TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A years-old sexual assault conviction isn’t normally the subject of a political campaign, particularly when the candidate is not the one who was charged. However, in the Florida governor’s race, a 2020 conviction of a teacher for sexual abuse was brought into the coming election, due to comments by Gov. Ron DeSantis aimed at his Karla Hernández-Mats, the newly-named running mate for Rep. Charlie Crist, who is running to unseat DeSantis.
Hernández-Mats, is president of the Miami-Dade teachers’ union, United Teachers of Dade. Governor DeSantis, at an event in St. Lucie County, said UTD had protected former teacher and physical education coach Wendell Nibbs, while he was accused of sexually abusing multiple minors in Miami.
Nibbs, according to reporting by the Miami-Herald and NBC 6 South Florida, pleaded guilty to abuse in 2020 and was sentenced to eight years in prison. He resigned after being charged back in 2016. Part of the negotiation over his guilty plea included multiple charges being dropped, according to reporting by the Herald and NBC 6.
The Miami-Dade County School Board also paid more than $9 million to five students who were abused by Nibbs, according to court documents and reporting by the Herald. Their reporting said that over 15 years as a teacher in the county, Nibbs allegedly abused nine female students while at Brownsville Middle School. Some allegations date back to 2004, but investigation by the district found them to be “unsubstantiated,” according to reporting by NBC 6.
Miami law firm Ratzan & Faccidomo broke down the details of the Miami settlement, highlighting multiple teaching suspensions of Nibbs as allegations came and went. According to their breakdown, Nibbs first started teaching at Brownsville Middle School in 2002. From 2004 to 2013, Ratzan & Faccidomo say four students told the school Nibbs had “made inappropriate sexual advances toward them.” He was investigated, but not disciplined, and returned to teaching.
Not only a teacher and member of the UTD, Nibbs was an elected UTD building steward while at Brownsville, according to reporting by the Herald. The paper reported that “while his students filed complaint after complaint against him, Nibbs rose into the teachers union’s inner circle. He spent eight years as a building steward and was a forceful advocate for the current UTD leadership.”
In 2015, “accusations had become so numerous and the alleged misconduct so egregious that police began an investigation into the allegations,” the law firm said.
Among the accusations, the law firm lists the following examples:
- A 15-year-old student began confiding in Nibbs about the fact that other students at the school were bullying her. They exchanged phone numbers, and soon he began asking her for nude photos. They had several sexual encounters in his classroom during school hours. When the student transferred to another school, Nibbs sent messages to her phone and told her not to tell anyone what had happened, because it would ruin his career.
- In 2014, Nibbs began asking a 14-year-old student to undress in his presence, but she refused. The following year, when she was 15, he lured her into the office behind his classroom and tried to rape her, but she refused.
- A student had several sexual encounters with Nibbs off campus while she was enrolled at the school. She became pregnant and gave birth to a child; she believes that Nibbs is the child’s biological father.
Following the allegations, Nibbs was fired from the school district in 2017, according to the Miami Herald. He was later arrested again in 2019, according to the Herald, after two more students accused him of rape. At the time, he was already awaiting trial on the previous charges.
Nibbs pleaded guilty in 2019 and sentenced in 2020. He’ll have to register as a sex offender and be on sex offender probation for 10 years, according to the law firm. He’ll remain on the sex offender registry for life. He maintained his teaching license until April 2019, despite the allegations and investigations, according to reporting by NBC 6.
NBC 6 obtained school records from the Miami-Dade School Board showing they’d sent a letter to the FDOE back in February 2016, but the department did not sanction, then cancel, Nibbs’ teaching certification until April 11, 2019.
Former Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran told NBC 6 there were multiple reports about multiple teachers that did not get a notification to the Department of Education, meaning they did not immediately lose their teaching licenses.
The 2015 investigation was what culminated in Nibbs being arrested and charged in 2016. His guilty plea to those charges ended with his conviction and sentencing.
“We had numerous responses and reports of teachers that we didn’t get a notification that we’d revoked their licenses right away and make sure they are not in a classroom and they are not a threat to our students,” Corcoran told NBC 6 in July. “We are going to do what we have done in the last six months that we immediately revoke, upon notice.”
NBC 6 reported Nibbs’ certificate was cancelled at the direction of Corcoran.
Now, two years into his prison sentence, where he pleaded guilty to just three counts of sexual activity with a child, Nibbs’ case was brought into state politics during what is considered a heated governor’s race.
WFLA.com reached out to the Crist campaign for comment on the governor’s statement that Hernandez-Mats, who has served as president of UTD since 2016, had protected Nibbs while he was employed by Miami-Dade County Schools.
“It’s a lie. And to top it off, it’s coming from a governor whose own campaign was led by accused child sexual predator Matt Gaetz, and whose disgusting actions DeSantis still refuses to condemn,” Crist campaign communications director Samantha Ramirez said in response. “While Ron DeSantis shields sexual predators in his own party, Karla Hernández is a former special needs teacher who has devoted her life to serving the people of her community.”
The campaign denies Hernández-Mats had any involvement in the case.
In terms of timing, Hernández-Mats was elected to her position of president of UTD in mid-2016. The Nibbs investigation began officially in 2015, with the allegations ranging in time from 2003 to 2016. Before that, Hernández-Mats served as an organizer and secretary-treasurer for the union.