Surrounded by stuffed animals while in bed on a February morning, a fed up teenager pulled out her iPhone, opened her email and asked the most powerful person in her school district for help.
“Hello,” Madisyn Slater’s message to the superintendent began. “I am a student at Blake High School, a Tampa school in Hillsborough county. I am currently a senior and the past four years my peers have been sharing experiences that they have had with Ms. Tiffany Johnson, a biology teacher at the school.”
She told him Ms. Johnson used sexual innuendo in class, that during a lesson on reproductive organs the teacher wrote about a student’s genitals and that Ms. Johnson once took a pen from a student, placed it between her breasts and then handed it back.
“I strongly recommend taking a look into this,” she wrote. “Thank you.”
Madisyn had never had Ms. Johnson as her teacher, but she was tired of hearing disturbing anecdotes. And she had made sure Ms. Johnson knew it.
A month earlier, when the teacher sent her a message about how to order a cap and gown, Madisyn asked that Ms. Johnson not contact her again. In her message, Madisyn went so far as to call Ms. Johnson a predator.
Madisyn took a screenshot of her email to the superintendent and sent it to her friend Jessica Chapa, who’d had Ms. Johnson for two years.
No way, no way, no way, Jessica thought reading the message.
Had Madisyn gone too far, Jessica wondered. But the more Jessica thought about it, no, Madisyn hadn’t. The word Jessica kept coming back to was “normal.” All of it had been so normal. And why did it seem normal to know details about your teacher’s personal life?
Madisyn’s high school years had played out against a backdrop of a larger fight for social justice in America, as people who had never protested before came together to question the ways sexism and racism are embedded in daily life. The #MeToo Movement took hold the fall of her freshman year and led Madisyn to reassess her own experiences. Before, she’d thought rape meant a stranger snatching you off the street.
At 17, Madisyn had decided she no longer cared what anyone thought. A whole society, she was learning, could think bad, horrible, wrong things were normal. But people could call it out — and change it.
The superintendent, Addison Davis, wrote Madisyn back that Saturday morning to thank her and assure her the district would look into the issue “immediately.”
Madisyn didn’t know it, but Hillsborough County Public Schools has a troubled history when it comes to protecting students from sexual misconduct. So much so, the district once drew federal scrutiny. Her actions would provoke a strong response from her school, draw in parents and police, and upend her life in ways she never expected.
Ms. Johnson, 39, had been teaching since 2015. She majored in chemistry in college but after graduation ended up in hospitality, then worked as an apartment leasing consultant before becoming an educator.
At Blake High, where she started her teaching career, she developed a reputation as bubbly and approachable, giving herself the nickname Biology Bombshell. It appears in a cartoonish font as part of her school email signature, which also links to Biology Bombshell Instagram and Twitter accounts. At the 2020 annual Tampa Bay Engineers Week Banquet, she’d been honored as an outstanding teacher.
“Ms. Johnson fosters a positive student-teacher relationship within her classroom,” reads a nominating letter for the award, “which has translated to an educational culture where positivity, wittiness, and self-accountability are the key components.”
On Tuesday, three days after Madisyn sent the email, Blake High Assistant Principal Andrew Wayman called her to the school office. He handed her an official witness statement form and asked her to fill it out. It was a lined sheet of paper with a warning at the top. Any false statement would be considered perjury. Madisyn wrote her concerns and name dropped Jessica, who was called down to the office, too.
“She would casually mention how she was either not wearing any underwear that day or that she was only wearing underwear that day because she had to,” Jessica wrote. Jessica also detailed a memory of jokes Ms. Johnson made about how she couldn’t wait for students to turn 18, the implication being that they would then be old enough to consent to sex.
The friends tried to think of who else might know something. Anisya Gonzalez wasn’t sure how to feel. Sure, Ms. Johnson joked a lot about sex. But that was what 16- and 17-year-olds talked about.
“I do not believe she means any harm,” Anisya wrote in her official statement, “and most of the time the students are I guess entertained and more involved because of the inappropriate comments.”
Later, the more she thought about it, the more alarmed she became. She remembered how Ms. Johnson would tell her about her sex life, showing her photos of men on her phone. She recalled times that Ms. Johnson would open her legs and say she was “airing out.”
Then Anisya found out her friend Naiara Garcia, who had Ms. Johnson for freshman biology, had heard similar sexual comments. To Anisya, that was a much bigger deal. Freshmen were young, just 14.
“The fact that every single class she would talk like this?” Anisya said. “C’mon.”
Madisyn talked to her classmate Rebeca Braukman. Rebeca had been unsettled when she and a boy went into Ms. Johnson’s class together, and he’d asked the teacher if he could touch her breasts. To her shock, Ms. Johnson let him. Rebeca also had hated when, during class, the teacher had talked about the sensitivity of her nipples during sex.
Jessica thought Angelica Ayala, who was going to school virtually during the pandemic, might want to give a statement. Jessica sent a text.
Of course I know something, Angelica thought reading Jessica’s message. She and Ms. Johnson used to be close — until, she said, the teacher told her about a strip club she went to, showing her a photo of a dancer’s penis. Angelica felt like she should have spoken up then, but it had all been so weird. She decided to keep her distance, which was hard. After all, she couldn't just skip class.
Angelica texted Jessica a list of details to take back to someone in charge. Beyond the penis photo, she noted that the teacher would joke about having sex with a student after graduation and that Ms. Johnson was overly touchy with boys.
Jessica then showed Angelica’s text to Mr. Wayman who, Jessica said, snapped a photo. Jessica later described to Angelica how Mr. Wayman’s face looked reading Angelica’s text by sending two distressed-looking emojis.
But Angelica said no one from the school reached out. She felt hurt and ignored.
Mr. Wayman, through a district spokesperson, said he never took a photo of a text message but does recall learning about an off-campus student who had relevant information. He said he never heard from her.
Principal Jesse Salters did call Madisyn’s mother, Julie Graham. He was concerned, she said — but about the fact that her daughter had gone over his head.
“He was pretty burnt up over it,” she said. “He was like, ‘Madisyn should have come to me first, I’m the one that is supposed to know first.’ ”
“The principal even told me, ‘These kids can leave the class if they’re uncomfortable. I have quite the opposite problem. I have students trying to get in that class.’ ”
Madisyn had not gone to school officials because she didn’t trust that anyone at Blake would help. She’d once reported a student for grabbing girls’ butts and been frustrated with the response. She said school officials told her that if the student did it off-campus, they couldn’t do anything. They did set up guidelines so the two wouldn’t have contact and they said they’d keep an eye out, she said, but one school official joked that maybe she and the boy would end up together.
At school, Madisyn talked to the principal, too. How could the district be taking this seriously if Ms. Johnson was still in class while an investigation was going on?
Madisyn said Principal Salters told her to consider that not everyone shared her opinion of Ms. Johnson.
“Some people love her,” she said he told her, “and some people hate her. That doesn’t mean anyone is wrong.”
The school would ultimately collect 15 statements from students who praised Ms. Johnson. Among them:
“I learn so much in her class. She has never made me feel uncomfortable while teaching. Ms. Johnson has also been very supportive about my college choice.”
“I do believe she sometimes makes jokes that can be perceived as offensive, but to me, I don’t think they’re too much.”
“She is a good teacher and finds different ways for kids to have fun in the classroom. I haven’t witnessed nothing :)”
“Ms. Johnson is a very sweet and outgoing teacher.”
Madisyn said the principal told her that he couldn't just get rid of a teacher. She said he told her to think about it like this: He couldn’t just remove Madisyn if she did something wrong. He would have to go through a process.
Why, she wondered, did he need to make a comparison using her? And why did it matter so much if some kids thought Ms. Johnson was cool?
Angry, she and the teens worked together to draft another email, this time to human resources.
The teens wanted to use every available tool to sound the alarm. But there was one they didn’t know about: Title IX.
Title IX is a federal civil rights law that entitles students to an education free of sexual harassment. Schools must educate students on their rights and make it clear how to file a Title IX complaint.
A report to Congress in 2004 estimated that almost one in 10 children in K-12 schools has experienced “educator sexual misconduct,” though data isn’t collected or tracked. The report looked at a range of behavior to include showing students sexual pictures or making sexual jokes. It isn’t unusual for an abuser to also be a star teacher, well-liked and decorated with awards, the report notes. Charm can cover abuse.
If a district isn’t following the law, the Department of Education can revoke funding. In 2009, the agency opened an investigation into Hillsborough County Public Schools.
It’s unclear what sparked the review by the department’s Office of Civil Rights, but it had been an embarrassing time.
“Florida school district knows sex scandals,” read a headline at ABC News. Cases involving female teachers, in particular, had drawn national scrutiny. The framing of those incidents can downplay abuse, painting it as a teenage fantasy instead of a crime. The most infamous case of a woman dating her student happened in Tampa, when former bikini model Debra Lafave was convicted for having sex with a 14-year-old boy. Her attorney argued she was too beautiful for prison.
The federal investigation in Hillsborough looked, in part, at how the district botched a 2007 case. Back then, a girl reported that a teenage boy was sleeping with his 33-year-old special education teacher. In response, the school suspended the girl for spreading rumors. But the rumors were true.
The teacher was arrested and convicted. The judge had trouble believing the woman had committed abuse. He gave her probation, according to news reports. From the bench, he said the boy seemed more mature, less vulnerable and more experienced in seduction.
The Office of Civil Rights investigation concluded in 2011 and found the district wasn’t in compliance with the law. Investigators also concluded the school retaliated against the student who had reported the teacher.
The district entered into a resolution agreement with the agency, which required revamped policies, yearly student surveys to ensure they understand their rights and regular updates on a host of related items.
It’s unclear what happened with that agreement. A public records request to the district shows Hillsborough’s last message to the agency about Title IX was in 2014. In it, an attorney for the district expressed frustration with the slow process and requested guidance so that Hillsborough could become compliant.
A district spokesperson said recently that Hillsborough is no longer under federal oversight, but the Department of Education told the Times that the district is actively being monitored.
The Times made repeated attempts to get the education department to clarify this discrepancy, but the agency has not offered an explanation.
A school district must “prominently display” Title IX information on its website, but it is hard, on Hillsborough’s website, to figure out how to file a Title IX complaint or find the Title IX coordinator. Hillsborough directed the Times to a page titled Student Code of Conduct, where “notifications” are listed. At the bottom, under the heading nondiscrimination, Title IX is cited and the name and contact information for the executive officer of compliance is listed.
The district says it does awareness campaigns and shared survey results from spring 2021. Among those: Seventy percent of students said they knew how to report inappropriate behavior, and 60 percent would feel comfortable reporting it to school officials.
In all, six teens sent emails to the chief of human resources about Ms. Johnson.
“I am requesting that you immediately place Ms. Johnson on an administrative leave while she is being investigated,” the emails said. “The safety of students should always come first and Blake’s administration is failing to prioritize us.”
On Twitter, Anisya had posted that Ms. Johnson might get fired.
“Bio Johnson?” asked someone.
Anisya wrote back in all caps, YES.
“Makes sense, she would always be suuuuper inappropriate in class,” the person replied.
In a corner of Twitter is an active Blake High universe. A swirl of gossip, complaints about the bathrooms, jokes and angst. It isn’t official, but it is self-referential.
“I love how Blake has a community on Twitter,'' someone once wrote.
Last fall, senior William Ward tweeted, “thinking bout when i wrote Dick on my work in biology and miss johnson wrote back…” He attached a photo of a worksheet.
In pink highlighter was a reply: “Only on weekends”
Ward’s worksheet was from his freshman year. When she’d responded, it was surprising, he said, also kind of funny.
That’s how Ms. Johnson was, he said, outrageous.
He said she once told him, “Come back when you’re 18” and “You couldn't handle me.” He talked to friends about whether to say something. But he didn’t report her, he said, because he didn’t think the school would care.
Conol Vassar, also a senior, said he never considered reporting Ms. Johnson. She spoke graphically about men she’d brought home, he said, and joked several times about Conol’s genitalia. There would be an anatomy diagram, he said, and she’d say, “I wonder how big yours is!”
“It made me feel very icky about being there,” he said. “I didn’t feel safe in the classroom.”
Because Ms. Johnson was in charge of all the senior events, she felt more powerful than a regular teacher. It isn’t easy to report someone who is beloved by the majority of the school, he said.
Madisyn held Mr. Wayman, in part, responsible for the fact that Ms. Johnson was still in the classroom. She felt he hadn’t taken her seriously. One day, Rebeca found he had a Twitter account. Madisyn scrolled through and discovered a tweet from 10 years earlier that read, “I like my women and athletes like my dogs...dumb and loyal.”
She’d felt he was sexist and here he was admitting it. Madisyn took a screenshot, posted it on her Instagram and watched it blow up. Soon, the account was deleted.
Mr. Wayman, through the district spokesperson, said he never “had any knowledge that the student you are referring to had posted anything.”
The first week of March, a district investigator began asking about Ms. Johnson. He told the teens not to tell anyone about the investigation, which he said he expected to take a long time. But the teens didn’t trust him. Instead, they got on a video call with a Tampa Bay Times reporter.
“At first it seemed like he was kind of on our side,” Rebeca said. “But then when he brought up the (human resources) email, it was like we weren’t supposed to do that.”
“When it's like, what else are we supposed to do?” Jessica chimed in.
“That's what you're supposed to do,” Anisya said. “It’s all over the world. You do a chain email that everybody puts their name on.”
Rebeca was skeptical anything would happen. She had complained a few years earlier about a male teacher who made her uncomfortable. Another student — along with a parent — told the Times back then about the complaint, but a public records search didn’t show it had ever taken place. The teacher got a job at another school.
In that case, too, Rebeca said, people went on about how he was so nice, so funny, so chill — the type to let you do whatever you wanted.
Erin Maloney, the district spokesperson, said no allegations of sexual misconduct were made against that teacher, which is why no record exists.
About a week after the district began an investigation, a pair of officers arrived at the school. The district had called the Tampa Police Department to report an allegation against Ms. Johnson. It had, by then, been 19 days since Madisyn emailed the superintendent. Students were called to the office to talk.
That same day, Madisyn got a parking ticket warning related to displaying her school permit. It felt, to her, totally unfair. Her permit, she said, had been there. She confronted the school security, saying something along the lines of: “Can you see me? Do you have eyes?”
Now, Madisyn was the one in trouble. Mr. Wayman suspended her.
A lot of districts, Hillsborough included, have adjusted discipline policies to reduce suspensions. Research suggests they can set students back academically and inflame problems. Hillsborough’s policy says that unless it is an emergency, administrators should make an effort to get parental assistance or try another method. All of those efforts are supposed to be documented. The Times reviewed Madisyn’s school file. Her record only shows she’d been in trouble twice before, for cutting class during the prior semester.
Madisyn’s mom said Assistant Principal Martha McFarland called to tell her about the suspension and noted it was out of character, calling her daughter so sweet and so nice.
That same day, Ms. McFarland sent Madisyn’s teacher, Malorie Paine, a text.
“Hey,” the text began. “This is going to sound weird.”
She asked if Ms. Paine could review the pages Madisyn had done for the yearbook, which Ms. Paine’s journalism class put together.
“I have a feeling Madyson (sic) is going to try to f—k something up and make us look really bad,” she said.
Ms. Paine assured her the pages were simple, and she knew everything on them, but promised to go over all of it again.
“Yes please,” Ms. McFarland replied. “I think she is up to something so keep a close eye on her and the work she does.”
“Odd,” Ms. Paine texted. “She’s been a great kid for me. She’s not one I would have been concerned with.”
“Exactly,” Ms. McFarland wrote. “I’m going off a hunch but my gut has always been right. She’s looking to target something bigger and hides behind being good.”
Ms. Paine knew Madisyn had been challenging the school. Madisyn and Rebeca were in her class and had been talking about Ms. Johnson with other students. She’d been stunned when Madisyn had been suspended for back talk. Now an instruction to keep an eye on her?
What was this, she wondered, if not retaliation?
Before spring break in mid-March, Ms. Johnson told students she wouldn’t be in class the Monday after break, according to her student Harlow Neal. Harlow, like the others who’d complained, thought the teacher made too many gross, sexual comments. She remembered Ms. Johnson called a student thick, saying he had a big, juicy butt. Harlow had felt bad for him, wishing the teacher would leave him alone.
Over the break, a detective began showing up at students’ homes to ask questions. That first Monday back, Ms. Johnson wasn’t there. Or the next day. Or the next. Finally, it seemed to Madisyn and others, someone was taking what they’d said seriously.
Then in early April, Blake High’s security guard got a complaint that students were smoking in the gym, which is prohibited by the district. He found Madisyn and a friend with vape pens. He made Madisyn hand over her bulky, yellow backpack, which was stuffed to the brim. He found medicine in Madisyn’s possession that was prescribed to the friend, as well as pepper spray.
Eventually, he pulled out two identification badges that belonged to a coach at the school, on them someone had doodled the words “snitch” and “whore.”
The school called the police. The officer who responded wrote in a report that the coach hadn’t known the badges existed. Her badge from the prior year was still valid and that’s what she’d used. The officer gave Madisyn a citation for smoking and wrote up a charge for petty theft. The officer valued the stolen property at $1.
Madisyn told the Times she, and others, had found some IDs on the floor and grabbed them. Madisyn said she didn’t like the coach because she would get on her and a friend about taking too long in the bathroom. So, she’d drawn on the badges. She said she had forgotten she had them.
In the police report, next to “victim,” the officer wrote: Hillsborough County Public Schools.
“No student was retaliated against regarding this case or investigation,” said Maloney, the district spokesperson. “When any student is in possession of illegal substances, we are bound to report to the proper authorities.”
The school suspended Madisyn for 10 days. And after that, the school said she couldn’t come back. If she did more than drop her brother off, Mr. Wayman told her dad, she’d be trespassing.
Her mom was assured she’d still get to see her daughter walk at graduation. But now, Madisyn would have to do virtual school to finish the year.
Then, Madisyn’s dad, Mike Slater, got an email.
“Congratulations your child has received an award,” it began. “Please help them SAVE-THE-DATE for the Class of 2021 Senior Awards Ceremony.”
Her dad sent a text to Mr. Wayman asking if Madisyn was allowed to go.
“Unfortunately I don’t think that would be allowed,” he said.
“Then why are you sending me this message?” her dad asked. “If she has an award I would line (sic) her to get it like the rest of her class.”
Mr. Wayman said Madisyn didn’t need to come.
Madisyn’s criminal case went to a juvenile diversion program.
On a Monday in May, Madisyn and her dad logged on to a video call to begin the program, which they didn’t totally understand.
In superhero pajama shorts and a sweatshirt, Madisyn sat in a desk chair and listened to the program official explain what would happen. The program was voluntary and would protect her from charges if she completed her sanctions. To help decide her sanctions, he said, a licensed therapist would do a risk assessment.
Most sanctions ran about five weeks but not always. As an example, he told her of a boy who, during his interview, revealed he’d had three family members die. As a result, he got therapy, which he said takes longer than sanctions typically do. He asked if she wanted to do the program. If she didn’t, he would send the case to a prosecutor, who could file charges. They agreed to participate.
He asked her dad to leave, saying the risk assessment was confidential. Madisyn would do it alone.
During the assessment, the interviewer asked if Madisyn had ever been sexually abused. Madisyn told her no.
The interviewer told Madisyn she knew it was a touchy subject, but that she had extensive records. In those records, she said, was a report of rape.
“Is that true?” she asked.
“So are you still saying that that never happened?”
“No,” Madisyn said. “Then I guess I’m not if you have that documented.”
“So, is it safe to say you’re giving me inaccurate information?”
“Only on that one,” Madisyn said. “Because I think that’s irrelevant.”
The interviewer told her she needed to be honest. At the end, she told her whatever sanctions were decided, counseling would likely be included.
Madisyn opened the home office door, walked into the living room and broke the news to her dad and stepmom.
“Therapy,” she said.
“For what?” her dad asked.
“They made me tell them I got raped, so that’s probably why,” she said.
Madisyn had already been in counseling. She worried about how long it would take to resolve the charge.
Her dad agreed it could go on forever.
“Refuse the program,” he said. “Go to court.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Johnson was sending emails. She emailed Ms. Paine, saying she wanted to check in about the plan to distribute yearbooks. She sent an email to staff with a flyer for the senior send-off event that weekend, noting it had been shown in the faculty meeting.
“Looking forward to a fun and positive event for the class of 2021!” the email said.
Was Ms. Johnson going?
Students got emails, too, about senior events.
The Times asked about the emails, and Maloney, the district spokesperson, said Ms. Johnson was under orders not to contact students or staff. Maloney contacted the district’s Office of Professional Standards, which handles investigations, and was told they were looking into it. Days later, she said the office had been told Ms. Johnson hadn’t sent emails but said she couldn’t say who had said that because of the open case. Ms. Johnson, she said, would not be at the event.
A district investigator finished his inquiry, typed up a report and sent it to higher ups.
In it, he detailed his interview with Ms. Johnson in early May.
He asked about whether she’d ever talked about not wearing underwear in class. Yes, she said, but in the context of a lesson on vaginal health. She told students that women, herself included, sometimes don’t wear underwear at night to avoid fungus. At school, she said, she’d always worn underwear.
She said she didn’t remember putting a pen between her breasts and giving it to a student. She also denied showing students photos of men she’d slept with. Or talking about nipple sensitivity. She said if students asked about her sex life, which sometimes happened, she told them she wasn’t doing anything and encouraged them to talk with a parent.
“I was told students would make comments to you about being with you sexually and you told the students that they would have to wait until they were 18,” the investigator said. “Is this true?”
Lots of students, she said, had taken a liking to her, told her they loved her, that they wanted to be with her. She said she would tell them, “That’s not my thing, you’d have to wait until you’re 18.”
“So you would make that statement,” the investigator said.
“I would make that statement, but in a joking manner,” she said. “So yes.”
The investigator also asked about behavior that came up in interviews with students.
Did she give them permission to use dirty mnemonic devices to help remember science terms? Had she ever let them throw parties at her home? Carried students around her classroom? Allowed them to give her insulin shots?
She acknowledged that she had.
“You understand there is an inherent danger in a student handling a needle and something could go wrong,” the investigator said.
“I do, I do,” she said. “Just trying to have them excited about science, but I do acknowledge that yes.”
The investigator’s last question, according to the report, was this: “Have you ever made comments to students that would be considered inappropriate by the Hillsborough County School District?”
Ms. Johnson told him that, upon reflection, she could see how, without the context of the lesson or the situation, “it could definitely be misconstrued as something wrong or fishy is going on.”
The investigator noted in his report that the district had a copy of the police investigation, which had ended.
That police report shows that a detective talked to the boy Rebeca had said once touched Ms. Johnson’s breasts. The boy, who was also interviewed by the district investigator, told the detective he did ask to touch her but couldn’t remember what happened next. He said he’d once asked to poke her butt and she’d let him.
The Times also spoke to the boy, who blamed himself for what happened. “Sometimes, I’m reminded of what I did and am disgusted.”
Asked about the boy, Ms. Johnson told the detective she’d never given students permission to touch her and didn’t remember them asking to do so. She said she’d never had sex with a Blake High student.
One girl told the detective that Ms. Johnson would be inappropriate but said that she’d recommend her class. Ms. Johnson, she said, was laid back, a person you could go to for advice.
Another girl told the officer that Ms. Johnson told her class about her vibrator, nicknamed BOB for Battery-Operated Boyfriend.
Police interviewed Madisyn, Jessica, Anisya, Naiara, Rebeca and Harlow, along with three other students. He talked to Ms. Johnson. A detective reviewed the statements the school collected. But he never interviewed Angelica, who said that Ms. Johnson had shown her a photo of a penis.
The detective wrote in his conclusion, “It is reasonable that individuals could find several of these incidents inappropriate and form the opinion that the conduct was not within the societal standards expected of a high school teacher.”
However, he wrote, those incidents were not violations of Florida law. And he’d found no evidence that Ms. Johnson had a sexual relationship with any current or past students.
He forwarded to the state attorney’s office information about the student who said he’d touched Ms. Johnson with her permission. That, too, was determined not to be a criminal matter.
Nothing in either report suggests that the students had personal animus or biases against Ms. Johnson.
It is unclear what the district made of all of this. Its investigation doesn’t say. The report draws no conclusions and does not indicate if the school reported findings to the state, to determine if this should affect her teaching license.
Ms. Johnson is no longer a Blake teacher. She resigned, according to a form in the appendix of the investigative file. As to why she is leaving, she checked, “personal reasons.”
Ms. Johnson did not respond to requests for comment from the Times. Principal Salters and assistant principals Wayman and McFarland also did not return messages from the Times.
Maloney, the district spokeswoman, said, “It was clear that Ms. Johnson on many occasions made inappropriate comments and overall did not conduct herself in a professional manner. As our district was moving toward termination, Ms. Johnson resigned.”
The teens who complained about Ms. Johnson received no notifications about the results of the investigations, they said.
Often, Madisyn would think back to her conversation months earlier with the principal. How he’d told her he couldn’t just kick a teacher out of the school and then, bizarrely, started asking her to imagine that she was the one in trouble.
Then, it happened. She was not allowed to return to school. Madisyn graduated not knowing whether her own future included a criminal court case.
About the reporter
About this story
Reporter Bethany Barnes began following this story in late February, just days after Madisyn Slater emailed the superintendent. Initially, Barnes spoke to seven teens, who shared witness statements, emails, text messages and video of Ms. Johnson in the classroom. Barnes also reviewed social media.
From there, she found William Ward’s tweet from last fall about Ms. Johnson writing on his homework. He shared his observations and told Barnes to talk to his friend Conol Vassar, who wanted to share his deep discomfort in the class. In all, Barnes spoke to 10 teens for this story.
Barnes went to Madisyn’s home to observe the diversion program video call and spoke multiple times with Madisyn’s mom, dad and stepmom. Barnes also spoke with Ms. Paine, who shared the text messages asking her to keep an eye on Madisyn. Ms. Paine, Jessica Chapa and Anisya Gonzalez provided emails they received from Ms. Johnson during her leave.
The story is based on numerous records that include: the police report regarding Madisyn’s theft charge, the police investigation regarding the allegations against Ms. Johnson and the district’s investigation into the matter.
Barnes requested and reviewed the district’s policies on educator sexual misconduct.
Madisyn’s parents requested Madisyn’s file from the school and provided it to Barnes. It included every grade Madisyn had ever gotten from Blake High.
The story also is based on records provided in response to a request to the district for all of its communications with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Barnes requested the entire Office of Civil Rights file and received 35 pages, which include the findings of the investigation, but no records after 2011. The Office of Civil Rights said it withheld other records because the case is being actively monitored.