Middle school teacher arrested for molesting students

Local teacher arrested for molesting minors
Posted at 1:04 PM, May 24, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-25 06:38:39-04

A Bay area middle school teacher was arrested Wednesday morning after he allegedly molested three female students ages 13, 13 and 14.

St. Petersburg Police Department arrested Meadowlawn Middle School teacher Joseph Zavalnak, 41, who is facing five counts of lewd and lascivious molestation involving three victims.

The girls were all inappropriately touched while inside the school, according to arrest records. 

Detectives worry there could be more victims and they're urging parents talk to their kids. Police officers say Joseph Zavalnak came in contact with hundreds of young girls while teaching for Pinellas County Schools since 2009. 

Parent Hillary Franklin-Keels says she is stunned and disgusted by the charges against the science teacher. She says Zavalnak also coached her son's basketball team.

"It’s horrible. I think that is the most disgusting thing you can do. You’re here teaching middle school kids like what kind of example are you putting on?," she questioned.

Franklin-Keels pulled her son off the team, because Zavalnak made them feel uncomfortable.

“When I heard about the arrest, I said 'There you go. There you have it.' I told my son and my husband I knew something wasn’t right with that man,” she said.

Detectives started investigating after one of the girls told her parents, who then reported it to police. Detectives traced one incident all the way back to 2013.

According to arrest reports, Zavalnak groped one of his students as she came into his classroom during a lunch detention 4 years ago! The girl filled out a form back in 2013 describing what happened. It's unclear how much Pinellas County Schools looked into the report to take action. 

Then this past school year (2016-2017), Zavalnak allegedly groped another 13-year-old student while she stood near a book shelf. 

Arrest reports say the third girl, who was 14 years old, was inappropriately touched while inside a classroom. 

Police worry there may be other girls who are too scared to come forward. 

Spokesperson Yolanda Fernandez added, “Because he was a teacher, there is always the possibility that there could be more victims.”

And that makes Franklin-Keels nervous. "Talk to the kids, let the kids know it’s ok to speak up because this is sickening.”

School district leaders tell us as soon as they heard about the allegations they moved Zavalnak into an office without students. 

Pinellas County Schools released the following statement:

As soon as information related to an incident involving Meadowlawn Middle School teacher Joseph Zavalnak was brought to the school’s attention, it was investigated with the assistance of the St. Petersburg Police Department. It was determined by Pinellas County Schools and law enforcement to move Mr. Zavalnak to a non-student worksite in January, as St. Petersburg Police continued their investigation. He remained at the non-student worksite up until his arrest. His contract is being non-renewed by the district.