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Sexual predator shames our school district

Madera can do better, and should and must.

In May 2016 there was a news story entitled “Sexual predator alleged to be teaching at Madera High South.” There was a follow-up story shortly thereafter but it’s been dead silence since, until Bill Coates’ recent resurrection of the news story.

This school district has been through some low points, but this ongoing saga is perhaps the most shameful betrayal of all. Our schools are sacrosanct, at least that’s what we believe. Everyday, parents entrust their children to teachers when they send them to school, believing that they are being educated in a safe environment. The thought that our children are sexually abused in the classroom is unthinkable and outrageous. What’s more, if the allegations against this teacher are true, it persisted for over 16 years. The district can’t fix what’s wrong if it doesn’t know what happened. Questions abound. How could this be? Why did this happen? Who is responsible? What needs to be done? When will someone finally do something? Is it because it involved one of our most marginalized students — an English learner.

The news story is not just a withering rebuke of the school district, but an indictment of our community by extension if we just allow it to fade away. It is impossible to gainsay that this would not happen in Golden Valley, Chawanakee or Yosemite Unified school districts. Neither parents, community, school staff, district administration, law enforcement nor social services would allow a sexual predator to continue teaching and preying on student victims year after year. According to a reliable source, the district office has a file folder of complaints on this teacher a half inch thick.

What was the district waiting for? Why did the constant dribble of complaints not raise a red flag for some administrator (e.g., human resources)? Where were those superintendents when all of this was happening? How about the board of trustees? Did they dispatch the bad news with a wink and nod? Why did it take an ex-teacher to very publically come forward at a board of trustees meeting before any action was finally taken.

Bottom line: It is simply unconscionable. Did the district think that a serial sex predator would stop on his own accord? Need more convincing? We now learn that in 2003, in a separate case, a student complaining about this teacher and accompanied by staff was instead accused of fabrication and her allegations summarily dismissed by the then vice principal. Further, there are revelations that staff who brought complaints by other students of sexual improprieties by this teacher were told by their superiors to simply transfer them out of his class with nothing more. What is more astonishing is they were sternly admonished not to individually report these incidents. Most astonishing is that all staff involved were mandated reporters which meant each had an individual legal obligation to report suspected child abuse regardless of any institutional obligation to do so. According to the ex-teacher, district administration never initiated complaints with either law enforcement or child protective services over this protracted period.

It is shocking that a district that proudly embraces its zero tolerance policy toward student misconduct conveniently ignores those of staff. High schools are hotbeds of gossip where everyone has his/her antennae fine-tuned and every untoward glance, sexual innuendo and dalliance, real or imagined, gets put on blast. In that regard, Madera High South was a real-life Peyton Place where a principal was booted for sexual indiscretions on campus and a teacher dated and married his student only to finally get his comeuppance at Fresno Unified. And what about police officers on campus? Wasn’t the intention to have boots on the ground to ensure seamless crime prevention and safety. (The allegations included this teacher engaging in sex with the student in the classroom during lunchtime.)

We get it that law enforcement can’t continue investigation where there is an uncooperative victim, but does that translate to taking no action to investigate to see if there are other witnesses and victims or coordinating proactive measures with the school and social services to curb further threats of sexual abuse of students. Somehow there’s a misconception or excuse that authorities must have an undue quantum of evidence before proceeding. This is flat-out wrong. We are talking about investigation not conviction. Query what would have happened if this involved a more high-profiled student or one residing in the upscale westside of town.

Employing an independent investigator is a good start but the district needs to go deeper — a whole lot deeper. At times like this, public pressure leads to a rush to action. But a hasty in-house resolution ensures an inside job. Indeed, the worst thing that can happen right now is the district going “on tilt” as they say. School systems customarily handle these situations by sweeping them under the rug. It’s too easy to conclude that the respective board of trustees, superintendents and senior staff during the relevant periods were tone-deaf. Matters of this nature and gravity do not go unaddressed for so long simply due to inattention. This wall of silence speaks of a bankrupt system that allows a rogue teacher engaging in criminal conduct to feel safe and protected. Apparently, until recently, there had been a culture fostering a permissive climate that tolerated sexual harassment, racial bias, disrespect, intimidation, arbitrary exclusion, harassment and offensive policy, procedures and practices, and allowed those in authority to be dismissive of concerns of subordinates and treat with disdain complaints of students.

Efforts to get to the bottom of this should not be fraught with controversy or a cause for consternation. School disciplinary proceeding are always shrouded in secrecy where neither the general public nor victims are likely to be told how the case was resolved unless the criminal justice system is involved. Rarely do students report teacher sexual harassment, much less sanctions meted out therefore by administration, as was born out in this case. The stark fact is that offending teachers almost uniformly go unpunished and many victims believe that no reporting or disciplinary process will produce justice. Moreover, board members tend to see community involvement as an unwanted distraction but that would be a grave mistake.

Often demands for answers are met with the common refrain: “We can’t disclosed personnel matters” or “we are not able to discuss anything due to ongoing investigation and/or advice from our attorney.” Fair enough, here’s what the district should disclose and discuss:

  1. The board has impaneled a select committee with defined responsibilities and authority to probe all complaints against the subject teacher (1998 through the present) and generate a report of their investigation, findings and recommendations;

  2. The report, without naming names, states that it has identified and investigated all who knew or should have known, what they knew, when they knew and what they did or omitted to do, and confirm that all remedial actions legally permissible have been imposed against those who breached district policy and procedures in the handling of student complaints against the subject teacher during his tenure;

  3. Development of robust policy and procedures governing staff handling of student incident reports of sexual harassment, misconduct and relationships by school personnel, reporting requirements and guidelines for students to confidentially or anonymously report incidents. The policy should include an official statement prohibiting retaliation against student or staff who report such incidents;

  4. Establishment of a central system for reported incidents from all sources, including third-party reporting, that are accurately recorded and maintained;

  5. Designation of an officer with appropriate training, authority and resources who is charged with responding to, investigating, overseeing and coordinating the many responsibilities related to incident reports, including assisting the student in getting services and follow-up support;

  6. Annual training scheduled for all district staff who are mandated reporters regarding rules, definitions, laws, reporting requirements, penalties and updates;

  7. Incorporation of a “know your rights on sexual harassment by teachers and school personnel” lesson in its current sex education curriculum for students and inclusion of the same in the student handbook.

If the board of trustees of this school district wishes to reclaim its moral and political leadership, acknowledging that mistakes made throughout this sordid affair all the way up the chain of command is in order. The community will make the final judgement on what if any role and responsibility are attributable to this board and administration in reaching a just resolution.

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