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In 2016 and 2017, Poway Unified School District officials found that Westview High School coaches Derek Peterson and Tim Medlock sent inappropriate text messages to underage students. Those officials found that they violated school policy and in response, issued each of them warnings. Both men continue to teach at Westview High.
In response to the teachers’ employment, many have asked: How were they able to keep their jobs?
They and other problem teachers have kept their jobs thanks to a combination of laws and their union’s advocacy, which often begets more laws. But districts and unions point fingers at each other for some of the most outrageous examples.
Some school district officials contend they must keep individuals employed because of due process clauses guaranteed by teachers union contracts. Yet some unions argue school districts have discretion to remove an educator from his or her teaching position should it choose to do so.
For Medlock and Peterson, it wasn’t necessarily the union that protected them. It was the district, which said they’ve been disciplined enough.
Christine Paik, a district spokeswoman from Poway Unified, told Voice of San Diego in May that Peterson and Medlock, like all other permanent educators across California, have due process rights. Those rights afford teachers formal proceedings and a hearing about any alleged misconduct.
She said the district determined those teachers’ actions to be unprofessional, but that it believes the level of discipline they received was appropriate and effective in bringing an end to the behavior.
“An employee’s actions may be determined to be unprofessional, but not necessarily criminal or warranting termination,” Paik said in an email to VOSD this month. “If the level of discipline they receive is effective in bringing an end to the behavior and the employee does not pose a danger to staff or students, then the discipline is considered appropriate.”
She said school districts cannot dismiss a teacher based merely on the potential of future wrongdoing.
California school districts and teachers unions have long been at odds on the employment of teachers in classrooms across the state who demonstrate unprofessional conduct, but do not necessarily break the law.
The Poway case and others uncovered by VOSD demonstrate the repercussions of ongoing tensions between California school districts and teachers unions when it comes to handling predatory teachers.
Districts Only Pursue Termination in the Most Egregious Cases
Poway Unified is not alone in employing staff members found at fault of sexually harassing or abusing school children.
Voice of San Diego’s ongoing investigation into sexual misconduct in San Diego public schools has uncovered a culture and system that permits districts to keep teachers accused of misconduct in the classroom, even when they’ve carried out an investigation that substantiated the allegations. To do so, school districts either move problem school employees between schools or allow them to quietly resign or retire. Often those settlements require the district to stay quiet about what led them to push the teacher out.
In the San Ysidro School District, officials substantiated claims that social science teacher Jimmy Delgado inappropriately leered at female students and made them feel uncomfortable for years. Delgado racked up numerous accusations from elementary and middle school students throughout his 20 years of employment in the district. The district moved Delgado to a position in the district office two years ago, where he now assists in developing educational curriculum and improving attendance.
The district declined to comment on the reasoning behind Delgado’s continued employment.
And other districts commonly find a way around firing teachers to avoid lengthy and costly legal battles, at the chance those employees sue for wrongful termination, particularly those with tenure.
In 2016, a Crown Point Junior Music Academy student reported a teacher there, Lou Grande, kissed and licked her neck and touched her inappropriately. Instead of moving to fire the teacher, San Diego Unified allowed him to take sick leave, then retire. It also agreed to keep quiet about the incident. Maureen Magee, a spokeswoman from the San Diego Unified School District, said in July that requiring Grande’s resignation was the most efficient way to terminate his career as an educator.
She was alluding to the fact that, if a school board or administrator decides it wants to fire an educator, the district must go up against the union’s due process procedures.
Some of the hesitation on the part of the districts, though, might be out of an extreme sense of caution and not any actual threats of litigation from the educator in question. None of the publicly available documents in the Grande case, for example, indicate he threatened to challenge the district’s decision to remove him from the school. Yet the district agreed to his request to allow him to retire, rather than pursuing a termination.
Since school districts typically tend to only pursue firings in the most egregious teacher misconduct cases, those instances of teachers like Medlock and Peterson found to have sent inappropriate texts to students or Delgado, who has a slew of complaints under his name for staring at students inappropriately, are able to retain their employment – and in some cases, advance in their careers.
And though experts argue that child grooming by predator teachers is a precursor to abuse, allegations of common grooming behavior – like texting a student messages unrelated to academics, spending time alone with them, singling them out for praise – often result in actions like a warning or a reassignment.
In those egregious cases, like when Martin Gallegos at Mar Vista High School and Jason Mangan-Magabilin at Bonita Vista High School eventually pleaded guilty to abusing students, those districts were more apt to remove a teacher or school employee from campus immediately. A precursor to that decision is typically the involvement of law enforcement.
The California Teachers Association represents a majority of teachers across the state and is one of the most powerful organizations in the state. Claudia Briggs, a spokeswoman, told VOSD last year that under current laws, schools can remove employees accused of misconduct from the classroom immediately. She said the law is clear that school districts have the right to immediately remove school employees accused of serious misconduct.
Indeed, a 2014 bill signed into law by then- Gov. Jerry Brown made it easier for local districts to fire educators who commit “egregious misconduct.” But it did not address keeping them out of classrooms in other school districts.
Christy Heiskala, a child abuse prevention expert in San Diego, said she thinks there won’t be solutions until each party stops pointing fingers. “I think both are at fault,” she said. “I think it starts at the school site level and that the administration and district gambles with students’ lives – so they’re betting odds basically. The unions play a role, school districts play a role and insurance companies play a role.”
Unions Block State Laws on Predatory Educators
Not only do teachers unions provide their members with bargaining agreements, but unions like the California Teachers Association have influenced state bills aimed at changing the ways sexual misconduct and harassment complaints are addressed within local schools.
Earlier this year, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez introduced AB 989, a bill that would have created an ombudsman position to take misconduct complaints out of schools’ hands. It was inspired by VOSD’s reporting on La Jolla High School teacher Martin Teachworth, who female students complained about to school officials for years but were largely ignored. It quickly ran into union opposition and was extended to a two-year bill to give stakeholders time to negotiate the details.
“There are all these unions protecting administrators, teachers and employees in schools but there’s no one that seems to be in Sacramento legislating for these kids; they don’t have a union,” said Loxie Gant, one of the students who shared her story with VOSD about Teachworth’s inappropriate touching and a supporter of the bill. “So the question is: How do we change that culture?”
State Sen. Mike Morrell introduced SB 709, the Sexual Abuse-Free Education Act, for the second time early this year. It would have required school districts to conduct thorough background checks on employees and prohibit entities from knowingly hiring educators with histories of sexual misconduct.
Both times Morrell introduced the measure, it was amended – after lobbying from teachers unions – to only require school districts to conduct background checks on certificated employees.
Sen. Connie Levya, who chairs the committee that added the unions’ favored amendments, previously told VOSD that the original version of the bill wasn’t workable and that the committee and teachers’ unions worried about employee due process.
Terri Miller, whose group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse and Misconduct and Exploitation sponsored the bill, has helped pass similar laws with the goal of identifying applicants to jobs in schools who have been the subject of allegations, investigations or findings of abuse or sexual misconduct involving children in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Nevada and New Jersey.
Miller said she is disappointed that the unions pressured legislators to gut the bill because in the end, California students will be left vulnerable to predatory teachers.