Ocala teacher accused of inappropriately touching students, faces sexual misconduct charges
OCALA, Fla. - An Ocala teacher is under investigation after police said he inappropriately touched students and talked to them inappropriately.
West Port High School’s Criminal Justice teacher and boys’ basketball coach, Bernard Smith, is now facing four charges of sexual misconduct against students by an authority figure. The Ocala Police Department believes there could be additional charges as it expects more victims to come forward.
Zoie Houghton is a Junior at West Port High School. She said she loves it there, and as for her teachers, she told us, "They are here to protect me, they’re here to teach me, and I’m supposed to learn from them."
Instead, she and her classmates have learned a different lesson: to always be on guard. "It’s really scary because I feel like anywhere I go, I need to be aware of my surroundings. I’m a young woman, and it’s scary – especially thinking it can happen in school."
Smith has been with the school since 2020. The 47-year-old is also a former law enforcement officer. Students at the school told us he had reached out to students over social media asking to take them out.
One student told us he first heard about this about a month ago, which is around the same time Ocala Police said their first victim came forward and filed a report against Smith. "I really didn’t think it was true until I saw screenshots of him in the girl’s direct messages and my other friends talking about, ‘Yeah, he’s kind of creepy.’"
Screenshots of those direct messages show Smith asking a student when she's graduating, asking for her phone number, and asking when he can take her out. Det. Austin Ridge with the Ocala Police Department’s Major Crimes Unit said on top of making inappropriate comments, Smith also touched students’ breasts and thighs, and asked about their sex lives.
"He definitely used his position and his power, and both his teaching job and former law enforcement to almost bait these kids in or make them think what he was doing okay, and that they could trust him with this and that they wouldn’t say anything," said Det. Ridge.
Ocala Police said their investigation started when one student went to the school resource officer to tell them about Smith’s conduct. After that, more students filed police reports as well.
"She had the courage and the strength to come forward with these things that were happening to her," explained Detective Ridge. "Just by talking to her, it led us to several other students Mr. Smith was making comments to or had inappropriate conduct with."
The Marion County School District said Smith is currently suspended with pay, pending an internal investigation. The district told FOX 35 News in a statement, "We expect our teachers to build appropriate, meaningful relationships with students that contribute in positive ways, and thousands of our teachers do this every day. Unfortunately, sometimes people make bad choices that do not accomplish this."
A senior at West Port High School told us he was completely shocked by this. "I didn’t expect him to do that as a person, because I went in his classroom once or twice, and he seemed like a relaxed dude, really laid back. So when I found that out, I was baffled."
Florida has a specific legal statute for when authority figures prey on students. It falls under the legal chapter on "lewdness" but is meant to protect kids at school, who are meant to trust the adults there.
Ocala Police said this teacher violated that trust for years. Investigators think there are more victims out there and are encouraging them to come forward. You can call the Ocala Police Department at 352-369-7000 if you have information about this case.