Classroom sex talk, insults not enough to get some TUSD employees fired

Offenders can remain in classes as the difficult process grinds on
2012-02-12T00:00:00Z 2012-02-15T20:33:37Z Classroom sex talk, insults not enough to get some TUSD employees firedPiper Stoeckel For The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 12, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Students enroll in Jeff Smith's fire-science class at Pueblo Magnet High School to experience what it's like to become a firefighter.

Instead, last August they were berated by Smith with language that could make the most hardened firefighter cringe - and could result in a fireman's termination.

For "motivation," Smith called a student a derogatory term for a gay man. He made numerous comments regarding oral sex, including telling a student he could smell it on his breath.

"Come on, fat a**," he told another.

After a student mentioned Smith's behavior at home, parents contacted the school counselor. Smith admitted making the statements, records show, contending he was trying to "mimic the behavior of a sergeant" in a military boot camp.

His punishment: a two-day suspension without pay for "excessive vulgarity."

Smith's case is among 250 pages of employee discipline from the first nine months of 2011 released by the Tucson Unified School District after a public-records request. The incidents include misconduct that put students at risk, sexual harassment, employees with criminal records and nearly 100 disciplinary letters to employees, many of them repeat offenders.

When reached at Pueblo, Smith said the incident was "a part of a lesson and it got out of hand."

He told students to memorize six words, like "sir and ma'am," and then told them to try and recite the words while he yelled in their face; he emphasized that the goal was to simply put them in a "stressful situation."

When contacted about Smith's behavior, Pueblo Principal Vivi Watt asked how the records were obtained and said the information was personal. She said there is "no way I can comment on the incident" and hung up.

TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone said some behavior, like Smith's, deserves immediate termination, but he said the district has to follow its written disciplinary process and be fair to all employees.

But the district's disciplinary system is the problem, said Mark Flatten, who researched TUSD as part of an investigation into how rarely public employees are fired in Arizona. Flatten works for the Goldwater Institute, a libertarian advocacy group. It makes it nearly impossible to fire teachers, he said - none was fired in the 15 months he studied.

Discipline can also be delayed, as suspensions don't take effect for 30 days and complaints from the end of the year are required to be carried over to the next school year, Flatten said. Teachers can also file grievances against the discipline, creating a long, drawn-out appeals process

"In the end it's easier for the school district to ignore the behavior or relocate" the teacher to another school, Flatten said. "Even imposing discipline itself ... takes months. And all the time that teacher is still in the classroom."

Pedicone said the school board needs to be more involved in the decisions to fire employees. The board could change TUSD's disciplinary process unilaterally, but is more likely to implement any major changes through a new contract with the teachers union because of the traditionally close relationship between the union and the board.

Neither TUSD's teachers union nor its school board members returned repeated calls for comments for this story left over several months.

Under the current system, Pedicone said, he needs to trust in the recommendations brought to him by his administrators.

In Smith's case, supervisors recommended a two-day suspension.

History of meth abuse

TUSD employee Hector Gandara could not have unsupervised visits with his own children due to a history with Child Protective Services. But he had contact with students while working in TUSD's Central Facility Department. Central Facility Manager Nick Makres said Gandara worked for TUSD as a bus driver, bus monitor or transportation safety officer.

Gandara, who court records say had an "admitted history of methamphetamine abuse," lost custody of his children in 2006 and had a "history of CPS involvement," court documents show.

In May, he was charged with five felony counts of sexual abuse and sexual conduct with a minor. He was fired by TUSD shortly after being arrested.

Court records allege "he knowingly engaged in an act of sexual intercourse with a minor under the age of 15." The victim was the child of someone he knew, court records say.

Gandara's trial begins Tuesday in Pima County Superior Court. He declined to comment.

TUSD Chief Operations Officer Candy Egbert said the district follows a consistent process of interviews to avoid hiring potentially dangerous employees, although she wouldn't talk about Gandara. "We also do very in-depth background checks and consistently do record checks," Egbert said.

Gandara should not have been hired with his record, Pedicone said, but "there are some situations that can slip through the cracks."

Aide jokes about gender

In March Justin Cohen, Doolen Middle School Global Studies Academy teacher's aide, was audiotaped by a special-needs student whose mother felt he was acting inappropriately.

Cohen was caught on tape joking about the student's gender. "Weren't you a girl before your sex-change operation?" he asked the boy to audible laughter from the class. He also made jokes about the sexuality of a girl in the class, making references to "Pat" the androgenous character from the TV show "Saturday Night Live."

Later on the tape, a student calls the special-needs student a "Nazi zombie." Instead of stopping the exchange, Cohen tells the special-needs student to respond by calling the name-caller an "Islamic lesbian."

Cohen received a written reprimand and no longer teaches at Doolen. Reached in Michigan, he said the recordings were taken out of context and that he had a special bond with the special-needs student. He said he was set up by the school's administrators and quit after the investigation.

vulgar nickname

To Palo Verde Magnet High School teacher Sam Giles, one student was known not by name, but by a vulgar term.

Records say Giles arrived late to a parent meeting, sat down, put her arm around the child's mother and said, "He's an a**hole." She called the student's friends the same word. Giles also called the student other, more severe derogatory terms. She later justified the language by saying she and the parent "went back years."

There were other incidents between Giles and the student. She approached the boy during class and said, "Please tell me that your girlfriend is not pregnant." Another Palo Verde teacher said the girlfriend came to him in "quite a distressed state" because the rumor spread around the school after Giles' in-class announcement. Giles declined to comment because of an ongoing TUSD investigation.

She received a written reprimand. Palo Verde Assistant Principal Eric Brock would not comment, but confirmed that Giles no longer works at Palo Verde after a recent restructuring. Employees not rehired at Palo Verde were transferred to other schools, and Giles now teaches language arts to sixth-graders at Carson Middle School. Principal John Howe wouldn't comment.

Longtime TUSD parent Samantha Marques said she couldn't comprehend why the district circulates employees who have issues with misconduct.

"I don't understand why they would want to protect somebody like this," Marques said.

Beyond the Classroom

The school bus was another problem area for TUSD employees.

Records show more than a handful of transportation incidents that threatened children's health and safety.

In one incident in January 2011, bus driver Jean Alles finished her daily route, parked the bus in the east-side garage, closed it up and left for home. She left something important on the bus, records show: a sleeping student. She was fired two weeks later.

Egbert,TUSD's chief of operations, said bus drivers are constantly reminded of policies through frequent workshops and trainings.

The operations department sets clear expectations so incidents like this do not happen, Egbert said. The district's response to misconduct is on-point, she said.

Employee Relations Coordinator Shannon Roberts said the district always looks for improvement.

"I think we are making positive strides to improve the system as a whole. We are not a perfect organization, but I do think we are addressing employee performance and doing that appropriately," Roberts said.

Repeat Offenders

Within all TUSD departments, records show several employees with repetitive reports of misconduct. Many employee records include two to five incidents, but one former employee's file exceeds 40 reports.

Raúl Grijalva Elementary Office Manager Janice Hine was fired in May when her reports of unsatisfactory performance surpassed 40. Hine consistently made mistakes on purchase orders and budgets and failed to submit paperwork for payroll.

Several incidents kept employees from receiving paychecks, and purchase-order errors resulted in the school losing money.

Parent Marques is concerned with the district's response to employee misconduct. Her children have attended TUSD schools since 1997, and she still has two kids in the district.

"What bothers me is these records only show reported incidents," she said. "It scares me to think of how many more there might be."

On StarNet: Read the TUSD disciplinary records (warning: explicit content) at azstarnet.com/pdf

"In the end it's easier for the school district to ignore the behavior or relocate" the teacher to another school. "Even imposing discipline itself ... takes months. And all the time that teacher is still in the classroom."

Mark Flatten, of the Goldwater Institute, who researched TUSD as part of an investigation into how rarely public employees are fired in Arizona

TUSD employees disciplined in 2011

Some examples of TUSD employee discipline in 2011:

• A school safety officer received a written reprimand for discussing another officer's breast size over the two-way radio.

• A bus driver was fired for "harassing and bullying a special-needs student" during a route. Records did not provide further detail, and TUSD would not comment.

• A Menlo Park Elementary safety monitor was fired for consistent sexual comments toward other employees, including telling colleagues he had removed an office manager's "red lace underwear."

• A Sahuaro High School custodian was suspended for several incidents of sexual harassment, once telling another employee, "You're so fine, I'll make you sweat."

• A school maintenance worker received a written reprimand for repeatedly yelling the "f-word" outside the third-grade hall.

• A custodian was fired for stealing hundreds of dollars from a classroom.

• A bus driver who ran a red light with students on board received a written reprimand.

• A bus driver who hit a street sign and drove off received a written reprimand.

• A bus driver failed to secure a middle school student's wheelchair before departing, causing the boy to fly out of the wheelchair when the bus stopped. The student was unhurt. The bus driver got a letter of reprimand and a different bus route.

• A Rincon High School employee was terminated after police arrested her for trafficking stolen property and pawning property that belonged to TUSD.

• A bus driver received a written reprimand for leaving several months' worth of trash on his bus. The letter said, "The filth and squalor is a health and safety issue for student passengers."

"I think we are making positive strides to improve the system as a whole. We are not a perfect organization, but I do think we are addressing employee performance and doing that appropriately."

Shannon Roberts, Employee Relations Coordinator

Piper Stoeckel is a University of Arizona student. This story was adapted from her final project in her Reporting Public Affairs class. Contact her at metro@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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