Authorities say five more children have come forward with allegations of sexual abuse against Joseph Gatti, the Powell Middle School teacher jailed Thursday on a dozen sex charges.
Gatti likely faces more charges over the weekend, and investigators anticipate arresting others connected with the case, said Maj. G. Z. Smith of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.
Gatti, who remains behind bars without bail, was suspended with pay Friday. Throughout the day, television news trucks streamed onto Powell's campus while counselors traveled from classroom to classroom to deal with pupils' concerns.
"Of course this all is still so hard to believe," Superintendent John Sanders said during an afternoon news conference.
On Thursday, Gatti, 36, was led away from Powell in handcuffs and charged with molesting three of his male pupils. Detectives had been working on the case since October, when they say Gatti harbored a 15-year-old runaway. Gatti, who was nominated as Powell's Teacher of the Year in 1995, was accused of putting his hands down the boys' pants and asking them to fondle him. There were rumors Friday that members of Powell's staff, including principal Cy Wingrove, knew about Gatti's involvement with the pupils.
But at the news conference, Sanders denied that and vehemently defended the way Wingrove handled the crisis.
"Everything he has done has been done properly," Sanders said. Wingrove was conspicuously absent from the conference.
"I want him to run the school, that's why he's not here," Sanders said.
Wingrove, when reached later at the school, declined to answer questions about Gatti.
"When something of this nature occurs, it's best that the superintendent's office comment," Wingrove said after school was dismissed Friday.
On Friday morning, sheriff's deputies sealed the campus from news reporters who showed up as early as 6 a.m. Jim Knight, director of student services, said both pupils and staff members were distraught and took advantage of the counseling team that was on campus.
"This is an upsetting thing for the children, especially Mr. Gatti's students," Knight said. "The faculty feels confused, and some of them are shocked. This was a man they had worked with and known for years."
By the end of the school day, flowers and cookies had been delivered to the campus by concerned parents and residents as a show of support.
"The community has really been supportive," Knight said.
In another development Friday, Deputy Kenneth Lund, the school's resource officer who was suspended Thursday, was reinstated after the Sheriff's Office concluded he had not interfered with the custody of the 15-year-old runaway allegedly harbored by Gatti.
Gatti could face up to 155 years in prison if convicted on all charges. He faces nine counts of lewd and lascivious assault upon a child under 16, three counts of soliciting a child to engage in sexual activity and one count of interfering with custody.
Friday morning, County Judge Peyton Hyslop postponed setting Gatti's bail until Monday because the Sheriff's Office has indicated that Gatti faces additional charges.
Smith refused to detail the allegations made by five additional boys whose parents contacted the Sheriff's Office on Friday. He said that three new witnesses also have been identified.