final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.
Appeal from the State of Florida, Education Practices
Commission. EPC No. 16-0242-RT, DOAH Nos. 16-2492PL and PPS
Davide, for appellant.
Charles T. Whitelock (Ft. Lauderdale), for appellee.
EMAS, C.J., and SALTER, and FERNANDEZ, JJ.
Maria Castella, the respondent, appeals the Education
Practices Commission's ("EPC") Final Order
which suspends her Florida Educator's Certificate for
three years, followed by two years' probation. We affirm
the Final Order in all respects.
uncontested facts are that in 2015, Ms. Castella was employed
by the Miami-Dade County School District as a part-time
interventionist teacher at Brownsville Middle School
("BMS"). She held a Florida Educator's
Certificate covering elementary education, which was valid
through June 30, 2017, and had been a certified teacher in
Florida for twenty-five years.
March 9, 2015, a sixth-grade student at the school, Y.H.,
informed Ms. Castella around 2:15 p.m., during a late lunch
period, that her stepfather comes into her room at night,
when her mother is not present, and lays on top of her with
his clothes on without touching her in any inappropriate way.
Y.H. told Ms. Castella that her mother knew about it but did
not believe her. Ms. Castella did not immediately report
Y.H.'s accusation on March 9, 2015 to DCF, nor to the
Child Abuse Hotline.
about 2:30 pm when lunch ended, Ms. Castella went to her
class, got the class settled, and then went up to Ms. Marilyn
Philogene, her senior teacher, and told her what Y.H. had
said. Ms. Philogene told her she had to go tell Ms. Sonya
Durden, the school counselor. Ms. Castella waited until 3:50
pm at the end of the school day to go tell Ms. Durden, but
Ms. Durden was not in her office. Ms. Castella then went
home. Although Ms. Castella briefly discussed with other
school personnel what Y.H. had told her, she did not
immediately report Y.H.'s accusation to DCF or the Child
Abuse Hotline that same day.
next day, when Ms. Castella arrived at school, she went to
see Ms. Durden and reported what Y.H. had told her. Mrs.
Durden sent Ms. Castella back to her classroom and told her
to come back to her office in an hour so they could call DCF.
An hour later, Ms. Castella went to Ms. Durden's office.
Ms. Durden dialed DCF's phone number, and Ms. Castella
made the report telephonically. When Ms. Castella was asked
why she did not immediately report what Y.H. had told her,
she said there was "nothing sexual to report." DCF
then sent a DCF protective child investigator, Ms. Shalonda
Sylvester, to the school to begin the investigation. During
this investigation, Y.H. for the first time reported the
sexual molestation by her stepfather. Ms. Sylvester then
terminated the interview and called Miami-Dade County Police
to take over the investigation. Thereafter, the investigation
by the Miami-Dade County Sexual Crimes Unit led to the arrest
and conviction of Y.H.'s stepfather, who is currently
serving his prison sentence.
incident was reported on March 11, 2015, to the Office of
Professional Standards for Miami-Dade County Public Schools,
which determined there was probable cause to believe that Ms.
Castella had violated school board policies. Ms.
Castella's part-time employment was terminated effective
March 12, 2015 for lack of funding for the I-prep program,
and the incident was reported to the EPC for further
Commissioner of Education (COE) issued an Administrative
Complaint on March 16, 2016, seeking a sanction against Ms.
Castella's Florida Educator's Certificate and
alleging a violation of section 1012.795(1)(b), Florida
Statutes (2015), for knowingly failing to report actual or
suspected child abuse. A case was opened at the Division of
Administrative Hearings (DOAH) on May 5, 2016 to conduct a
formal hearing under section 120.57(1), Florida Statutes
(2016), as Ms. Castella requested. On September 15, 2016, the
COE amended the Administrative Complaint without objection.
The Amended Administrative Complaint contained the same
allegations as to Count 1 and added Counts 2-5. Count 2
alleged that Ms. Castella violated section 1012.795(1)(j),
Florida Statutes (2015), because Ms. Castella violated the
Principles of Professional Conduct for the Education
Profession prescribed by State Board of Education rules.
Count 3 alleged a violation of Florida Administrative Code,
Rule 6A-10.081(3)(a), for failing to make reasonable efforts
to protect the student from conditions harmful to learning
and/or to the student's mental health and/or physical
health and/or safety.
Castella disputed the allegations, filed her Answer on
January 4, 2017, and requested a formal administrative
hearing. The parties filed a Joint Prehearing Stipulation on
January 6, 2017. In the Stipulation, the COE stated its
position that Ms. Castella had a duty under section
39.201(2), Florida Statutes (2015), to immediately report
what Y.H. told her to DCF's Abuse Hotline. Ms. Castella
contended that she received no training in reporting student
abuse or suspected abuse in all her years as a teacher and
that no facts of sexual molestation were known by her or
anyone until Ms. Sylvester was able to get Y.H. to reveal the
information on March 10, 2015.
January 10, 2017, the formal hearing was held before the
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") of the DOAH. The
COE presented the testimony of four witnesses: Carmen
Gutierrez (District Director of the Office of Professional
Standards for Miami-Dade County Public Schools), Ebony Dunn
(BMS's principal), Ms. Durden, and Terri Chester (the
investigator with the Civilian Investigative Unit for
Miami-Dade County Public Schools). The COE also presented the
testimony of Ms. Philogene, by way of deposition. Exhibits
were admitted into evidence. Ms. Castella presented her own
live testimony and her deposition testimony, as well as the
deposition testimony of Ms. Sylvester and had exhibits
admitted into evidence.
issued his Recommended Order on March 17, 2017. Based on the
findings of fact, the ALJ entered a final order finding that
Ms. Castella was in violation of Counts 1, 2, and 3 of the
Amended Administrative Complaint and that the counts were
proven by the COE based on clear and convincing evidence. The
ALJ found that Counts 4 and 5 were not proven by clear and
convincing evidence. The ALJ recommended that Ms.
Castella's license be placed on a one-year probationary
status during which time she attend and successfully complet
training related to her reporting obligations.
Castella filed her Exceptions to the Recommended Order on
March 29, 2017. She objected to two exhibits of the EOC being
listed and considered as admitted into evidence. She also
objected to two of the EOC's exhibits that were not
included in the exhibits admitted into evidence. Ms. Castella
argued that the factual conclusions were not supported by
clear and convincing evidence or competent, substantial
evidence and that the ALJ relied upon exhibits that were
excluded at the formal hearing.
then filed Petitioner's Response to Respondent's
Exceptions, asserting that there was competent, substantial
evidence to support all of the ALJ's findings of fact and
conclusions of law. On March 31, 2017, the COE also moved to
enhance the recommended penalty requesting a suspension of
Ms. Castella's Florida Educator's Certificate for
three years from the date of the Final Order, followed by two
years' probation, and that she be required to complete
two courses and pay a $1, 000 fine within the first year of
conducted a hearing on the ALJ's Recommended Order and
Ms. Castella's Exceptions on April 26, 2017. The EPC
issued an Order on Remand dated May 5, 2017, to the ALJ
requesting clarification of certain exhibits on which he
relied on in making his findings of fact. The ALJ issued a
Supplemental Order Amending the Recommended Order on May 10,
2017, stating that Petitioner's Exhibits 7 and 9 were
excluded from those admitted and Respondent's Exhibits D
and E are included as exhibits that were admitted. Ms.
Castella filed Exceptions to the Supplemental Order on May
11, 2017, and the COE filed a motion to strike these
conducted another hearing on October 25, 2017, on the
Recommended Order and Ms. Castella's Exceptions, as well
as the COE's Motion to Enhance the Penalty. Following
argument by the parties, the EPC accepted Ms. Castella's
exceptions to two findings and rejected the remaining
exceptions, finding there was substantial competent evidence
to support each factual finding or substantial competent
evidence to infer the factual ...