TAMPA — Ethel Anderson was so highly respected at Mango Elementary School that her colleagues elected her diversity educator of the year for 2011.
Now she's behind bars, accused of having a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old boy.
Officials say the victim was not in her fifth-grade class, but that Anderson, 29, was tutoring him at her Riverview home.
The news, nonetheless, hit hard in a school district that has weathered similar scandals in recent years, usually involving slightly older students.
"It's devastating. It's unfortunate. It's sad. It's all of these things," said Doretha Edgecomb, a member of the Hillsborough County School Board.
Anderson, arrested at her home Wednesday evening, faces three counts of lewd battery and two counts of lewd and lascivious molestation. Held without bail in the Hillsborough County Jail, she faces a judge this morning for her first appearance hearing.
An investigation began after the boy's mother began to suspect her son was having a relationship, which authorities said began in December, with a woman unknown to the family, deputies said. The mother called the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
"She would go to his residence, pick him up and bring him back to her residence," said sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter. Back at her home, Anderson and the boy would engage in sex acts, according to an arrest report.
Anderson began teaching at Mango Elementary as an intern and was hired full-time in 2006, school district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said. She had a spotless disciplinary record. She had tenure and was earning nearly $39,000 a year. Colleagues at the school nominated her for an honor "for going above and beyond to meet the needs of our diverse student population."
But during the investigation, she was told to stay out of school and is now on paid leave. "The School Board will, in all likelihood, vote to suspend her without pay, but only they can decide do that," Cobbe said.
Mango Elementary principal Felicia Davis notified parents Thursday with a recorded telephone message and a letter. A crisis team went to the school.
"Please be mindful that your student may ask some difficult questions and may show signs of being upset," Davis wrote. "You can help your children simply by talking and listening to them."
At dismissal time outside the school, emotions ranged from anger to disbelief.
"I'm furious and I'm not the only parent who is furious," said Dorothy Arturi, mother of a kindergartner. "If I did something like that, I would lose my job for good."
Rigo Berto, whose son was in Anderson's class, said the child liked Anderson and had never seen her act inappropriately.
"I just had a conference with her last week," Berto said. "This is a surprise to me."
Anderson's husband, Michael, 30, said he was shocked when she was arrested at the home they share with their 4-year-old child. "I'm still trying to wrap my head around what all just happened," he said.
School Board member Stacy White, who represents the east Hillsborough area where Anderson taught, said he is waiting for the case to work its way through the legal system.
"But if indeed all of this is substantiated, my heart goes out to the child and the family," he said. "I just can't imagine something like that happening to one of my three children."
As one of the nation's largest school districts, Hillsborough employs more than 12,000 teachers. But when it comes to cases of sexual misconduct, "one is too many," said board chairwoman Candy Olson. "We all look around and say, what else do we need to do?"
Some officials, including White and Edgecomb, speculated that social mores have deteriorated and children are exposed to sexual content at increasingly younger ages.
Melissa Erickson, president of the Hillsborough County PTA Council, said children are more likely to report inappropriate behavior than in past generations. "But no answer is good enough for this family," she said. "If it is my child, no answer is satisfactory."
All expressed frustration at not being able to predict what teacher might cross the line.
"I don't think there is a litmus test, if you will," Edgecomb said. "It's not until they falter, do you get a sense that there's a problem. There are no horns."
Nationwide, the problem of educator sexual misconduct might be worse than parents realize, according to three University of South Florida education professors.
In a paper for the University Council for Educational Administration, the USF team cited studies showing about 10 percent of students encounter some form of sexual misconduct in their school years. Most do not tell their parents. Even fewer report the incidents to authorities.
Principals they interviewed said their college training does little to prepare them to guard against impropriety.
White said he hopes the School Board will consider taking action in light of this latest arrest.
"Maybe with all the changes in society, it is time for the board to have a discussion about this," he said. Better employment screening — beyond the current system that includes background and reference checks — might be called for, even if it is expensive. "I hate to put a price tag on child safety," he said.
Others said that absent an invasive psychological exam, there is little more the district can do. "If you can't be 100 percent sure, it's better to put a lot of safeguards in place to make it less likely," said Olson. She said it might be time to re-educate parents about how to make their children aware of inappropriate adult behavior. "Maybe we're not doing enough of this."
Anderson's situation — tutoring a student without another adult present — is the kind of thing administrators discourage, said Lewis Brinson, assistant superintendent for administration.
"I think there's common sense," Brinson said. "How do you teach common sense? How do you teach an adult, you don't have that kind of relationship with a child?"
Times staff writer Shelley Rossetter and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3356.