tampabay.com

A win in court won't save his job

By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published September 20, 2006


A jury was so skeptical about the evidence against Pinellas teacher Mark Fronczak it took only 40 minutes to reach a verdict: not guilty of sexually abusing three girls in his music class.

That was last year, under different rules and before a different audience.

After hearing much the same evidence, a state administrative law judge has found that Fronczak sexually abused the girls and did not observe "appropriate (physical) boundaries" while interacting with them.

Judge Carolyn S. Holifield also says the school district should fire Fronczak, 51, a Pinellas music teacher for 18 years before allegations of sexual touching in his classroom derailed his career in early 2004.

He has been on unpaid leave since then.

Holifield's ruling, filed last week, puts the matter before the Pinellas School Board, which will hold a formal hearing Oct. 10 to decide Fronczak's future.

Under state law, the board has little leeway to go against Holifield's "recommended order." Board members would have to review the entire case record and state "with particularity" why they believe the judge is wrong.

The record includes two days of testimony from 18 witnesses in a May hearing before Holifield, plus records from Fronczak's 2005 criminal trial.

After last year's acquittal, Holifield's ruling left Fronczak and his attorney, Mark Herdman, stunned.

Fronczak declined to comment Tuesday, but Herdman said he was devastated.

Holifield's findings are based on a "preponderance of the evidence," a lower standard than criminal trials, where juries must find the accused guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt" to reach a guilty verdict.

The case began in December 2003 at Southern Oak Elementary School in Largo, where Fronczak had taught since 1993.

A student's mother found a blood spot in her daughter's underwear. Though doctors found the girl had been sexually abused, she repeatedly denied anything had happened to her but later accused Fronczak.

The girl, then a second-grader, later detailed four or five incidents in which Fronczak allegedly touched her improperly in the presence of about 20 other students.

Fronczak also was accused of inappropriately touching two other girls. The incidents allegedly took place while he showed videos to his classes.

Fronczak's lawyers say many of the details in the girls' stories are inconsistent. They also say investigators missed leads that might have turned up other suspects.

But Holifield stated several times in her ruling that she found the girl's testimony credible.