Local News

School board trial date set

SEBRING - A trial date has been set in one of the five lawsuits claiming a "gross failure to act" by School Board of Highlands County employees in connection with the sexual abuse of five students by a man who was not a school district employee. The female victims of the five civil cases were between the ages of 6 and 11 when the alleged abuse occurred. The original complaint stated that then-Lake Country Elementary Principal Majel Bowerman, the school board and its representatives acted with deliberate indifference in failing to take any action to prohibit daycare manager Maria Gonzalez's husband, Orestes Gonzalez, from having access to the school's after-care program. Orestes Gonzalez was arrested in February 2011 after being accused of molesting three children 7 to 9 years of age at Lake Country Elementary's after-school program.
On Dec. 12, 2011, he pleaded guilty to five counts of lewd molestation and lewd conduct. On July 6, 2012, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison. Maria Gonzalez was fired from the school district on Jan 13, 2011. An amended complaint filed Nov. 7 states the school board had actual notice that Orestes Gonzalez posed a "grave danger" to young female students in the school. Bowerman, then-assistant principal Steve Beck and Maria Gonzalez could have instituted corrective measures that would have prevented the sexual abuse, the amended complaint states. The first complaint was filed in May; the second complaint was filed in June 12; and the third complaint, with three plaintiffs, was filed in October. The lawsuits were filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida by attorneys with the Miami-based law firm Herman, Mermelstein & Horowitz, P.A., and by attorney Steven S. Farbman of Hollywood, who are representing the students and their parents or guardians. One of the lawsuits states that a female first-grader was sexually abused by Orestes Gonzalez on multiple occasions, starting around September 2009, through the following summer into December 2010. The case of Jane Doe No. 15 and her mother versus the School Board of Highlands County and Maria Gonzalez is scheduled for trial before U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez, during the two-week period starting Aug. 12. Martinez issued a court order stating that a mediator must be selected by April 19 and mediation will be completed by May 24. During the investigation of the alleged abuse, Maria Gonzalez was charged with harassing a witness, which is a first-degree felony. A pre-trail conference is scheduled for her case on March 20 in the 10th Judicial Circuit Court in Highlands County before Judge Angela Cowden. Bowerman retired after the 2010-11 school year and Beck resigned in 2009.

mvalero@highlandstoday.com (863) 386-5826