Christian private school, First Baptist of Orlando sued after teacher accused of sexually abusing student

Orlando Sentinel [Orlando FL]

November 6, 2023


The First Baptist Church of Orlando was accused of failing to protect a student at its private school after a teacher allegedly groomed and sexually abused her between 2014 and 2016, according to a lawsuit filed Friday.

Church officials and administrators at Orlando-based The First Academy, the private school run by First Baptist since 1987, knew about the inappropriate relationship between the student and Harriet Sugg but didn’t take steps to stop it for years, even as others became aware of the situation, the lawsuit alleged. Sugg, 54, was charged Oct. 11 with five counts of sexual activity with a minor, three of which are tied to being a school authority figure.

The student, who was 15 when the abuse began, was identified in court records as Jane Doe.

The lawsuit filed by attorney Andrea Lewis and an affidavit by the Ocoee Police Department said the two met weeks after Doe enrolled at The First Academy in 2014, with Sugg mentoring Doe as she struggled with her mental health. Months later, Sugg and Doe would spend time together in and out of school, and Sugg would buy the teen tobacco and alcoholic beverages. Doe told police the relationship didn’t become sexual until 2016, when she was 17 and Sugg was 47, and the encounters would take place at Sugg’s home, on campus and motels, according to the affidavit.

Through Sugg’s position, the lawsuit added, she “met, groomed, sexually assaulted, harassed and victimized Jane Doe.”

The lawsuit further alleged school staff, students and Sugg’s then-husband reported the two’s interactions to First Academy administrators, detailing reports of them holding hands on campus and repeated instances of Sugg allowing Doe to stay in her classroom even when she was scheduled to be in another class.

Administrators failed to act on the reports until February 2016, when a principal at the school noted multiple instances of Doe inappropriately being in Sugg’s classroom, including “student concerns after witnessing Jane Doe playing with Harriet Sugg’s hair and rubbing her back,” the lawsuit said.

Though Sugg was fired May 2016, the lawsuit further alleged school officials didn’t report its suspicions to authorities or Doe’s parents. Sugg and Doe continued seeing each other until Doe was 19, when she told police she moved to California “in attempt to free herself from the relationship,” according to investigators. Doe first reported Sugg to police in 2022 before again doing so in September.

“The First Academy made a conscious choice to conceal rather than report the information it had about Harriet Sugg’s child abuse. Because of this choice, Harriet Sugg was able to, and did continue to, sexually molest Jane Doe after May 2016. Because of this choice, Harriet Sugg was also able to gain employment at another Christian school, where she again had unfettered access to children,” Lewis said in the legal complaint.

No records of Sugg’s employment after being fired from First Academy were immediately found. She was since released from the Orange County Jail on a $25,000 bond.

A statement posted to the school’s website and signed by First Baptist Senior Pastor David Uth and First Academy Head of School Steve Whitaker said officials “take these allegations with the utmost seriousness and want to assure the community that we are committed to the safety, well-being and spiritual development of our students.”

“Our top priority has been and will continue to be a nurturing and Christ-centered environment where students can grow academically, emotionally, and spiritually. We understand that trust in our institution has been shaken by these allegations, and we want to acknowledge the pain and concern this has caused in our community,” the statement said. “Given that this is an ongoing investigation, we are limited in what information we can share right now, but we will provide additional information as soon as we can. While we must protect the privacy of all involved, we will strive to provide updates to the community as the situation develops and as it is legally permissible.

By CRISTÓBAL REYES | | Orlando Sentinel