Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Eight Testify during Trial of Manatee Officials

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Eight Testify during Trial of Manatee Officials

Article excerpt

BRADENTON

State attorney Dawn Buff spent Monday building a foundation for a case that three former Manatee County School District administrators failed to report suspected child abuse.

Attorneys for the school administrators, meanwhile, chipped away at the foundation by discrediting witnesses and challenging their motivations.

Since there already have been multiple investigations and recent administrative hearings in court, the first day of the trial against Robert Gagnon, Gregg Faller and Matthew Kane elicited no startling revelations, surprise testimony or overly combative exchanges.

Instead, the dynamics of the trial were as instructive as what the eight witnesses called by the state and cross-examined by the defense had to say.

Gagnon, a former school district assistant superintendent, and Kane and Faller, both former Manatee High assistant principals, each face one felony and one misdemeanor charge of failure to report suspected child abuse. The three have pleaded not guilty.

Gagnon, Kane and Faller opted for the uncommon tactic of not electing to have a trial by jury. Instead Manatee County Judge Peter Dubensky is hearing the case and will decide the verdicts. Since the Penn State scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, the failure to report law has been changed and is now a third-degree felony, punishable by five years in prison and a fine.

The three are facing the charges in relation to the Rod Frazier case. Frazier, a former assistant football coach and parent liaison at Manatee High, recently pleaded no contest to four counts of battery against former Manatee High students and employees.

The three defendants are being tried at once, and on Monday all sat at the same table with their attorneys at their sides and their wives in the row behind them.

Buff called eight witnesses to the stand, and after each witness the three defense attorneys were allowed to cross-examine them in succession. Richard Reinhart, Gagnon's animated attorney, questioned each witness, while Brett McIntosh, Kane's attorney, and Jon Weiffenbach, Faller's attorney, also questioned them.

At times, Dubensky would ask his own questions.

School Superintendent Rick Mills recommended the terminations of the three last fall, but they have each contested that recommendation with administrative hearings.

The witnesses in those hearings are the same as in the criminal case, so the defense has already had the opportunity to examine them, and some on multiple occasions.

After Buff laid out the alleged incidents pertaining to the three in her opening remarks, Reinhart proceeded to compare the case to the children's game "pass it on" because witnesses have changed their stories so often, he said.

"The credibility of the disclosers is so suspect that no responsible fact-finder would ever find these people credible," Reinhart said.

Reinhart challenged the credibility of former Manatee High parent liaison Adinah Torres and English teacher Lynn Aragon because they have filed Title IX lawsuits against the school district in federal court alleging retaliation by school and district administrators for speaking out against Frazier. …

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