SARASOTA — The Sarasota County School Board has approved Superintendent Todd Bowden’s request to expand the scope of a sexual harassment investigation to include the accuser and union officials.

In a split vote Tuesday, the board appointed an outside firm to investigate administrative assistant Cheraina Bonner and the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association.

The move comes after Bowden raised suspicions that union officials had plotted with Bonner to accuse him of ignoring her sexual harassment complaints.

Bonner made the allegations against her boss, Chief Operating Officer Jeff Maultbsy, earlier this spring. She accused him of sending her suggestive text messages, including an early morning Christmas video where he appeared to be drunkenly serenading her.

The video was one of 831 text messages exchanged between Maultsby and Bonner, according to records obtained from the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office.

Maultsby was placed on paid administrative leave on June 18, pending an investigation into the allegations.

Bonner, however, was displeased with the district’s response to the sexual harassment claims, and filed a complaint against Bowden and a member of the district’s human resources department.

She was included in the investigation after she was seen meeting with union officials for lunch on Aug. 15 at Demetrio’s restaurant in Sarasota. Bowden said he found the interaction concerning, noting that confidential employees, like Bonner, are barred from union membership.

“I don’t believe they have an interest in there being a thorough, independent investigation,” Bowden said. “ I think they have an interest in making sure the investigation is led in a particular direction. I’m certainly troubled by their involvement … and what influence they might have with the accuser.”

Pat Gardner, president of the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association, stood before the board at Tuesday’s meeting to address the superintendent’s concerns.

She stressed that union officials did not tell Bonner how to disclose the allegations to Bowden, noting that they first met with Bonner on May 20, five weeks after the initial complaints were made. She added that union officials did not advise Bonner to file a report with the Sheriff’s Office.

But Gardner said she did suggest that Bonner “get a lawyer, get a lawyer, get a lawyer.”

The decision to expand the scope of the investigation was met with backlash from School Board members Eric Robinson and Bridget Ziegler.

Robinson said it seems apparent that Bonner did not meet with union officials to discuss pay raises, contract language or other confidential matters. He added that it was reasonable to assume she was discussing the alleged sexual harassment, and argued that Bonner has the right to seek help from others.

“I think we can all pretty much assume that Ms. Bonner felt that she was sexual harassed, that’s why she filed the complaint,” he said. “We can also assume that she tried to do things and nobody listened. That’s a reasonable assumption on everybody’s part, that she felt that she was powerless. She tried to go to the proper channels and nothing happened.”

School Board members Shirley Brown, Caroline Zucker and Jane Goodwin all supported Bowden’s request. Brown stressed that it was imperative to know whether the union encouraged Bonner to file a complaint.

She added that she, too, had concerns about the union officials’ potential involvement, noting that “it’s no secret” they want to get rid of Bowden.

“Nobody is saying that Ms. Bonner lied,” Brown said. “Nobody is saying that. We believe this. … We’re looking at the timeline, and did that meeting cause her to take action.”

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