By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
The Merrick Educational Center in Coral Gables is unique among Miami-Dade County public schools. Since the early Eighties, its teachers, counselors, and administrators have ministered to the needs of children whose mental and physical handicaps prevent them from attending mainstream schools. Many Merrick students are chronically or terminally ill. Some have to be taught at home.
That noble mission was sullied in May 1999, when five female staffers sued principal Michael Exelbert and the Miami-Dade County Public School Board. The four teachers and one clerical worker alleged their principal sexually harassed them; two of the women, teachers Jeanne Vazquez and Judy Davis, charged Exelbert had coerced them into having sex with him, according to their federal lawsuits. The pair claimed liaisons took place both on school grounds and at "other locations," one of which later was revealed to be a conservative Jewish temple in Kendall where Exelbert was an officer.
These complaints were filed while the district was reeling from another sex-harassment scandal. Just months before, after a highly publicized trial, a jury found ex-Northwestern Senior High School principal William Clarke III had sexually harassed a counselor. In February 1999 the board agreed to pay one million dollars to this plaintiff and another woman who also protested Clarke's actions.
But no jury ever considered the claims against Exelbert. Less than a month after filing their suits, the women, all represented by Miami attorney Alan Goldfarb, offered to settle. On June 23, 1999, the school board voted to pay them one million dollars. Thus Exelbert became the second principal whose allegedly porcine behavior toward women had cost county taxpayers a cool million.
Perhaps worse, at that same June meeting, the board voted to retain Clarke and Exelbert as school-system employees. Each took a demotion and a pay cut: Clarke now earns approximately $70,000 per year (a $20,000 salary hit) working in an attendance office; Exelbert makes $80,000 annually ($10,000 less than before) in the transportation department.
While Clarke's loutishness has been documented in New Times ("A Real Class Act," July 9, 1998; "No Class," May 27, 1999) and in the Miami Herald, Exelbert has slithered beyond the reach of both the court system and the media. This is odd, given the fact that board members simultaneously discussed the fate of both men June 23. That day six school-board members -- then-chairman Solomon Stinson, current chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman, Marta Perez, Demetrio Perez, Michael Krop, and Robert Ingram -- voted against firing the two men. And board attorney Johnny Brown later struck a deal that prohibited the Exelbert plaintiffs and their lawyer from speaking about the case.
Four of the women -- Davis, Vazquez, Cheryl Pertnoy, and Marcia Sentmanat -- still work at the Merrick Center. Teacher Merry Overholser has moved to Tucson, Arizona. Citing the gag order, all declined to comment for this story. Exelbert did not return phone calls from New Times. Exelbert's attorney, Leslie Langbein of Miami, questions both the plaintiffs' motives and their timing. She also chides the school board for demoting Exelbert based on a flawed investigation. "The board settled to deflect some of the criticism heaped on it due to the circumstances with Mr. Clarke," Langbein comments. Had the case gone to trial, she asserts, her client would have been vindicated. "Mike has consistently denied that any of these allegations constituted sexual harassment," she says.
But school-district records show the women began complaining of harassment in 1997. The 51-year-old Exelbert, who joined the district in 1970 as a teacher, specialized in working with handicapped children. In 1984 he became principal of the Merrick Center, located at 39 Zamora Ave. in Coral Gables. The center was known for providing innovative programs and outreach to handicapped and homebound children.
Exelbert apparently developed a less-than-savory reputation. In September 1997 Overholser told the principal he was treating her "in a condescending, demeaning, and threatening manner," according to a handwritten statement she later submitted with a union grievance. After some back and forth, Exelbert became conciliatory. As Overholser was walking from his office at the meeting's conclusion, she contends "he smacked me on my buttocks with his hand." She filed the grievance in November 1997. Exelbert apologized and said he'd never do it again; Overholser resigned in August 1998 and moved away. (She later complained to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about the incident.)
Overholser's charges opened the floodgates. Sentmanat filed a sexual-harassment complaint against Exelbert in early 1998 with the district's Equal Educational and Employment Opportunity (EEEO) division, alleging he made sexually suggestive comments and inappropriately touched her. The office substantiated her claim. In October 1998 higher-ups removed Exelbert from the Merrick Center and placed him in the exceptional-education department office downtown. The district delivered a letter of reprimand and forwarded its findings to the Department of Education in Tallahassee.
In January 1999 Vazquez and Davis made far more shocking allegations.
Judy Davis reported to the EEEO that Exelbert terrorized her for years. "The harassment began as crude, inappropriate sexual comments and jokes and later escalated to his touching of my intimate body parts, including groping my breasts and buttocks," Davis wrote. "Mr. Exelbert forced me to kiss him, sit on his lap in a sexual manner, fondle his genitalia, perform oral sex on him, and engage in sexual intercourse. This conduct occurred both during and after school hours, on school grounds and at other locations." She stressed that she was an unwilling participant. "Mr. Exelbert made it clear that my receipt of certain job benefits was contingent upon my willingness to acquiesce and succumb to his sexual demands," she wrote.
Jeanne Vazquez's EEEO complaint, filed the same day as Davis's, was nearly identical. Soon after she began working at the Merrick Center in 1987, she wrote, Exelbert had started an "ongoing pattern of physical and verbal sexual harassment." She claimed to have performed oral sex on the principal; like Davis, she noted their trysts would take place "on school grounds and at other locations."
And in March Cheryl Pertnoy lodged another EEEO complaint against Exelbert, describing harassment, but no forced sexual acts. In May all five women filed lawsuits. Shortly before the June school-board meeting, the district substantiated the Overholser, Davis, Pertnoy, and Vazquez allegations.
Despite the fact that administrators confirmed the harassment complaints against Exelbert, superintendent Roger Cuevas inexplicably concluded a job change was suitable punishment.
At the June 1999 meeting, board members took up the proposed million-dollar settlement for the Exelbert plaintiffs and the demotions of Exelbert and Clarke. Board member G. Holmes Braddock was steamed. Saying he wanted to make a strong stand against such behavior, he suggested disallowing the transfers.
Board members Manty Sabates Morse and Betsy Kaplan voted in favor of Braddock's motion. Kaplan, who declares she once considered Exelbert a friend, now says she would have preferred to see both men out of the public school system. "I felt terrible [voting not to renew Exelbert's contract] but I felt I had to," Kaplan offers. "I think it's unfair to keep employees on staff, at any salary, who have digressed so far from acceptable behavior." Then-chairman Stinson, a self-described friend and mentor to Clarke, said he believed a pay cut for the men was punishment enough. Stinson and five other board members pushed through the job change.
Exelbert might get his comeuppance from the State of Florida yet. On April 4 education commissioner Tom Gallagher filed a complaint against him, alleging the ex-principal's actions -- verbally harassing female employees, forcing a woman identified as "J.D." (Judy Davis) to have sex with him, and creating a hostile work environment -- violated three Florida statutes and seven administrative rules. Gallagher recommended the state's Education Practices Commission "impose an appropriate penalty," which could include a fine, suspension, or even revocation of his teaching certificate. (Without a license Exelbert could continue with the transportation department.)
And while the litigation against Exelbert in his capacity as a school principal is finished, he could still find himself in court. Exelbert for many years served as an officer -- including a stint as president -- of Temple Zion Israelite Center. Remember those "other locations" mentioned by Davis and Vazquez? Temple Zion was one of them, says Jerry Jaramillo, a Tampa attorney representing the two women. Jaramillo's clients are contemplating a suit against the temple.