Parents thought their children would be safe. A teacher's sex abuse went unreported for years.

·13 min read

Editor's note: Warning, this article includes descriptions of child sexual abuse. To report suspected sexual abuse, call 1-800-96-ABUSE (1-800-962-2873).

It was food truck day at Parkside Elementary School, the last day of November 2018. As children ordered lunches and played soccer under the bright Florida sun, a third-grader told a recess monitor, “Mr. Manley touches people’s private parts.”

She watched the teacher touch her friend, she said. “You can ask her.”

Like a game of telephone, the girl’s words made their way through six staff members: tutors, teachers and two assistant principals.

But they didn’t talk to the girl.

They didn’t question her friend.

And despite Florida's requirement that adults report suspected child abuse, sworn statements teachers and administrators made to investigators indicate they did not call the authorities that day, nor any day that followed.

Hector Manley
Hector Manley

Hector Manley, then a first-grade teacher at the Naples-area elementary school, continued abusing children for three months before two more girls spoke up.

This time, Collier County Public Schools administrators took action. They called authorities. Manley was jailed and then fired. He admitted in court this January to molesting at least 19 children as young as 5 years old.

But between Nov. 30, 2018, and Feb. 28, 2019, the last day he stepped foot on Parkside’s grounds, Manley added three more students to his victim count. Experts say the adults who took the first girl’s report might have prevented this.

In conflicting statements to investigators, staff members disputed whether a tutor who took the girl's report of sexual abuse that November day clearly communicated it to administrators.

However, a five-month investigation by the Naples Daily News and The News-Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, uncovered how school officials ignored numerous and credible complaints about Manley’s behavior.

Manley began molesting children his first day on the job, and there wasn’t a single month during his employment at Parkside when he wasn’t abusing students, court records show. During that time, teachers complained about Manley’s rule-breaking and inappropriate relationships with students to administrators, who apparently failed to piece these clues together.

The district didn’t investigate Manley’s actions or file a federal Title IX report, which a district official said it didn’t have to do because it had fired Manley. And in a response to a civil lawsuit brought by a survivor’s parent, it maintains it could not have known about Manley’s “propensities” before his arrest.

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Taken together, these events paint a picture of a district that failed to protect students and disregarded federal guidance.

Children’s statements show Manley abused them in classrooms, hallways, the cafeteria, his car and their homes.

They said he also molested them on the field during Parkside United soccer practices, a team he founded and coached.

He filled out the roster with Parkside students he handpicked.

Soccer players participate in practice drills, Thursday evening, Oct. 9, 2019, in Naples, Fla.
Soccer players participate in practice drills, Thursday evening, Oct. 9, 2019, in Naples, Fla.

Investigation and response

By number of survivors, this is the second-largest educator sex abuse case in Florida since 2014, according to data from the nonprofit Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation.

Reporters examined hundreds of school records, emails, personnel files, disciplinary records, staff bulletins, administrative notes, school handbooks, sworn statements taken by Collier County Sheriff’s investigators, and criminal and civil suit records and audio.

Reporters also reached out to all three former Parkside administrators, the five school board members and Superintendent Kamela Patton for comment through various methods: phone, email, home visits and letters.

Collier County Superintendent Kamela Patton speaks during a press conference of Governor Ron DeSantis, Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, in Naples, Fla.
Collier County Superintendent Kamela Patton speaks during a press conference of Governor Ron DeSantis, Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, in Naples, Fla.

Only one board member replied, saying, “It isn’t our practice to comment on any pending litigation.”

The Collier County Sheriff’s Office and the state attorney’s office declined to speak with reporters on the case or return public information requests.

The Naples Daily News and The News-Press presented the school district with its findings and numerous requests for comment before online publication. Communications director Chad Oliver would only say that the reporting contained “multiple inaccuracies” but declined to specify which details the district perceived as inaccurate, citing ongoing litigation.

When reporters asked again for clarification after publication, Oliver shared only two comments: that Patton’s refusals to discuss the status of sex abuse and assault cases in the district were related to the litigation, and that the district does train students in recognizing and responding to grooming behaviors or sexual advances by adults.

Patton in December was named Florida’s 2022 Superintendent of the Year. She was one of four finalists for the 2022 National Superintendent of the Year.

On March 1, 2019, Manley was booked into the Naples Jail Center. On Jan. 21, 2022, he was convicted of being a sexual predator and sentenced to 25 years in prison, with credit for time served. He pleaded no contest to 20 counts of molestation of children’s genital areas, including breasts. Three sexual battery charges were dropped in exchange for his plea.

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Hector Manley sits during his plea hearing, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, at Collier County Courthouse.Manley was found guilty on 20 counts of lewd lascivious molestation of a child under 12.
Hector Manley sits during his plea hearing, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, at Collier County Courthouse.Manley was found guilty on 20 counts of lewd lascivious molestation of a child under 12.

‘She has not been able to forget’

Colleagues reported Manley’s favoritism toward certain students, rule breaking and inappropriate social media contact with children to team leaders or administration time and again, witness statements say.

Yet Collier County Public Schools stated in its response to a civil suit that it had no way of knowing before his arrest that Manley was abusing children, nor could it have stopped him.

Sexual assault experts say that if the district had trained teachers and administrators in spotting signs of grooming, Manley’s abuse might not have gone unchecked for three and a half years.

The district declined to comment on allegations in the witness statements that Manley’s behavior repeatedly drew attention.

While the district says all its school staff receive training in identifying abuse, it would not clarify whether spotting grooming behaviors is part of the training.

In order to prevent abuse, federal law directs districts to investigate the blind spots that sexual predators like Manley exploit. But the district says it has not done its own investigation because “internal investigations are only conducted for active employees.” It adds that the matter had been turned over to law enforcement.

Manley’s abuse has left families devastated.

“You tainted my life,” one survivor wrote in a letter to the court on the day of Manley’s plea hearing. “I never thought that a person could hurt another person like that.”

One woman whose child was abused by Manley said her once loving, happy daughter has become insecure, fearful and full of rage.

“She has not been able to forget,” the woman wrote in a letter that was read in court. “I have not been able to erase from my mind her little face, filled with hate when she told me this was my fault. I have not been able to forget,” she wrote in Spanish.

“I thought that while she was attending that school she would be also protected, and protected by her teachers.”

Manley’s habits and abuse as a teacher

In Naples, the man students called “the teacher with the robot legs” was celebrated.

Doctors amputated both of his legs above the knee after an earthquake struck his native El Salvador when he was 11 years old. Two hospital board members, Ohio nursing home owners Don and Karen Manley, took him to the U.S. for prosthetics and adopted him a year later. Within the decade, they moved with him to southwest Florida.

In his 20s, Manley became a local celebrity, lauded for his dedication to sports and helping other people with disabilities.

In August 2015, he was hired by Collier County Public Schools, where his celebrity helped him connect with the community and boost Parkside’s star as local media covered his work and origin story. Manley’s Latinidad, fluent Spanish and volunteer work helped him gain access to children inside and outside the classroom.

Survivors of Manley’s abuse are largely Latino. Nearly 90% of the 6,500 residents of Naples Manor, the community Parkside serves, are Latino or Black. And the area is low-income – about 18% of people in Naples Manor live below the poverty line, nearly triple that of Naples proper.

Isabel Castillo, one of only three other Latino teachers at the school during Manley’s tenure, said his ability to speak Spanish and understand Latino culture set him apart from most teachers and administrators.

“Se miraba buena gente,” Carolina Don Juan, a Parkside parent who still has a daughter enrolled at the school, said about Manley. He seemed like a good guy, she said. She recalled lunch sacks he brought families after Hurricane Irma.

“Fue buen de él, no?” she asked. It was good of him, right?

“No sabíamos lo que estaba pasando,” she added. “Como papá, se da desconfianza.”

That translates to: We didn’t know what was happening. As a parent, that shatters your trust.

In school, Manley bought McDonald’s for students and gave out his school security badge and key to at least one student, both of which violate policy. Sworn statements say he taught with the lights off, played favorites with students and touched them frequently – all things teachers are warned against.

Weekly staff newsletters show he volunteered near-constantly, planning parent-child literacy programs, joining colleagues in 5K runs, ladling chili at cookoffs and joining school cleanups.

With the school’s encouragement and name behind him, he started his own soccer team, which he coached in his free time. He bought hot pink cleats for some of the girls on his team.

Taken together, these gifts, frequent touches and over-volunteering are classic grooming tactics, sexual assault experts say.

Teachers and administrators were witness to all of this. By spring 2018, a number of Manley’s colleagues complained that he was flouting the rules, including holding too many class parties and having inappropriate contact with a student through social media, they later told detectives.

He was placed under stricter observation and verbally reprimanded by administrators but was not let go. Instead, he was shuffled from one position to another and continued to abuse.

Children’s statements indicate on days Manley used his wheelchair, he would pull them into his lap and fondle them during class. He molested one girl as she read from the class PowerPoint. Another girl on his soccer team said every time she went to practice, he would press her against a tree on the sidelines and grope her. Another, he cornered by the water fountain and groped as she tried to drink.

The impact of his actions has lingered. One survivor told detectives she was so scared of Manley that he appeared in her nightmares most nights. Another was terrified he would climb through her window at night and refused to sleep without her mother.

Grooming behaviors

Over the years, fellow teachers reported Manley regularly for inappropriate behavior with children, but no one seemed to put all the pieces together.

“If your intent is to sexually abuse kids,” you present yourself as “a selfless person who’s there for the kids” but who is a little clueless about boundaries, said Charol Shakeshaft, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor and national expert on educator sexual misconduct.

Emails and sworn statements show that when administrators admonished him – for turning his lights out, lending his badge and key to a student or Snapchatting a student – Manley apologized. I won’t do it again, he said repeatedly.

Shakeshaft characterized these behaviors as a “red flag."

Had teachers been better trained in recognizing tactics child sex predators employ to get close to children, Manley might have been stopped sooner, she said. While former Parkside teacher Castillo and the district say employees received annual training on mandatory reporting and spotting signs of abuse from the Florida Department of Children and Families, neither Florida DCF nor the district clarified whether adults are trained to identify grooming.

“The district carefully reviews claims that are brought to its attention that could involve, or be construed as, grooming behaviors,” said Oliver, Collier schools’ communications director.

More girls come forward to report their teacher

On Feb. 28, 2019, two more third-grade girls told their teacher that Manley had molested them, and they saw him do the same to at least one other student. It began when they were in his second-grade classroom, they said.

Manley was quickly arrested and fired. That, the district asserts, is all it needed to do.

As detectives investigated each child’s claim, interviewing one survivor led investigators to another, and another, and another. By the time detectives compiled the final list of charges, the survivor count had grown to nearly two dozen.

Experts say conducting a Title IX investigation at this time might have identified how Manley was able to abuse so many for so long. However, the district has not investigated Manley and has not told reporters of plans to do so, saying instead the matter was for police.

“Oftentimes when there's one incident of this, it points to a larger, systemwide problem,” said Shiwali Patel, director of justice for student survivors and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “Investigating it wouldn't have just been about figuring out whether he sexually abused students but (finding) out what were the gaps that were in this system.”

Although Collier County Public Schools has carried out these investigations before and since, when this news organization asked the district for its Title IX investigation file and report on Manley, public records supervisor Tiffany Myers said “there is no such file in existence.”

The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights could force the district to conduct an investigation. Collier County Public Schools is currently facing two civil lawsuits from survivors’ parents that cite a lack of a Title IX investigation and report. The district has denied any wrongdoing in the civil cases.

A Department of Education official declined to comment on the district’s lack of investigation and report, saying that the Office of Civil Rights cannot comment on specific circumstances and that the department also cannot comment on pending investigations.

Parents lose trust in school

Manley’s arrest ripped through Parkside’s neighborhood.

Parents expressed frustration that the school district did not communicate with them about the case.

Instead, many learned of Manley’s arrest mostly through word of mouth and Google Translate, since the school and the district shared only a Facebook post on the arrest written in English by the Collier County Sheriff’s Office. There were no parent meetings, emails or phone calls about the arrest, according to dozens of parents interviewed by the Naples Daily News.

Wariness has coursed through other parents, many of whom had no option other than to leave their children enrolled in the neighborhood school where Manley preyed on students. Valentina Rangel, a resident whose son attended Parkside when Manley was arrested, said she no longer feels comfortable leaving her children in the care of the school.

“No confío en dejar a mis hijos después de la escuela,” she said. “No tengo confianza en la escuela.”

In English, that translates to: I don’t feel like I can let my kids stay after school. I don’t trust that school.

Contributing: Dan Glaun, Naples News

Kate Cimini is the Florida investigative reporter for the USA TODAY Network-Florida, and Rachel Fradette is a general assignment reporter for IndyStar.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: Florida teacher's abuse at Parkside Elementary School went unreported

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