Monday, November 19, 2018
Education

Class of 2018: TBT’s Anita Morgan rises above abuse to thrive

TAMPA — For those who fear there is no hope, or help, or heart left in this world, there is the story of Anita Morgan.

There are any number of life-wrenching places to begin …

In the middle of the night, in the back of a police car, cruising over the bridge toward Clearwater, holding the hand of her sister, Breannea, returning to the foster care system with tears pouring out — 12 years old in 2011.

A few hours earlier, two police officers appeared in the doorway of the Morgans’ apartment.

At the officers’ request, Anita walked them through the rooms, showing and telling the places and moments where her biological father fondled, beat, raped and forced her to sit on her knees for hours when she didn’t comply to his wishes.

Where to turn? Her mother, Michelle, had died from cancer two months earlier at 41. Breannea — the one who finally called the police after their father increased the abuse following her mother’s death — was only 13. The girls’ two older siblings were struggling on their own, often "running the streets."

In Morgan’s memory, her father’s screams echoed as they cuffed and bent him into the back of another police car: "Please don’t take me!"

She felt tremendous guilt.

"I kept thinking, over and over, that it was my fault that we were going back into ‘the system.’?" she said. "I thought my younger brother (Jahien Morgan, who is two years younger) doesn’t know why he was taken away all of the sudden (to a different home from Anita and Breannea). I kept thinking Jahien is blaming me for it. He doesn’t understand. Now both my parents were gone. I was just a kid. I was lost."

A few days ago, Morgan sat inside the place she has called home the past few years, the Starting Right, Now residence in South Tampa — a place for 40 other teens overcoming similar hardships — and Morgan tells her story with direct, dark eyes, steadily turning every detail to the light for the world to see.

"I used to think I was alone but now I know I’m not the only one," she said. "Telling my story might help someone else realize they are not alone."

She talks on. She gazes out the window and into a courtroom in 2016. An attorney says, "point to the man who did this to you." She is shaking, she can’t breathe, she has to stop. The judge calls a recess. She collects herself, comes back in and points at her father.

He is sentenced to 26 years in prison for abusing Anita and her siblings.

Through it all, she went to school, and to church and she asked God, "Why are you doing this to me? Is this a test? Why me?"

Many times she relayed her daily trials to her pastor and to a teacher at her school, a couple that happened to be married: Dr. Philetha Tucker Johnson and Adrian Johnson, the boys’ basketball coach at Tampa Bay Tech.

"I listened," said Adrian Johnson, who has taught more than 30 years. "I wanted to help."

Johnson talked to the school psychologist and she contacted the founder of Starting Right, Now, Vicki Sokolik, who through "SRN" has helped almost 300 teens turn their lives around in the past 11 years.

Sokolik had Morgan talk with therapists and introduced Morgan to her mentor, south Tampa’s Teri Castillo, another person who "just wanted to help." Sokolik laid down the many laws, including going to school "every single day," which involved catching a bus at 5 a.m. Morgan did it all.

This month, Morgan will receive a diploma from Tampa Bay Tech, making her the first in her family to graduate from high school. In the fall, Morgan will begin college at the University of the Ozarks in Arkansas. She says she wants to become a social worker, to help others like those who helped her.

Scared? Yes. Hopeful? Yes.

"I want to break the cycle that my family was in," said Morgan, who now has her brother, Jahien, in the SRN program.

The other day, out of the blue, Sokolik received a text from Morgan, a simple message that swelled Sokolik’s heart.

Morgan’s words: "I have never been so happy."

Contact Scott Purks at [email protected]

Comments
Pinellas School Board approves raises for administrators, support staff

Pinellas School Board approves raises for administrators, support staff

Administrators and support staff in Pinellas County schools will get a boost in salary and benefits just in time for the holidays, following a recent, unanimous vote by the School Board.Months of negotiations between the district and two employe...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Hillsborough Sheriff: Man dead after crashing into deputy, fleeing, then crashing again

Hillsborough Sheriff: Man dead after crashing into deputy, fleeing, then crashing again

Deputies said he hit a sheriff's office cruiser, then sped away before losing control and crashing again. He died on the scene.
Published: 11/17/18
Man injured in Pasco County paramotor crash

Man injured in Pasco County paramotor crash

An man was hospitalized Saturday after crashing a paramotor in rural San Antonio, Pasco County Fire Rescue officials said.The crash happened about 11:30 a.m. in the 26500 block of Fields Farm Lane, west of Bellamy Brothers Boulevard and north of Stat...
Published: 11/17/18
Sheriff: Pasco teacher filmed student undressing, arrested on voyeurism charge

Sheriff: Pasco teacher filmed student undressing, arrested on voyeurism charge

Deputies said Fivay High School teacher Thomas Kovack admitted to recording a 17-year-old student as she changed her shirt.
Published: 11/17/18
Inside the newsroom: Tampa Bay Times project team takes a deep dive inside a notorious Florida death penalty case

Inside the newsroom: Tampa Bay Times project team takes a deep dive inside a notorious Florida death penalty case

A project team at the Tampa Bay Times explores the death penalty in Florida through a notorious 1975 murder case.
Updated: 8 hours ago
Politics, practicality, price: Across Florida, rural students put off by perceived weaknesses of higher education

Politics, practicality, price: Across Florida, rural students put off by perceived weaknesses of higher education

In rural enclaves, practical-minded students are losing faith in the value of college. Many see it as an outright corrosive force and are frustrated by its outsize cost and perceived uselessness.
Published: 11/16/18
Updated: 11/17/18
DeVos releases sexual assault rules she hails as balancing rights of victims, accused

DeVos releases sexual assault rules she hails as balancing rights of victims, accused

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Friday released her long-awaited rewrite of rules governing campus sexual harassment and assault allegations, narrowing the cases schools must investigate and giving
Published: 11/16/18
USF's new dorm in St. Petersburg will get a financial assist from the Tampa campus

USF's new dorm in St. Petersburg will get a financial assist from the Tampa campus

Construction on a long-planned student residence at USF St. Petersburg will start in February and be complete in 2020. It will have room for more than 900 students and a 400-seat dining hall.
Published: 11/16/18
Greco Middle School, three others in Hillsborough get new principals

Greco Middle School, three others in Hillsborough get new principals

TAMPA – In between speeches about Lee Elementary School and the debate to rename Lee, the Hillsborough County School Board on Thursday also approved 17 administrative assignments that included new leaders at four schools.Andrew Olson is being t...
Published: 11/16/18
Florida education news: School names, teacher pay, mental health services and more

Florida education news: School names, teacher pay, mental health services and more

A roundup of stories from around the state.
Published: 11/16/18