Boca Raton teacher speaks out about nightmare ordeal that almost got her fired

Hopes school district will better support teachers
Posted at 8:28 PM, Mar 01, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-02 13:47:00-05

A beloved Boca Raton teacher has gotten her job back, but only after months of anguish for essentially helping a student.

It's a bizarre story with twists and turns. WPTV had a chance to sit down with Samantha Major on Wednesday for an exclusive interview.

Major is happy to get back to her true passion of teaching.

"It was an extremely long six months," said the 27-year-old Boca Raton native and second-year teacher.

Major was a world history teacher at Boca Raton Community High School, having recently won the title of "New Teacher of the Year." During the 2015-2016 school year, she was asked by the principal to mentor a 15-year-old girl who said she was having troubles at home.

"That was my intention, I see somebody hurting in front of me and I want to assist. And that's true for any of my students," she said.
She said the teen had a history of mental health issues, according to her parents. But Major mentored her anyway. Even when the girl texted her at all hours of the day, Major says she stepped up to help.
But by the end of it, Major lost her teaching privileges, was nearly arrested by police, and almost fired by the district.

"During that time I experienced emotional, mental and spiritual struggle, and I felt alone," she said, adding that she received incredible support from her husband, who is also a Boca Raton Community High School teacher.

On Wednesday, the school district granted her permission to come back to the classroom, a happier ending to a year long nightmare.

"There was a lot of misrepresentation, a lot of false information and accusations that for some reason took a long time to sift out," she said.

Major said when she first started mentoring the girl -- who will remain unnamed to protect her identity -- fellow teachers warned that the girl was caught in several lies about her life.

In a detailed report by our news partners, The Palm Beach Post, records indicated that the girl claimed that she would be the first to graduate college in her family and that her mom was a shut-in. Both of the claims turned out to be untrue but Major continued in mentoring the girl in an effort to help her.`

"I did seek counsel. And felt that what I was doing was in the best interest of the child," said Major.

After months of building a bond, the girl eventually told Major of alleged abuse at home and even a previous rape from years past.

Even though the allegations turned out to be unfounded, Major said she contacted authorities anyway. But having worked previous internships with the Department of Children and Families, Major said she felt conflicted about the girl's claims.

"Is it wise to report something, when you know that at this moment in time there is nothing backing or substantiating it?" she said. "I have nothing but kind regards and thoughts for the student. My heart hurts for her. I was just trying to do what I try to do with all of my students and I didn't really treat her any differently."

During this time, Major said the girl had expressed that she was a Christian, something Major could relate to. While helping the girl through her depression, Major shared inspirational bible quotes with her.

According to the Post's report, the ordeal then erupted near the end of last school year when the girl frantically called Major, alleging that she had gotten into a physical altercation with her parents and had run away from home. She had plans to spend the night outside.

Major picked the girl up and after a long conversation and counseling in her car, she was able to convince the girl to return home.

The girl's parents had called police when she disappeared, so Major issued a statement to authorities explaining what she knew happened. Eventually, the girl's parents seized her cellphone, discovering the extensive conversations she had with Major during her mentorship.

After seeing the messages with bible quotes, the girl's parents accused Major of indoctrinating their daughter religiously, which Major said she denies ever doing outside of the boundaries of what's acceptable.

"As a government teacher and a patriot and lover of America and our constitution, I value our rights and freedoms and the laws put in place to protect them," she said. "I would never use my position as a teacher to ever sway somebody inappropriately in a way that goes against what I believe is the cornerstone of our country."

Major explained further, "I used tools that were made available to me by the student in her own communication to me as to her faith."

By this point, school was out for the summer and authorities, including the DCF, had launched an investigation into the claims of abuse, according to The Palm Beach Post.

But by the next school year, Major had another issue on her plate. The school district accused Major of failing to report sexual abuse claims quick enough, even if though the allegations weren't true. Either way, she faced criminal charges and arrest by police. The charges were eventually dropped.

The school district also alleged that texting with the girl after hours was 'inappropriate' but Major said she didn't know how else to communicate with a teenager who seemed desperate for help and someone to talk to.

Major said she felt conflicted when the girl's family threw another accusation. According to The Palm Beach Post, the girl's mother wanted Major fired for contacting DCF at all. She told the Post that Major "filed a false DCF report in an attempt to embarrass our family and shift the spotlight away from her egregious misconduct."

"Throughout my whole life I've tried to always carry myself in a way that is respectful and honorable, and above reproach. This cut at my character to the core," she said.

Major was moved to filing paperwork for the district's school bus depot, far from her career in the classroom.

She was bracing to be fired on Wednesday during a final decision at the school board meeting but that changed after Major had a thorough meeting on Tuesday with Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa. He decided to give her back her teaching privileges.

"Now, knowing that I get to go back to doing what I love has been a huge blessing," she said.

After the Post's story made the rounds on the internet, hundreds had signed up to speak out at the board meeting.

"This outcome would not have happened if it wasn't for the community outcry from students, parents, coworkers and complete strangers," she said.

Major said she was even getting phone calls and emails from people around the country.

"Signing petitions, making phone calls, signing up to speak," she said "I didn't think that people cared as much as they did."

Superintendent Avossa sent a letter to teachers on Tuesday night, discussing the need for better training for teachers to help students with mental health issues.

"We were absolutely able to be unified in that desire that students need to be protected and they do need to be assisted in areas where we do see a need. And I think something that this situation brought to light is that there is a need," she said. "The student in this particular case is not the only student who has the difficulties that she was facing. There are countless others. But also the need to protect countless teachers who are filling that gap."

Major said she hopes that more can be done to train teachers.

"I hope that teachers aren't discouraged from helping students and that there's not a huge pullback on teachers' part," she added. "I hope there is just an effort to make sure there are clear guidelines and supports for both the students and the family and the teacher."

She said that was a big part of her discussion with Dr. Avossa this week.

"Looking at what is the need here? How can we better be prepared for this situation in the future?" she said. "I think part of that was also because of the outpouring of emails he received from other teachers who are retired or currently teaching who were like, 'I've been in similar situations just like this.' And they came to my defense and he understood that and was like, 'How can we aid students and mentors alike?'"

Major is now preparing for her return to the classroom, which could happen as early as after Spring Break. However, there are stipulations to the agreement made with the district. She cannot return to Boca Raton Community High School until after the student involved in the case graduates, which will be in 2018.

Major said she will be placed in another classroom within the school district.

"My passion comes from the want to better those around me," she said. "And I think the youth is just the best place to start."

The school district spokesperson sent us a copy of Dr. Avossa's letter to teachers this week:

Dear Teachers,
I am writing to thank you for the role you play every day in the lives of our students.  After dealing with an important issue this week, I feel compelled to write to you to address the growing complexities of our work.
I know that many of you are frequently going above and beyond your duties to meet the needs of our students and taking on responsibilities you were never intended to fill – from counseling students on navigating important life decisions to assisting with their social and emotional issues.
There is no denying schools are meeting greater needs for their students and families than ever before, from assisting parents seeking money to pay their electric bills, to providing students with backpacks filled with food so they have something to eat during the weekend. 
It can be difficult to know when, where, and how to maintain healthy boundaries with students and families.
This illustrates a larger problem and provides an important reminder to not overstep your role as an educator.  The recent incident has made it clear that we, as a District, must do a better job in providing clarity, training, and resources for our teachers who are compelled to help students in need. 
I will be having additional conversations with Principals about this in the very near future.
If you have questions about how to serve your students and families, it is important that you seek guidance from your school’s Principal or School Counselors to avoid the potential for professional risk.
The District also has skilled professionals who can provide valuable support to school personnel on how to assist students and families with their social and emotional needs.
Finally, I would like you to know the issue with the Boca High School teacher has been resolved and she will be returning to the classroom.
I appreciate your continued dedication to student success.  Thank you for what you do. 
Robert M. Avossa, Ed.D.
The School District of Palm Beach County, FL
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