She waited five years to confront Tom Privett, her former high school teacher, the man who groomed and manipulated her on campus. The man who raped her over and over inside his classroom.
Now 23, she walked gingerly up to the podium Wednesday in a Miami-Dade courtroom. Privett, in handcuffs, sat in the jury box a few paces away. She could not contain her rage. “You f--king monster!” she cried loudly. “F--k you!”
She paused to compose herself. Privett was stone-faced behind his mask. The former student recounted how Privett, a well-known government teacher at Terra Environmental Research Institute magnet school, took advantage of her as she dealt with a death in her family and other hardships.
“You psychologically manipulated me and brainwashed me. You made me worship the ground you walked on. You insulted me when I failed to do the things you asked of me. You started touching me when I was 14 years old,” she said, adding: “I was the puppet and you were the strings controlling my every move.”
Five years after the abuse ended, she confronted Privett, now 72, who pleaded guilty Wednesday to two counts of sexual battery of a helpless victim. He agreed to spend two years in prison, plus two years of house arrest and 20 years of probation with an ankle monitor.
The plea deal, struck with the victim’s blessing, ensured he will now be a convicted felon and spares her from having to testify at a deposition and a public trial.
His victim began clapping as Miami-Dade police officers led him away in handcuffs. “Rot bitch,” the young woman muttered.
The judge sentenced Privett on Wednesday, more than a year after Miami-Dade schools police arrested the retired teacher and charged him with a slew of felonies. Circuit Judge Ramiro Areces also deemed Privett a sexual offender, and said he’ll have to abide by a curfew once he is on supervised release.
His sentencing unfolded as at least six ex-Miami-Dade teachers, in separate cases, have been arrested over the past month, accused of sexual misconduct or attacks on former students.
Another former Miami-Dade teacher, Jason Meyers, is still awaiting a criminal trial on allegations he engaged in illegal sexual acts with students. A jury recently ordered the Miami-Dade school district to pay $6 million to one of Meyers’ victims, a former student at Palmetto High, for failing to act on accusations of sexual misconduct.
As for Privett, he was an outsized figure at Homestead’s South Dade High, where he spent nearly three decades teaching government, coaching the champion cross-country team and establishing the school’s acclaimed Mock Trial Team for aspiring lawyers. He later transferred to Terra, where he began grooming his last underage victim after meeting her in 2012.
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After his arrest for the Terra case, former students and faculty members told the Miami Herald that questions about Privett’s conduct with young female students had swirled around him for years.
One former South Dade journalism student said an image of Privett kissing a girl in the parking lot — captured surreptitiously with a long-zoom lens — sat in a drawer filled with printed photos in the journalism class’ darkroom for years in the early 2000s.
Police detectives believed they identified a former student from that time period in the early 2000s who might have been victimized by Privett. But she did not want to cooperate with law enforcement, a Miami-Dade Schools detective testified in April 2020.
Another victim, who now lives in the Midwest, also detailed her story to the Herald, and later to prosecutors. She said that while she was a summer school student in the late 1980s at South Dade, Privett manipulated her into months of sexual encounters inside his van parked at South Dade.
On Wednesday, she watched Privett’s sentencing via Zoom.
“As a woman and a mother, I was sickened and horrified when I learned of your latest victim,” she told the court in a letter, read by Miami-Dade prosecutor Natalie Snyder. “I felt immense guilt over not doing something to stop you over the last 30-something years. You are finally getting some of what you deserve.”
As part of his plea agreement, Privett had to apologize publicly to the former student from Terra High. It was tepid, at best.
“I apologize for my actions and for engaging in an inappropriate relationship with you while you were in high school. It was my responsibility as an adult to maintain our relationship of one that was appropriate between student and teacher. I failed,” Privett said. “I hope the pain I have caused you can heal. I am sorry.”
After the hearing, the woman called his apology “insincere” and said it was cathartic to finally confront Privett. “It was like releasing horrible, pent-up energy,” she said.
In the years since she left Terra High — and eventually reported Privett — she said she has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder and an eating disorder. “He ruined my life,” she said.
But there is hope. She is now in college, studying psychology and hoping to one day work as a counselor or therapist specializing in helping victims of sexual abuse.
She said: “I want to be that support for them.”
- David Ovalle