a week. At least one of the girls, now 10, is expected to again testify — as she did in criminal court last summer — that Fronczak touched her sexually during music class.

“We may think that things are inappropriate that may not rise to the level of a crime,” said Assistant School Board Attorney David Koperski. “We have what appears to be credible evidence of misconduct, and it is so severe that we can’t ignore it.”

Fronczak and his supporters are outraged that the hearing is even being held.

“He is not guilty — end of inquiry, end of story,” said veteran criminal defense lawyer Pat Doherty, who helped defend Fronczak. “Once you’ve had a full and fair hearing on the issues, it’s over. That’s really how life has to work.”

If the district doesn’t want to return Fronczak to the classroom, it should pay him, Doherty said.

“He didn’t do anything wrong,” argued Mark Herdman, the teachers union lawyer defending Fronczak in this week’s hearing. “Is he supposed to walk away at this point and say, ‘Forget it?’ ”


Said Fronczak: “I can’t just let them go ahead and fire me. What would that do but create a cloud of suspicion again?”

In addition to trying to prove that Fronczak abused the two students, the district will make the case that his teaching style was inappropriately touchy and, by itself, sufficient grounds for dismissal.In a recent deposition, Koperski grilled Fronczak: How often did he touch students? Did they sit on his lap? How long? Was that a good idea?

Fronczak countered that music classes are inherently interactive and that brief, innocent touching — while showing children how to use instruments or dancing in a conga line or standing up straight while singing — is appropriate.

District lawyers won’t be burdened by having to prove their case “beyond a reasonable” doubt, as prosecutors were. The standard in this week’s hearing is a “preponderance of the evidence.”

The side that gets the scale to tip in their favor, however slightly, wins the day.

***

Fronczak and his lawyers took it as a good sign that the jury came back so quickly.

Indeed, the jurors were thoroughly convinced of his innocence, said Frances Honadle, a St. Petersburg woman with four grandchildren in Pinellas schools, who emerged as the foreman. One juror held out to make sure they didn’t rush their decision. After a second vote, she said, they all agreed.

“I think he was hurt and I think the community owes him a big apology,” Honadle said. “I can’t tell you enough that this man was not treated fairly.”

She said the children’s testimony seemed inconsistent and rehearsed. She said it also seemed clear that investigators had not fully followed leads on other suspects. She said the timeline was the key.

The case began in early December 2003, when the mother of one of the girls found a blood spot in her daughter’s underwear. She said she determined the bleeding began five days earlier, suggesting that was the day Fronczak abused her.

But the date turned out to be Thanksgiving Day. School had been closed all week. What’s more, the girl had not been in Fronczak’s class for 10 days.

It was clear, though, that someone had violated the girl. Her mother took her to several medical professionals, who asked her about possible abuse.

“I was very adamant,” the mother told lawyers in a January 2005 deposition. “She’s at school, she’s at home. There’s no way that anybody has touched her without me knowing.”

Could it have happened at school? “It was the furthest thing from my mind,” she said.

For months as doctors examined her, the girl said no one had touched her.

“I’m not comfortable filing a police report when my child hasn’t even said somebody has touched her,” the mother said at one point. “I feel like my child would tell me.”

According to her deposition, her daughter mentioned Fronczak’s name during a tearful catharsis in early 2004 after visiting the Child Protection Team, a program that evaluates children in suspected abuse cases.

The teacher had pulled her to him and held tight, the girl told lawyers later. “He stuck his fingers inside of me ... I tried to get up but he kept pulling me back ... It felt like needles going through me.”

The mother said her daughter named Fronczak without prompting. But, according to Conolly, the defense attorney, a Child Protection Team worker made a written note that it was the mother who first brought up Fronczak’s name.

Months before the visit, defense attorneys say, the mother had planted the thought in the girl’s head that Fronczak was “creepy.” The mother says the girl came to feel that way on her own.

Either way, according to the mother’s deposition, the notion stemmed from a 2003 open house where the mother believed Fronczak had flirted with her. Fronczak, who has a fiance, says the claim is nonsense.

In the spring of 2004, Pinellas sheriff’s investigators interviewed nearly 300 students at Southern Oak, many of whom said they sat on Fronczak’s lap or had seen other children do so. They concluded he had abused the two girls while other kids watched videos in the darkened classroom.

But attorneys for Fronczak say investigators missed key leads. Among them: testimony that a babysitter for one girl’s family had sexually abused her older sister.

In her closing argument, Conolly sat before the jury with a child-size mannequin in a jean skirt, just like one worn by the first girl. Recounting her testimony, Conolly used both hands to reach up under the skirt to the top of the underwear. Surely, she argued, such a bold maneuver would have attracted attention in a classroom full of kids.

Defense attorneys also pointed out that Fronczak’s classroom had a refrigerator and coffee machine. Teachers walked in all the time.

***

It did not help Fronczak’s case that in 2002 and 2003, several girls at Southern Oak said he touched them inappropriately. But sheriff’s investigators listed both episodes as unfounded.

In the 2002 case, a fourth-grade girl told a teacher that Fronczak touched her chest and stomach several times. But on closer questioning, she said he once put his hand on her shoulder and once hugged her after she did well on a solo.

Another fourth-grader said Fronczak rubbed her stomach once when she was sick. A third girl said he didn’t touch her after all.

Fronczak told investigators that some girls had been in trouble for talking in class, and were angry he did not let them play an instrument.

As a deputy interviewed them, two of the girls saw the time and asked to leave, saying they didn’t want to miss music class.

In 2003, a group of fifth-grade girls made similar allegations that failed to raise concern under close questioning.

Herdman, the union lawyer, contends the two episodes started rumors at the school that led the second-grade girls to make their criminal allegations against Fronczak.

“You can be an excellent teacher, like I felt I was, having a good career, a happy life ... and all you need is one stupid accusation,” Fronczak said. “And if you have adults who cannot see through this ... it ruins your life.”

With whopping legal fees and no job, Fronczak says he sold his paintings, his piano, his car, his furniture. He maxed out credit cards. A friend bought his Clearwater home and allows him to keep living there.

He says he has applied for jobs. But no one calls back, he suspects, because of the nature of the criminal charges.

The district will argue that, at the very least, Fronczak invited accusations by having physical contact with students, including allowing them to sit on his lap.

Fronczak argues that the contact occurred when kids bounced up to him, leaned against him and jumped onto him. At other times, he adjusted their posture or reached out to console them. It lasted for two or three seconds, he said.

Touching is a perennial issue in education, but the rules seems vague to some.

In court records, one unnamed Southern Oak teacher wondered how an educator could reject a student from a troubled home who wants a hug. “I just hug them back,” the veteran teacher said. “It’s a tough position to be in.”

Southern Oak principal Robert Ammon told lawyers that, after the 2002 accusations, he told Fronczak there was no reason for any teacher — especially a male — to touch a student. A hug might be okay as long as the child initiates it, Ammon said.

He recalled a 40-second conversation in the hallway. Fronczak does not remember it.

He does, however, call himself “a changed man.”

If he’s ever again hired to teach, “I’m going to put chalk around me like this,” Fronczak said, drawing an imaginary circle. “There’s going to be an invisible barrier. It is sad in a way, but I don’t know what else to do ... I want the word out that, ‘Oh my God, he never gets close to anybody.’ ”

[Last modified May 6, 2006, 21:07:57]


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