Weeks after facing firing, ex-Boca High teacher happy to be back in classroom

After nearly being fired, former Boca Raton High School teacher Samantha Major says she is happy to have returned to the classroom at Spanish River High School. (Michael Ares / The Palm Beach Post)

High school teacher Samantha Major gutted through the fallout of an attempt to mentor a troubled student. She suffered through seven months of exile on desk duty in a school bus compound.

Aided by an outpouring of public support, she survived efforts by the school district to arrest her, then fire her, for her handling of the relationship with her teenage student.

Now the 27-year-old teacher has returned to the classroom.

Days after the school district canceled its plans to fire Major late last month, Boca Raton High School’s onetime ‘New Teacher of the Year’ was summoned from her clerical post at the bus compound and assigned to Spanish River High School, where she has taken over teaching sociology classes.

After two weeks in her new classroom, Major said in an interview with The Palm Beach Post that she is relieved to be teaching again. She said the mid-year transition was nerve-wracking and initially overwhelming, but that she has found a new rhythm at the school west of Boca Raton.

“It was emotional, but each day got a little bit easier,” she said. “The faculty and the principal have just been so welcoming.”

The price of mentoring? Why this Boca Raton teacher is being fired

The story of how the young teacher went from a rising star at one of the county’s highest-performing high schools to the target of a criminal investigation and termination shocked many residents and other teachers.

Major was a standout second-year teacher and a participant in Boca Raton High’s mentoring program for struggling students when she bonded with an emotionally troubled 15-year-old student in late 2015.

Major told investigators that the girl sought her out to share occasional frustrations about friends and family members but also told wild tales and made repeated false claims.

Among the claims that the girl made to Major: that she had once been raped by another minor while she was in elementary school.

The young teacher later admitted that she waited more than three months to report the girl’s claims of being sexually assaulted.

State law requires teachers to notify state authorities if they have “reasonable cause to suspect” a child is a victim of sexual abuse.

But Major told investigators that she did not believe she had good reason to report the claim, saying that the student had a pattern of lying, that her account of the rape changed over time (first involving a neighbor, then a relative) and that the student said the incident was investigated years beforehand.

Major also texted with the student frequently without the parents’ knowledge and agreed to meet the student one evening in March last year after the girl told her she ran away from home and planned to sleep in the streets, records show.

Avossa: I didn’t want to fire Boca Raton High teacher

Pressed to take action by the girl’s parents, the school district barred her from teaching and tried to arrest her last fall for failing to report the abuse claim, a third-degree felony carrying a potential five-year prison sentence. When state prosecutors rejected the case, the district moved to fire her this year.

After The Post published a story on the case, Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa initially defended his decision to fire her but later abandoned the plan amid widespread opposition from parents, teachers and some school board members.

Her return to teaching this month, however welcome, was jarring after months of quiet clerical work, Major said.

She was nervous that her classroom skills might have lapsed during her seven months of desk duty, and the challenge was heightened by taking over the teaching of a new subject toward the end of the year. (The classes’ original teacher moved mid-year, and the class had been taught by a long-term substitute before Major was assigned).

“You’re lesson planning and grading into 9 and 10 o’clock at night sometimes,” she said. “It was overwhelming after not having to do that for seven months.”

Major’s settlement with the school district prevents her from teaching at Boca Raton High while her former student, now a junior, attends the school. That could allow Major to return to the school — where she starred on the soccer team as a student and had been named “New Teacher of the Year” — in August 2018.

But while she feels a strong link to Boca High, she said she has been embraced by the administrators and teachers at Spanish River and said the change has made her a better educator.

“It’s sometimes good to be stretched out of your comfort zone,” she said.

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