This story is the latest installment in our YouTube series, "What's Brewing,” investigative reporter Jenna Bourne's series of homemade deep dives into important issues during the coronavirus pandemic. Click here to check out the series and subscribe to our YouTube channel: The Deeper Dive.
Hillsborough County Public Schools knew students had accused their assistant principal of touching their bare feet in 2009.
They promoted Olayinka Alege up the educational ladder for the next decade, anyway.
Alege’s career as a school administrator continued to flourish until April 2021, when new accusations of nonconsensual foot rubs began to surface in a different state.
10 Investigates found records showing that at least eight boys and young men have accused Olayinka Alege of unwanted foot touching over the past 12 years.
“The toe popping was a form of punishment”
In 2009, a child protective investigator talked to five students at C. Leon King High School in Tampa, who all shared a similar story: Their assistant principal would pop their toes as punishment for bad grades when no one else was around.
“It’s like, what? You’re doing some toe-popping or something? What is that?” child abuse pediatrician Dr. Randy Alexander told 10 Investigates. “Just when you think, maybe I’ve seen a lot, then somebody just has to show you, you haven’t seen everything there is by a long shot.”
Alexander said, in a case like this, it’s important to investigate the motivation behind the toe-popping.
“In a child abuse context, one of the things we have to be concerned about is some people that really have, in essence, a foot fetish. And is that a sexualized behavior? At least, a problem with boundaries,” said Alexander.
Alexander pointed out that acting on a foot fetish with a consenting, adult partner is very different from forcing it on an unwilling and underage participant – especially when that adult is in a position of power over the underage people.
According to Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office records, one boy said “he’s had his toes popped by Mr. Alege approximately 20 times” and “it happens often so he just gives Mr. Alege his foot.”
And another boy said, “Mr. Alege told him that he could not hit him so the toe popping was a form of punishment. [The student] said Mr. Alege did not hurt him but he thought it was a weird type of punishment.”
That investigation didn’t lead to criminal charges.
According to the sheriff’s office’s report, an assistant state attorney “… felt as though the facts of this case does not meet the criteria for a battery charge and that this would be better handled through the school board.”
When 10 Investigates asked the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office for records on that, Chief Communications Officer Grayson Kamm emailed us, “These allegations against this school administrator are disturbing. The State Attorney and Assistant State Attorney who were involved in the decision are no longer with our office, and there are no records from 12 years ago indicating why this decision was made or what follow-up took place.”
Alexander said, even though an act like toe-popping may be concerning enough to spark an investigation, it may not fit into the parameters of a criminal charge.
“The legal system is going to say, does this fit our categories of things that we have? And so, they have to have a pigeonhole to put everything into. And that’s fine for a lot of things. But there are some things that don’t fit into those pigeonholes as well,” said Alexander.
OK, so that assistant state attorney reportedly said the foot touching didn’t fit into the battery pigeonhole and the school district should handle this instead.
What did Hillsborough County Public Schools do? The district dropped it.
HCPS’ Office of Professional Standards took “no action” and told “The principal and Area Director to handle though the evaluation process.”
The principal of King High School at the time, Carla Bruning, documented her conversation with Alege in a letter, saying “I immediately asked you to stop this process. You agreed to cease immediately and never to do this again… you stated to me that you had no malice intent. Mr. Alege, I do believe that you had no intent to harm anyone.”
Alege’s evaluation for that school year is missing from his personnel record, which 10 Investigates got through a public records request.
The school district had no explanation when we asked why.
“I am unaware why there is no evaluation in his record. The people listed in these documents are no longer with the district, so there would be no way for me to inquire,” wrote HCPS spokesperson Erin Maloney in an email.
Alege’s evaluation for the next school year, done by Bruning – the same principal who told him to cut it out with the toe-pulling – mentioned nothing about it and gave him a near-perfect score.
Alege’s career flourishes after accusations
Assistant Principal Olayinka Alege continued to be promoted up through the ranks at Hillsborough County Public Schools, becoming principal at Greco Middle School in 2012.
Two years later, in 2014, Alege was under investigation again – this time for an accusation he “had a student stay after school for punishment, and the[n] massaged the student’s shoulders.”
The child protective investigator found “No Indicators to support the allegations of abuse or neglect,” according to HCPS Office of Professional Standards records.
In 2016 and 2017, HCPS promoted Alege twice to district-level leadership positions.
That’s where he worked with another district leader, Harrison Peters.
“During this time, his work ethic and success in transforming struggling schools impressed leadership throughout the district. I thought I knew him,” said Peters during a virtual Rhode Island State Senate committee hearing on May 17.
Peters got hired as superintendent of Providence Public Schools in Rhode Island in 2020.
That summer, Peters hired his former HCPS colleague Alege as “network superintendent” in Providence.
Alege was arrested less than a year later.
In April 2021, a teen at a gym in Warwick, Rhode Island told police Alege asked about his shoes, grabbed his foot, took off his shoe and sock without asking, then rubbed his foot for 30-45 seconds.
“It happened 11 years ago and, within one year, it happened again. That’s the gamble that we took,” said Rhode Island State Sen. Louis DiPalma, chair of the Rules, Government Ethics and Oversight Committee, on May 17.
Alege was charged with misdemeanor simple assault and/or battery.
In May, two young men from the same gym reported to police that Alege did the same thing to them.
Alege resigned from Providence Public Schools.
After Alege’s arrest, 10 Investigates sent Hillsborough County Public Schools a public records request for messages mentioning his name.
The results revealed an email from one teacher to another, sharing a link to 10 Tampa Bay’s story on his arrest and saying, “[K]New this would eventually rear its ugly head again one day. The District covered it up for years and kept promoting this guy. People tell me it continued even when he left King.”
HCPS spokesperson Erin Maloney told 10 Investigates the district talked to that teacher and “he has confirmed that he has no direct knowledge of any additional incidents. He says it was merely speculation, rumor, and gossip.”
What did Providence Public Schools know about the 2009 toe-popping accusations?
Peters said he wasn’t ready to talk when 10 Investigates called him in August, three months after reaching an agreement to terminate his contract as Providence Public Schools superintendent.
But he had plenty to say during the virtual Rhode Island State Senate Rules, Government Ethics and Oversight Committee hearing on May 17.
Peters said he found news articles on the 2009 accusations during a Google search before hiring Alege for the Providence network superintendent position.
“This was the first time I was made aware of this incident. It had never been brought to my attention during the entire time we were colleagues in Hillsborough County. When Dr. Alege told me that he had meant no harm and that, in hindsight, he understood that his behavior was inappropriate and would never be repeated, I made a decision to believe him,” said Peters.
Peters said he never told the hiring committee about the 2009 accusations.
“It very much concerns me that – when we identify grooming behaviors – that, either it doesn’t get up and down communicated through the committee, etc.,” said State Sen. Meghan Kallman, who represents North Providence and Pawtucket.
So, did Hillsborough County Public Schools tell Providence Public Schools about Alege’s toe-popping past during the 2020 hiring process?
Neither district has answered our questions about that.
Hillsborough County Public Schools won’t do an interview, saying the decision-makers from 2009 don’t work there anymore.
Providence Public Schools won’t do an interview, either, or give us a single page from Alege’s personnel file.
The only record on Alege we did get the district to hand over was his employee ID photo.
To try to get Alege’s side of the story, 10 Investigates emailed him, called the phone number in his court documents and Hillsborough personnel record, and called his attorney, J. Dixon-Acosta.
We did not get a response.
The Rhode Island judge handling Alege’s criminal case gave him permission to travel out of state, so we went to his house in Riverview.
The man who answered the door told us Alege was not there.
Alege is scheduled for a pretrial conference in Rhode Island on Sept. 13.
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