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A high school teacher fired by the Grossmont Union High School District for inappropriately touching and talking to students is fighting his termination in court. The dispute highlights how difficult it can be for public school districts to terminate tenured teachers in California, even when the state panel overseeing termination disputes agrees with the decision.
An El Cajon physical education teacher and former coach is fighting his termination by the Grossmont Union High School District after a state commission in March found he was rightfully fired for inappropriately touching and talking to students.
Joshua Allen Barney, 43, was teaching P.E. and a tutorial class at IDEA Center High School, which shares a campus with Chaparral High, when he was placed on leave following student complaints in early 2017. He did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, but his attorney John P. Martin said in an email Barney was wrongfully terminated.
“The facts support his case, and we are confident he will ultimately prevail. The students voted him Teacher of The Year in 2016 for good reason,” Martin wrote. “He is a good teacher.”
Barney’s alleged misconduct included touching a female student’s chest, grabbing below her butt, referring to her body in a bikini, as well as her “booty” and “nipple” while doing weightlifting exercises, and inquiring about the student’s romantic life – actions he defended as appropriate to school officials. His dismissal followed a 2013 suspension and district reprimand for inappropriate behavior with a female colleague, records obtained by Voice of San Diego through a California Public Records Act request show.
When student complaints surfaced at IDEA in late January 2017, Barney was immediately placed on paid leave, and El Cajon police opened an investigation. No arrest was made and no criminal charges were filed, but Grossmont drew up dismissal charges and board members voted in August 2017 to place Barney on unpaid leave and terminate him.
Barney appealed his dismissal to the state Commission on Professional Competence, which convened hearings in January and February this year.
The commission ruled in favor of the district in March, and found Barney “was fully to blame for his conduct” including his “habit of touching, and making inappropriate and unprofessional comments,” adding he was likely to “engage in the same or similar misconduct again” if he returned to the classroom.
Barney is appealing that decision in a civil lawsuit filed in San Diego County Superior Court in May, claiming “he touched students in order to assure they were not injured” and that he was “denied his right to due process and a fair hearing as a result of bias against him,” court records show.
He also criticizes the district’s “shoddy investigation” and disputes many of the admissions the district claims he made, saying they were merely summarized investigator impressions.
Barney is seeking reinstatement to his teaching job, the removal of all records from his personnel file related to the case, plus damages that include retroactive pay and benefits lost, plus attorney fees.
The ongoing dispute highlights how difficult it can be for public school districts to terminate tenured teachers in California, even when the state panel overseeing termination disputes agrees with the decision. Grossmont’s spokeswoman Catherine Martin said investigating and terminating Barney has cost the district more than $130,000 so far.
“We’re hopeful that the case will be dismissed and the matter will be over soon,” Martin wrote in an email. The district is arguing Barney’s latest appeal should be tossed because he named the state commission as a defendant, but failed to name the district in the lawsuit during the timeframe required by law.
Barney’s teaching credential remains free of any public disciplinary action, meaning he is free to teach at another public school in the state. It is not clear if he is currently working elsewhere with students. Neither Barney nor his attorney answered that question.
Joshua Speaks, a spokesman for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, said he can’t confirm the existence of an investigation – which can take months or years while appeals are pending – but wrote in an email, “we do follow up on every district misconduct report we receive.”
Grossmont reported their misconduct findings for Barney to the credentialing commission in March, records show.
Barney began working for the Grossmont district in 1992 as a campus supervisor and became a teacher in 1999.
In the years since, he’s taught all over the East County high school district, beginning at Helix High and moving on to Granite Hills High for 10 years, his longest stint. According to district officials, Barney’s last paid coaching job was as a varsity football coach at Granite Hills High in 2012. He also taught classes at Steele Canyon High, Santana High, Chaparral High and finally IDEA Center High, an alternative district school that offers smaller class sizes and project-based learning.
Records show student concerns arose in late January 2017 during a weightlifting class at IDEA Center High when a female student enrolled in his homeroom tutorial class was allowed to attend the weight class for two days.
After the second day, the student – referred to as B.P. – showed up at the nurse’s office “visibly upset (her eyes were red and blurry; she was wiping her eyes and trembling, as if she had been crying),” according to the Commission on Professional Competence’s March decision.
The student reported Barney touched the top of her chest, grabbed under her butt, which he called her “booty,” and told her to bring the bench press bar down to touch her “titty” or “nipple.” She also reported he said her body would “look so amazing in a bikini this summer.”
She said Barney on another occasion rubbed a ripped pair of her jeans on the right side of her leg and “he got really close to my vagina, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time… I did not give him permission to touch me in anyway (sic) shape or form.”
While in Barney’s homeroom class, she said he asked whether she had a boyfriend, what boys at school liked her and “sounded like a jealous boyfriend.” She also claimed he asked if she drove, and when she said no, he replied “good” and mentioned he was going to help her find a job.
The same student subsequently complained Barney had also “lifted up my shirt, play punched me twice, then told me I have a really nice core. Barney then began to help me squat yesterday and stood behind me, placed his hands on my lower hips and began to help me go,” the commission’s report recounts, finding both claims credible.
The same day she made the report, the district placed Barney on paid leave and began interviewing other students. El Cajon police also arrived and opened an investigation.
One other student, referred to as N.H., also reported Barney was inappropriate and grabbed students’ thighs while asking if they are sore.
When Barney was interviewed in February 2017, the district claimed he admitted to touching students while providing exercise instruction, including on the hamstring just below the buttocks.
He also admitted to touching student B.P. below the collarbone, a few inches above her breast using two fingers, but testified before the commission he asked for her permission first. He said he touched her hamstring when she didn’t know which muscle that was and raised her leg twice to show her how to do a “donkey kick.”
According to the district, he acknowledged making statements like, “Work your booty, tighten your booty, you can have the best booty ever,” and, “Bring the bar down to your nipples” or something similar.
Barney now denies making some of those statements, according to his civil court petition, and continues to maintain he only touched students out of concern for their safety to prevent injuries.
The commission also wrote “the District’s investigation was not optimal,” noting a failure to interview other students present at the time the alleged misconduct occurred, and a lack of quality notetaking. The principal also erred by testifying he was present when Barney was placed on leave, when he was not.
Still, the commission found, “Student B.P.’s version of the events that transpired was more credible than Respondent’s version,” and the student testimonies collected established Barney “touched females inappropriately,” stared and made comments about their bodies.
The commission concluded Barney repeatedly violated district policies prohibiting discrimination, intimidation, harassment and bullying and noted this wasn’t the first time he engaged in this type of conduct. Further, Barney “expressed remorse for his misconduct because it resulted in discipline, not because it was inappropriate, unprofessional or because of the impact it had on colleagues or students,” the commission wrote.
In his civil court filing, Barney objects to the use of a 2013 reprimand as evidence in his termination, and claims he had no issues arise in the intervening years.
In 2013, Barney was suspended without pay for five days and placed on a plan of assistance after a female special education aide who worked in his class complained of persistent sexual harassment witnessed by students.
Specifically, she accused Barney of calling her “hot” and telling her she looked good, suggesting she wear a certain pair of pants more often. When a student asked if she missed her husband while he was out of town, Barney allegedly chimed in, asking, “What time should I come over?”
On another occasion, the aide said Barney leered at her chest and made an inappropriate comment about her body. She also reported Barney once chased her around the classroom for a hug and showed her inappropriate photos on his phone.
Barney was also cited in 2013 for showing students photos of “hot” female celebrities and comparing the physiques of cheerleaders from the Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers.
At the time of his suspension, Barney was also directed to cease talking with students about physical attributes, told to not touch students and to stop showing them “images of scantily clad women.” He was also ordered to retake the district’s sexual harassment prevention training course and to have no further contact with the aide during work hours, on district property or at district events.
The Grossmont district also obtained a temporary restraining order against Barney on behalf of the aide in December 2012, court records provided by the district show, but a judge subsequently dismissed a request for a workplace violence restraining order.
The next court date for Barney’s civil case is scheduled for Sept. 7.