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It can be difficult to fire a teacher. The process is so painstaking districts often pay a teacher to leave, rather than go through the uncertain process of termination. But in 2017 Grossmont Union High School District managed to fire Joshua Allen Barney.
Grossmont administrators fired Barney, a physical education teacher, for inappropriately touching and making inappropriate comments to students. Barney appealed his firing at multiple levels — but at each turn his appeals were rejected. Administrators and court officials found again and again that Barney’s behavior was wrong, that he did not understand how it was wrong and that he would likely do it again.
What’s strange about his case is that, despite the many findings against him, he recently found his way back inside of a classroom. The path that brought Barney back to teaching reveals failures in district hiring practices — as well as a rare decision by the state Office of the Attorney General not to revoke his credentials.
Barney’s story was hardly secret. In 2018, Voice of San Diego detailed the case against Barney and his early attempts to have his firing overturned. Those attempts failed. So it was a surprise, then, to learn Sweetwater Union High School District hired Barney late last year to teach at Otay Ranch High School.
A Sweetwater official said Barney was “properly” background checked before the district hired him, and that the district had done its “due diligence.” But clearly something in the process went amiss. Nadege Johnson, Sweetwater’s communications director, declined to say whether Sweetwater officials called Grossmont to find out about Barney’s past employment history — or whether making such calls was part of the Sweetwater hiring process.
Sweetwater officials did not contact Grossmont officials — at least not to their knowledge, wrote Collin McGlashen, Grossmont’s director of public affairs, in an email. When asked if Grossmont would have shared the reason for Barney’s dismissal, McGlashen wrote, “Yes, if asked.”
But the culpability doesn’t lie solely with Sweetwater. The district did check whether Barney’s teaching credentials were valid — and they were. That’s because even after the professional body governing teacher credentials recommended his credentials be revoked, the state Office of the Attorney General declined to prosecute his case when Barney appealed the recommendation.
Why the Office of the Attorney General declined to prosecute Barney’s case is unclear. The office rarely makes that choice. Of the 130 cases assigned to them that year, Barney’s was one of just ten they declined to prosecute.
That decision left Barney free to teach again.
‘I Did Not Give Him Permission to Touch Me’
Barney worked for various schools in the Grossmont district for around 25 years, first as a campus supervisor and then as a teacher, when in January 2017, he was put on leave from his job teaching P.E. and a tutorial class at IDEA Center High School following a complaint from a female student. The student, who’d attended Barney’s weightlifting class for two days, went to the nurse’s office, according to a report from the Commission on Professional Competence. She was “visibly upset (her eyes were red and blurry; she was wiping her eyes and trembling, as if she had been crying),” the report noted.
Voice reached Barney but he ultimately did not provide a response or participate in an interview.
The student alleged Barney “always gave me a bad vibe.” During the weightlifting class earlier that day he “grabbed under my butt and told me it was time to workout my ‘booty’ then repeatedly told me that the bar when I’m doing a bench press needed to come down and touch my ‘titty’ or ‘nipple,’” the student wrote in a statement. She also alleged that he touched her collarbone a few inches above her breasts.
While wearing a pair of ripped jeans, the student alleged that Barney rubbed them and “got really close to my vagina,” the student wrote in a second statement. At another point, the student testified that Barney “lifted up my shirt, play punched me twice, then told me I had a really nice core.” The student testified that Barney grabbing her body made her feel “disgusted,” and his use of words like “booty” made her feel “gross.”
The student claimed Barney also made comments that made her uncomfortable, like asking if she had a boyfriend and what guys at school liked her. “He sounded like a jealous boyfriend,” she wrote in the first statement.
Barney admitted to using words like “nipple” and ”booty” during weightlifting exercises rather than anatomical terms. He admitted to saying things like, ”You are going to look so amazing this summer in a bikini” and “You can have the best booty ever.” Barney also admitted that he “used two fingers and touched student … along and just below the collar bone, a few inches above her breasts,” according to the report by professional conduct commission. Barney claimed he’d touched the student to determine if she was sore or if she’d had an injury, but in a statement the student wrote, “I did not give him permission to touch me in anyway shape or form.”
In its investigation, the Commission on Professional Competence “established that Respondent touched females inappropriately; he touched them around their shoulders and ’boob’ areas; he made comments about their bodies and stared at their ‘boobs and butts.’”
District officials placed Barney on leave the day the student made the report. The El Cajon Police Department also arrived and opened an investigation, but according to court documents, prosecutors did not press charges. A district official, however, drafted dismissal papers and in August 2017 Grossmont’s board voted to place Barney on unpaid leave and terminate him. Barney’s “acts and omissions demonstrate immoral conduct, egregious misconduct, unprofessional conduct, evident unfitness for service, and persistent violation of or refusal to obey the school laws of the state or reasonable regulations,” according to the dismissal papers.
The 2017 incident wasn’t the first time Barney had been disciplined. According to the commission report, in 2013 Barney was disciplined for making inappropriate comments to a colleague in front of students as well as showing students images of female celebrities and NFL cheerleaders and comparing their “physical attributes.”
“There was a definite pattern of behavior,” said Julie Mottershaw, the district’s superintendent of human resources, according to court documents. “It was a liability to have Mr. Barney back in the classroom [and] that he lacked good judgment.”
Barney appealed the district’s decision, but in March of the following year the Commission on Professional Competence — a state authority which oversees termination appeals — decided in favor of the district. In denying Barney’s appeal, the commission wrote that Barney was “fully to blame for his conduct” and that “he cannot be relied upon to act morally and uphold the responsibilities of a public educator.”
“Respondent has no appreciation for the wrongfulness of his acts and misconduct; as such, if allowed to retain his position, it is likely that he will engage in the same or similar misconduct again,” the commission wrote.
After the commission denied his appeal, Barney took his case to the San Diego Superior Court, filing a lawsuit in 2018 asking a judge to overturn the commission’s decision. Barney claimed he was wrongfully terminated, and that the commission’s hearing was “not conducted in accordance with the governing law, as it was both substantively and procedurally defective in multiple ways,” according to court records.
But in August 2020, the trial court sided with the commission, writing that his touching of students was inappropriate, that it was likely he would engage in similar behavior if returned to a classroom, and that he failed to prove that the commission’s hearing did not provide him with a fair trial.
Barney appealed the trial court’s decision. But the appellate court upheld the trial court’s ruling, writing that “There was sufficient evidence here to support the trial court’s order upholding the Commission’s decision based on its determination that Barney engaged in immoral conduct that rendered him unfit to teach.”
“Although Barney admitted engaging in the misconduct, his testimony demonstrated he did not show any remorse or appreciation for wrongdoing,” the appellate court wrote in its decision. “There is no indication that Barney would change his behavior if he were allowed to continue teaching, indicating it is likely that the misconduct would recur.”
Anytime a school district finds one of its employees engaged in substantial misconduct, the district must send its findings to the Committee on Teacher Credentialing – a separate state authority that oversees teacher credentials.
The credentialing commission reviewed Barney’s case. In October 2019, the commission sent him a notice: It had “found probable cause to recommend the revocation of (Barney’s) teaching credential(s) and all other certification documents.”
Barney once again appealed — a maneuver that kicked the case over to the state Office of the Attorney General. The Attorney General’s office essentially acts as the lawyer for the credentialing commission in cases like Barney’s. The Attorney General’s office represents the credentialing commission in an administrative hearing to determine if a person will be allowed to keep their credential.
In rare cases the Attorney General’s office will decline to prosecute the case. And that’s what happened in the lead up to Barney’s hearing. In July 2020, the commission sent Barney a notice telling him the case had been closed.
That left his credential in place. Any district that simply checked his credential, without calling his past employer — or for that matter doing a Google search — would not be able to find a record of what had happened.
The Attorney General’s office did not respond to specific questions about its decision to decline to prosecute Barney, but wrote in an email, “Our office may conduct an independent assessment on behalf of a client agency.”
“The Office of the Attorney General may decline to prosecute a Commission matter if there is insufficient evidence to proceed to hearing, since the evidentiary standard at hearing is much higher than the evidentiary standard for the Committee of Credentials,” wrote Jonathon Howard, the manager of government relations at the credentialing commission, in an email.
In the wake of the legal back-and-forth, Barney returned to working in schools. In August 2021, he was hired as a youth fitness teacher and program developer at Be Utmost, according to a LinkedIn page that appears to belong to Barney. The company is contracted to provide services to various organizations, including schools and nonprofits that work with several local schools. Be Utmost did not return a request for comment.
America’s Finest Charter School also contracted Be Utmost to provide physical education instruction and after school activities. Timothy Bagby, the school’s executive director, confirmed in an email that Barney worked with students at the school “last year and earlier this year,” with Be Utmost.
Bagby wrote, “I was not aware of the allegations against Mr. Barney but found him to be very professional in his engagement with our students and staff.” He had not received any complaints about Barney during the time he worked at the school, but noted there was always a second staff member present when Barney worked with students, he wrote.
Then in late 2022, Sweetwater hired Barney as a P.E. teacher and a football coach at Otay Ranch High School. Johnson, the communications director at Sweetwater, said that prior to hiring Barney, the district “properly background checked him,” which included checking his teaching credential. Johnson did not confirm if Sweetwater would revisit its background check policies, but said the district had not known about Barney’s previous firing, or Voice’s prior reporting on Barney before it hired him.
When Sweetwater learned about Voice’s previous coverage — and saw a recent anonymous comment on the story, purportedly from a student — Johnson said they placed him on leave and initiated an investigation. Johnson did not share any further details about the investigation, other than to say it is ongoing.
But even if Sweetwater eventually chooses to start the termination process against Barney, and successfully fires him, he may retain his teaching credentials.
Correction to my previous comment. I left out the word NOT. Kids do NOT lie about being molested.
Sounds eerily similar to the story of Tony Atienza and Chula Vista High. (Ashley McGlone covered it)
It’s clear that SUHSD’s “due diligence” was not particularly diligent. As pointed out by VOSD, a simple Google search would have raised red flags (not to mention contacting the previous employer). Unfortunately, VOSD’s reporting has shown that this lack of diligence in vetting educators–and protecting children from harm–is common practice for many school districts. And because of teacher job protections, once hired, these bad apples are almost impossible to get rid of…except to another school district that doesn’t vet their hires, either. The big losers in all these lackadaisical hiring practices are vulnerable children.
At this point, any SUHSD student touched inappropriately by Mr. Barney should consider suing the district for failure to appropriately vet its hires. Maybe that will encourage all school districts to improve their “due diligence” process when hiring.
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