Districts Shuffle Problem Employees to New Jobs or Schools - Voice of San Diego

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Districts Shuffle Problem Employees to New Jobs or Schools

When San Diego County public school employees sexually harass a student or colleague, they may be transferred to another job or school site, rather than fired, public records show. The process can leave parents, students and staff unaware of a new employee’s prior misbehavior.

A football coach and head custodian at Castle Park High school (pictured) was accused of using a racial slur and assaulting a student. Officials transferred him to Montgomery High School. / File photo by Dustin Michelson

When San Diego County public school employees sexually harass a student or colleague, they may be transferred to another job or school site, rather than fired, public records show.

That’s true of both tenured educators — who enjoy job protections that can make termination onerous for public schools — as well as non-teaching public school employees. As a result, employees investigated for sexual misconduct are sometimes shuffled place to place within school districts or between school districts, leaving parents, students and staff unaware of prior misbehavior, an investigation by Voice of San Diego found.

When explaining such moves, school district officials often cite employee due process rights, or a desire to avoid protracted litigation that may follow a termination.

Intentional shuffling of bad actors is called “passing the trash” by victim advocates and can result in civil liability, costing schools large sums in the most egregious cases.

For one longtime Castle Park High School teacher who complained about a coach and custodian in 2017 only to see him transferred to another school site, the moves aren’t enough.

“Instead of being disciplined or punished or fired, they get protected and so this culture of abuse is fed and fostered, and we don’t want that,” said Jaime Cueva-Esquivel, who recently retired.

Here are a few examples of the shuffling that’s taken place following sexual misconduct concerns in the region’s public schools in recent years.

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Vista Unified School District records show Chris Davis, then a math teacher and wrestling coach at Vista High, was reprimanded in 2012-13 for suggestive messages sent to a 15-year-old student who said he reminded her of her dad. Davis replied, “or maybe like a boyfriend.”

“In my mind ‘boyfriend’ is not sexual,” Davis told officials during a 2016 interview, according to district records.

In May 2016, district officials found Davis’ employment at Vista High School “untenable” and transferred him to Vista Magnet Middle School after investigating a series of interactions and text messages exchanged with another female student. The transfer was “necessary to ensure Vista High School students will be free from harassment and intimidation,” district officials wrote Davis in a May 2016 letter.

A month earlier, a student complained to another teacher about Davis’ interactions with a female student in class, which launched the district inquiry.

According to the investigation that followed, Davis reportedly told the student she was sexy and said she’s “officially elected into the hottie club” when she did well on a math test.

“He calls me pretty, he calls me sexy, he calls me hot,” the student told school officials.

One text sent by Davis to the student said, “missing you in class today.” In other texts, he reportedly referred to himself as “your smart, handsome good looking calculus teacher.” Text messages also showed an exchange about the female student’s HPV vaccination, with Davis commenting she’ll be sexually active soon.

The student told school officials said she was comfortable with all of Davis’ comments and was OK with her relationship with him changing.

“He makes me feel validated, he makes me feel good about myself, lot of hopes for my future. … He recognizes I’m beauty and brains,” she told school officials, according to district records. “He will say things like I’m really jealous of the super hot guys you are going to meet in college.”

On one occasion while at the whiteboard, Davis showed her how to do a math problem, then, “He closed the marker, put it down and there was like a rub down my shoulder.” Another time, after telling Davis she was up until 3 a.m. doing homework, she said Davis “placed his hand on my neck line where a vampire would bite me and then I think his hand slipped down to my shoulder.”

A different student reported Davis told her to kiss a boy’s neck to see if he is gay, and on another occasion suggested she tell her peers she “blew the admissions officer” to explain how she got into college, a comment that was reportedly overhead by other students, according to district records.

Vista High School / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Davis said the admissions officer comment was made by a male student, not him, and he denied telling a student to kiss a boy’s neck to test if he’s gay, per district interview notes.

Davis also said he didn’t recall ever having physical contact with the female student, but said he “probably” did call the student hot, and may have said he was jealous of hot guys she’d meet in college. He explained that he commented on her looks to encourage her when boys were mean.

Davis said he made comments about being elected to the math “hottie club” as part an effort aimed at “de-dorking mathematics,” the interview notes say.

A few wrestling students also complained Davis insulted and berated them, and one tried to commit suicide, according to district records.

In May 2016, district officials planned to suspend Davis without pay for 15 days, and transfer him, claiming he exhibited immoral and unprofessional conduct, dishonesty, evident unfitness to teach and persistent violation or refusal to obey district policies, including those prohibiting sexual harassment.

Davis objected. He said in a letter that while he exercised some poor judgement, he was not unfit to teach. He likened the proposed discipline to a $10,000 fine, due to lost salary, department chairmanship and coach’s stipend.

The district made a deal with Davis in July 2016 “to avoid the time, expense and risk,” and agreed to a five-day suspension spread out over the next school year. Davis was transferred to Vista Magnet Middle School voluntarily. He was also ordered to attend teacher-student boundary training, records show.

Davis did not respond to interview requests. He initially fought in court to keep records detailing his interactions with students secret, but a judge ruled earlier this year they were public records and needed to be released to Voice of San Diego.

Vista district officials declined to answer questions about Davis’ transfer, but spokeswoman Lisa Contreras said there have been no additional complaints about Davis since the move.

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On. Sept. 13, 2017, human resources officials at the Sweetwater Union High School District told Hans Graham, he “could resign your position as Head Football Coach [of Castle Park High School] in lieu of being released” and keep working as a head custodian at another school following an investigation of a complaint alleging concerning incidents spanning several years, a district letter said. The letter also cited the supervisor contract, which allows transfers to occur “in the best interest of the district.”

Graham submitted his coach resignation that same day, district records show.

Graham had been placed on paid administrative leave at the end of May 2017 after officials received a lengthy complaint that included claims Graham “manhandled” a football player by the facemask in 2012, “body slammed” another against the floor in 2015, used the “n-word” slur while describing music and assaulted a student with a broomstick in May 2017, district records show.

The complaint alleged “Coach Graham stuck a broomstick in the student’s rear area between the buttocks, and pulled the broomstick up into the students’ rear” in front of other students.

An attorney hired by the district who investigated the claims found “The weight of the evidence results in the conclusion that you (Graham) hit the boy in his buttocks with the broomstick handle, with one or more students also present. It is more probable than not that the broomstick contacted the boy between his butt cheeks.”

Though Graham was previously investigated for the 2012 and 2015 coaching incidents, where he admitted to shoving one student and grabbing the other, the investigator did not find enough evidence to support the newer facemask or body-slamming claims, the August 2017 investigative report said.

Graham initially agreed to an interview, but subsequently declined on the advice of his attorney. He now works as head custodian of Montgomery High School.

In an August 2017 rebuttal letter to the Sweetwater district, Graham criticized the investigation, and said the investigating attorney was supposed to be neutral, but he found him “much more willing to find fault over insignificant issues than what would be expected from a more neutral investigator.” Graham said his omissions were “honest mistakes.”

As for his use of the “n-word,” Graham said, “I did not use that word in a malicious way.”

“There were times I could have done things differently, but the same could be said of the other people brought up in this complaint,” Graham wrote. “I am left to defend myself against statements of individuals who propagate, or are exposed to, rumors, gossip, peer pressure, the passage of time, or have a personal agenda.”

Though his name was withheld by the district, Voice of San Diego identified the complainant as Cueva-Esquivel, a longtime Castle Park High teacher who recently retired. He told VOSD he heard numerous student complaints about Graham over the years and began to wonder why more wasn’t done.

“This guy was running around like a loose cannon. … In La Jolla, he wouldn’t last 10 minutes,” he said. “There were a lot of mini-abuses and mini-aggressions and I had to say something, because I became a teacher to advocate for students.”

As for Graham’s transfer to Montgomery High, Cueva-Esquivel said he should have been assigned to a job away from students.

“Being a custodian, he’s everywhere. In the eating areas, in the classroom, so I don’t see what kind of solution that was. … He kept his status. He is just laughing at the system,” he said, likening the outcome to the Catholic Church’s shuffling of problem priests.

Sweetwater district officials declined to answer questions about Graham’s transfer.

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After Grossmont Union High School District officials decided warehouse delivery worker John Black violated the district’s sexual harassment policies following an investigation in 2016, they planned to suspend him without pay for five days. Human resources officials wrote in a June 2016 letter that Black’s “conduct toward female students seriously undermines the safety of minors.”

Black and a warehouse coworker would routinely take a break from loading boxes and pull up a chair to watch “the show” as students arrived at Grossmont High School in the morning, district officials wrote.

“You purposefully stare at female minors going to and from school and make perverse comments while on duty and in the presence of District staff,” the letter said.

Black was also investigated for reportedly threatening to physically harm coworkers.

Rather than proceed with the five-day suspension, Grossmont district officials agreed to a one-day suspension and a job reassignment to the position of gardener in November 2016, district records show. The district tried to terminate Black’s coworker who was accused of similar behavior, but instead agreed to pay him $80,000 to resign in 2016, records show.

“In the case of any employee discipline, the employee has certain due process rights, and there are multiple concerns/conditions/considerations that factor into a determination as to the level of discipline ultimately imposed,” Grossmont district spokeswoman Catherine Martin wrote in an email. “In this case, the employee in question was suspended and placed into a different assignment where he works as part of a team on a roving grounds crew.”

VOSD’s attempts to reach Black were not successful.

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Ramona Unified officials transferred custodian Juan Apaez from Hanson Elementary School to another site in 2011 following an investigation that found “The behavior of Mr. Apaez does seem to have a relationship to violation of the District’s sexual harassment policy and California Education Code regarding sexual harassment,” a January 2011 district report says.

A teacher at Hanson Elementary reported interactions with Apaez escalated to include unwanted hugging, gift-giving, texting and phone calls, even though she didn’t remember giving Apaez her number.

According to district records, the teacher claimed Apaez called her repeatedly when she was home sick with a leg injury in August 2010. She also reported he asked her out to coffee and to walk on the beach, offers she declined, and began commenting on her clothing.

“He told me I looked sexy in my jeans. I told him that he embarrassed me when he said that. He told me he liked when I wore shorter skirts that showed my knees and the high heels,” the teacher wrote in a testimonial. “He would send multimedia pictures of teddy bears with hearts, texting things like ‘my sweet (redacted).’ Telling me he missed me,” during winter break.

The teacher told school officials she began to avoid Apaez and began to look over her shoulder and “peek around the corners before walking down the halls.”

Following an investigation, district officials decided to reassign Apaez to another school and determined, “The separation of work sites for (redacted) and Mr. Apaez should remain in effect during the entire remaining employment” of both individuals.

In a statement, Apaez told officials he was trying to be playful in his text messages and was confused why the teacher felt she was in danger.

Apaez was transferred to Ramona High in 2011, according to district officials, who declined to elaborate on the reasoning behind the transfer because district leadership has changed since then.

“The protection of employees and maintaining an appropriate work environment is always a priority. When we receive a complaint we take it seriously and act accordingly. We believe employees are adequately protected,” assistant superintendent Joel Garcia wrote in an email.

Apaez did not respond to questions.

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Escondido Union School District officials transferred sixth grade teacher Justin Armbruster from Hidden Valley Middle School to Rincon Middle School following a 2017 investigation into allegations of sexual harassment lodged by a female coworker, district records show.

The coworker reported in a statement Armbruster rubbed his crotch up against her during a staff meeting in January 2017, and she responded by elbowing him in the stomach.

The next week, she said Armbruster again crossed the line as she sat at a table in the teachers’ lounge. “I felt uncomfortable as he placed his penis area too close to my face, right shoulder and my personal space,” she wrote. She said she again told him to back off. So did a colleague sitting nearby.

The same complainant reported Armbruster on another occasion hugged her, and when she said, “You are trying to feel my breasts,” he replied, “You like it,” district records say.

According to the district’s interview notes, Armbruster said they had a hugging relationship, and he was surprised she elbowed him in the stomach during the staff meeting, and claimed she elbowed him in the groin when he leaned over a table in the lounge to look at materials.

“You should not initiate physical contact with colleagues unless invited to do so. Your actions have caused significant emotional distress to (redacted) and created an unsafe working environment for her,” a Jan. 24, 2017 reprimand written by Hidden Valley Principal Trent Smith reads. Smith also directed Armbruster to cease physical, verbal and written contact with the coworker.

Armbruster wrote a rebuttal letter to the district two days later. In it, he wrote he had a socially friendly relationship with his coworker inside and outside of work, and claimed she “was often overly physical with me and my boyfriend, occasionally making the two of us uncomfortable.”

He wrote he couldn’t understand what changed that caused her to suddenly lash out physically on two occasions after exchanging friendly non-sexual hugs previously, and he decided to no longer be friends with her.

“I had to question if it was because of me being gay, or had (redacted) learned about my political point of view and was now attacking me for it. Either way, I vowed to avoid her,” Armbruster wrote. “I do not feel that a fair or complete investigation has been conducted.”

Armbruster was placed on paid leave in February 2017, and informed in March 2017 the district was transferring him to Rincon Middle School the following month, where he finished out the school year.

Records show Armbruster tried to fight the transfer and filed a grievance against the district, but no changes were made, according to district officials. He sought and received a transfer to Mission Middle School the following school year, 2017-18, where he continues to teach language arts to seventh-graders.

Armbruster did not respond to inquiries.

Kevin Rubow, Escondido Union School District’s assistant superintendent of human resources, said in a statement Armbruster has received no other complaints since leaving Hidden Valley Middle and he is “well-integrated into the staff. He is part of Mission’s Team All-STARS, a collaborative team of five 7th-grade teachers.”

“Escondido Union School District leaders are confident that our actions, oversight, and supervision are more than sufficient to prevent a recurrence of the prior incident,” Rubow wrote.

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As Voice of San Diego reported earlier this year, English teacher Marc Sandknop was warned by La Costa Canyon High School officials about his closeness to female students and recent graduates, and investigated for a suspected sexual relationship with a student in fall 2010.

At the time, both Sandknop and the student denied anything illicit occurred. Amid the concerns, San Dieguito Union High School District officials transferred Sandknop the following school year to Carmel Valley Middle School, where he taught until a former La Costa Canyon High student told police in 2016 he molested her.

La Costa Canyon High School
La Costa Canyon High School / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

A case was opened, but by then, the statute of limitations for statutory rape had expired. No criminal charges were filed. Sandknop resigned from his teaching position after he was notified of the criminal investigation, and his teaching credential was revoked at his request in 2016, records show.

Earlier this year, Eric Dill, then San Dieguito’s superintendent, defended the transfer.

“At each step of this case, the district promptly investigated the concerns, took corrective action commensurate with the investigative findings and referred reports appropriately to outside agencies,” Dill told VOSD.

Looking back, the former student felt the district could have done better.

“They just transferred him to a middle school. I understand that is not his target age group, but it just gets him there earlier,” she told VOSD.

A different La Costa Canyon High graduate later came forward and told VOSD Sandknop groomed her for a sexual relationship while she was still a student. She said the pair dated after her 2004 graduation.

Sandknop declined to answer questions.

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