Tom Schwarm was asked by the St. Johns County School District to turn in his keys and clean out his principal’s office at R.J. Murray Middle School.
The move came after the district said that Schwarm failed to recognize the seriousness of reports he received from parents concerning the behavior of Fabian “Frank” Schmidt, a popular and long-time chorus teacher at the school that also serves as the St. Johns County Center for the Arts.
Parents alleged last summer that Schmidt solicited massages from students and invited some students to sit on his lap during class, according to documents provided to The Record by the school district through a public records request.
The allegations set off a wave of investigations by the school district, the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF). Schmidt was never accused of or charged with a crime, but the allegations of inappropriate behavior and the nearly two-week delayed response by Schwarm ultimately led to the resignation of Schmidt and the reassignment of Schwarm to another job within the school district office.
The Record attempted to reach Schmidt for an interview but he did not reply as of Friday afternoon.
Schwarm said Friday in an email to The Record that he did not want to comment at this time.
Everything started with a meeting on Aug. 31, 2018, between Schwarm and two parents of two different students of Schmidt’s.
In the meeting, the parents laid out the allegations against Schmidt that included inappropriate behavior with other students not related to them. One parent said that when their child refused to give Schmidt a massage the child was called a “tease.”
According to that parent, when Schwarm heard the claims, he responded by asking if they were related to the current school year or the previous school year, according to statements from the parents provided by the district. That led the parent to believe Schwarm was aware of prior allegations against Schmidt, a teacher at the school since 2006. A second parent said Schmidt’s inappropriate behavior “had been going on for years, and was the subject of carpool discussions,” Schwarm told district investigators.
Schwarm then allegedly told the parents he did not handle those types of issues but that he would pass it along to the “powers that be,” according to the notes of the parents’ statements taken by Brian Crevasse, a former attorney at Upchurch, Bailey and Upchurch, P.A. who met with the parents in September. But 11 days after the parents met with Schwarm, on Sept. 11, the parents said they had not heard a response or update from Schwarm, so one parent decided to reach out to district superintendent Tim Forson through the district website.
The following day, on Sept. 12, the parents received an email from Schwarm that included an incident statement form to fill out. Neither of the parents who made the allegations were willing to fill out the written statement due to concerns about possible retaliation by either the school or other students because Schmidt was “a popular teacher,” according to a summary of the meeting written in an email from Crevasse to Frank Upchurch, attorney for the St. Johns County School Board.
One parent, who said they felt conflicted about reporting the incident because they liked Schwarm personally, said they learned about the allegations against Schmidt after their child dropped out of chorus.
When asked by the parent why they dropped out, the student said they thought Schmidt was “creepy” and said they had seen a group of students who regularly gave the teacher massages and sat in his lap. Those students received preferential treatment, the student said.
On Sept. 25, St. Augustine attorney Chris Moser, who had been hired by one of the parents, showed attorneys with the school district at least three videos from the previous school year in which other students appeared to be rubbing Schmidt’s back during class, according to an email from Crevasse to Upchurch.
Two days later, the district suspended Schmidt with pay due to “allegations of inappropriate contact occurring during class” and began an investigation. The same day, Schmidt issued a statement to human resources.
“Mr. Schwarm informed me today, 9/27/18, that 2 parents shared with him that a student in my class was rubbing my shoulders last spring. Although I don’t recall the specifics regarding this report, there have been occasions when kids walk up and hug me, pat my back, rub my shoulder, pat my head, and ask me how I’m doing today. I have never taken any of these actions to be inappropriate with my students,” Schmidt wrote in a statement to the district.
Moser then sent the videos to Forson and Cathy Hutchins, district associate superintendent of human resources, in an email on Sept. 28.
“The attached videos clearly corroborate Child 1 and Child 2′s allegations and also identify both Schmidt and other children engaged in inappropriate conduct; specifically massaging his back and hand holding,” Moser wrote. “A review of the video evidence also shows him sharing candy with the children while he is being rubbed and touched — which is evidence of possible grooming behavior.”
Moser argued in the email that “excessive touching by a grown man upon 10, 11, 12, and 13 year old children” falls outside the boundaries of normal social interaction expected between children and a teacher in a public school and asked the school district to thoroughly investigate the allegations against Schmidt.