On Jan. 18, two parents informed Florida’s Charlotte County Public Schools School Board that a male student has engaged in “inappropriate conduct” with several girls at Punta Gorda Middle School and is still attending the school and they are demanding action.
“More than one child has been affected,” Larry Benjamin told the board, revealing that his daughter was one of them. “That student is still attending the school.” Benjamin also shared the story of how another girl at Punta Gorda Middle School (PGMS) had been bullied relentlessly in 2015. Another of his daughters tried to protect her “but things did not get resolved.”
One morning, Benjamin found his wife “down the road.” She had responded to the screams of the girl’s grandmother.
“My wife was the first respondent into this home,” Benjamin said, “and my wife had to respond to a lifeless body.”
Marlena Herbert, the mother of a 14-year-old female student at PGMS who “has also had an issue” with the male student, asked the board why parents had not been “told exactly what is happening.”
Herbert, who had “emailed every single one” of the board members about what had happened to her daughter, wanted to know why none of them had reached out to her and she wanted them to know this has “affected” her daughter “tremendously.”
School Board Vice Chair Kim Amontree said, “it’s a serious matter when individuals come” and let them know “about very serious things” that have happened within their schools. While admitting she didn’t reach out to Herbert “personally,” she said she did send an email to Superintendent [Stephen] Dionisio “at 6 a.m. and by 6:05” he had replied “and said his people were investigating it.” She then told Herbert that, just because she didn’t respond personally to the email about what happened to her daughter, she didn’t want her to think she “didn’t take this seriously” and that “obviously,” she did.
In response to comments made by Mr. Benjamin, Amontree said “if your daughter has experienced inappropriate conduct and this has not been investigated,” she advised he “speak to the superintendent and let him know this has not been investigated, and we will certainly do that because we take these allegations extremely seriously. There is nothing more important than the safety of these children within these schools.” In response to the gratitude expressed by another resident during public comments, and to answer her question about what a school board member does, Amontree joked: “We are the complaint department,” and “it is rare when somebody comes back” and lets them know “their complaints were addressed and to thank” them.
The Epoch Times reached out to each of the board members seeking a statement regarding what steps they, as part of district leadership and authority, were taking about the “very serious things” that have happened within their school.
“You need to reach out to the people you referenced in your email for any clarification of their statements or what is being done regarding this situation,” Board Member Cara Reynolds responded. The other four board members, including Amontree, did not reply.
“It’s got to stop,” Herbert insisted. “There’s way too many problems in this Punta Gorda Middle School and something’s got to be done.”
“These girls are afraid,” Benjamin told The Epoch Times. “One girl has missed a lot of school. Her grades are falling because of this boy, and the administration keeps saying there isn’t much they can do about it. They give you paperwork. They tell you to have the kids sign no contact agreements and stay away from each other. Nothing is being done. I don’t want to sit here and watch another parent lose a child like the one the grandmother lost back in 2015. It’s got to stop.”
It was in November that Benjamin found out his daughter had been touched inappropriately by the boy. The next day, he took his daughter to school and addressed the matter with the School Resource Officer.
According to the report, obtained exclusively by The Epoch Times, School Resource Officer Terry Chow took the report on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, at 8:05 in the morning at PGMS. He describes how the male student, “A.D.,” was placing his hands on the girl’s thigh and exposed her bra by pulling on her shirt. The girl asked him to stop but he continued. After Benjamin left, A.D. was taken to the officer’s office and questioned further. The boy did not deny the girl’s accusations but accused the girl of the same actions. The boy was advised “there are consequences to his actions” and the father wants to place a “Stay Away” contract in place that prohibits him from speaking to her “by any means,” including through text messages, friends, and social media. Officer Chow informed PGMS Assistant Principal Renee McClain of the situation and reported that she would be “meeting with both students regarding the ‘Stay Away’ contract, which both students are required to abide by.” According to the report, “no further police action” was taken.
Despite the “Stay Away” agreement, Benjamin’s daughter texted him from school the next morning to let him know the boy was there and demanding to know why she had told people about the incident. Angry that the boy was permitted to have contact with his daughter, Benjamin contacted the school immediately and demanded they get his daughter into the safety of the principal’s office until he arrived.
When Benjamin arrived at the school, the boy was with the school resource officer who was asking why he had made contact with the girl. The boy’s response was that “sometimes,” he just “doesn’t think.” To Benjamin, this “sent up red flags.” The boy already had a known history of sexually assaulting girls at the school and was now admitting an inability to control his own actions. A few days later, Benjamin was horrified to learn from his daughter that one of her friends had become another victim of the same boy. He immediately contacted the parents of the new victim and told them the procedures they should take. Thus far, the only reprimand suffered by the boy has been a couple of days of suspension, after which he is permitted to return to school. In the meantime, he has been harassing his victims and telling them they need to “drop this” so they “can talk.”
Superintendent Dionisio was at the Jan. 18 school board meeting. He never addressed the comments made by the parents of the assault victims at Punta Gorda Middle School.
Despite what has happened, Benjamin—the father of a combined family with 10 children—is also concerned for the wellbeing of the boy who assaulted his daughter.
“These schools just toss them to another school,” Benjamin said, noting how a boy in Loudoun County, Virginia, had transferred to Stone Bridge because he had sexually assaulted another victim at a different school.
In October, reports exposed how a 15-year-old male student wearing a skirt was able to gain access to the women’s bathroom at Stone Bridge High School in Loudoun County, Virginia, where he sexually assaulted a ninth-grade girl.
“I don’t want that for this kid. He’s got issues. Resources need to be made available so no other girls get harmed and that this kid gets some help so he can have a healthy future and know how to deal with things. We don’t just lock people up and throw them away. This is what I’m fighting for, and this has to stop.”
The Epoch Times reached out to Principal Justina Dionisio and her husband, Superintendent Steve Dionisio, asking how long they had been aware of the issue, what was being done to protect the victims and other students at the school, and whether or not there is any merit to concerns expressed by parents that their marital connection posed a conflict of interest.
“As a district our policy is that student discipline is confidential, thus we do not comment upon that,” Charlotte County School District Community Liaison Michael Riley replied to The Epoch Times on behalf of the Dionisio’s.
“I would also like to mention that when Law Enforcement is involved, we stand down as to not interfere with their investigation,” Riley stated further in a second email moments later.
“One Voice. One Team. One Message,” his signature line reads, reiterating the Charlotte County Public Schools motto (pdf).
In response to Riley, The Epoch Times noted the inquiry was not about what disciplinary actions had been taken against the perpetrator of the assaults but rather what was being done to protect the victims and other students at the school.
“Principal Dionisio is aware of the situation as well as Superintendent Dionisio,” Riley confirmed. “The school has taken the appropriate steps to correct the situation and see that the students in the school are safe.”