Education

A teacher allegedly harassed students every few years. School leaders say they're powerless

Roseville school superintendent Ron Severson and assistant superintendent Steve Williams have asked lawmakers to help protect students and staff from alleged pedophiles and sexual harassers.

The leaders of the Roseville Joint Union High School District encouraged members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee last month to pass Assembly Bill 2128, which would allow school administrators to consider an employee's disciplinary history beyond the four years currently allowed by law during disciplinary hearings.

The bill would remove the statute of limitations entirely for cases involving inappropriate sexual behavior.

"We have been dealing with a case this year in which the teacher has a history of inappropriate behavior, but he staggered the incidents so only the most recent case qualifies under that," Severson said. "If the law allowed us to present his entire employment history, we could show a pattern of behavior and attempts at remediation that would lead anyone to assume the employee is an on-going threat to student safety."

Severson and Williams did not name the teacher.

The district in January placed Doug Mason, a Roseville teacher, on paid administrative leave after he was accused of sexually harassing a 14-year-old Woodcreek High School student.

The girl said that Mason last year had massaged her shoulders regularly, pulled an ankle-length skirt up to her knee, winked at her flirtatiously during class and asked that she call during the summer so he could hear her voice, according to district documents. On one occasion, according to the teen, Mason grabbed her hands, pulled her close and essentially told her that he loved her.

Mason denied the allegations in a court petition asking to suppress public records requested by The Sacramento Bee. "While I may have made some mistakes in judgment as I strived to support and be accessible to my students, I emphatically state that I have not engaged in sexual assault or harassment," he stated in the documents. "I have never touched a student inappropriately."

Information obtained by The Bee, including court, Roseville Joint Union High School District and California Department of Education documents, indicate Mason has a history of complaints and discipline. The district said in court documents that there were five different complaints against Mason in the last 10 years eligible for disclosure through the Public Records Act.

Williams testified to the Legislature that the inability to consider past substantiated claims and discipline has left district officials feeling frustrated. They are repeatedly reminded by employees' lawyers that they can't use incidents beyond the four-year record, Williams said.

"It happened yesterday with a case I'm working on," he said, without disclosing specifics.

School districts do not release details about employee discipline.

Severson told legislators that the four-year limit usually prompts school district attorneys to recommend discipline short of dismissal.

"I don’t think it was the intent of the Legislature to protect a pedophile or sexual harasser who is smart enough to only engage in inappropriate behavior periodically," he said.

The proposed bill would update AB 215, known as the Teacher Dismissal Bill, that passed in 2014. It created an expedited process for removing school employees with egregious conduct. Since its passage, school administrators have complained that they haven't been able to adequately address employee sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior with students because the law allows only evidence testimony that dates back four years, except in serious cases of alleged sexual assault or child abuse, said Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin, who authored the bill.

Kiley said he has received numerous complaints from school administrators who want to change the four-year limit so they can consider patterns of abuse. "In my view, if you have one teacher or another school employee who is at a district for maybe 20 or 30 years and knows how to fly under the radar, they can cause a great deal of harm," he said.

AB 2128 faced no opposition and passed unanimously last month in the Judiciary Committee. It has since moved to the Assembly floor.

The state Commission on Teacher Credentialing logs about 450 to 550 complaints of misconduct a month, although it is not clear how many are for sexual harassment, said William Kolkey, Kiley's chief of staff.

Geri Thomas isn't too happy to learn the Roseville district can't consider the complaint she filed in 2013 when reviewing the recent allegations against Mason. Her complaint, substantiated in an investigation by the district, accused Mason of exposing himself for one to five seconds while changing for wrestling practice in the school cafeteria over Thanksgiving break in 2012.

"It infuriates me that my child is disregarded and all of the other children who saw him expose his naked body to the wrestling team," she said. "That infuriates me."

An internal investigation substantiated Thomas’ claim, saying the coach exposed himself while changing before practice. While the district concluded that Mason’s behavior was disrespectful, unprofessional and inappropriate, it said it could not substantiate that the coach had exposed himself intentionally. The report said that appropriate action would be taken.

School districts deal with complaints of employee misconduct differently, said Laura Preston, a legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators. Employees can be put on paid administrative leave during an investigation. If a criminal act is committed, district officials will ask police to investigate. Sometimes the union will negotiate severance, which is usually cheaper to the district than going through the whole dismissal process, she said.

"It costs about $250,000 minimally to get rid of a teacher," she said. "That is why we settle. ... To build a case takes years. Even if an employee is in jail, we have to allow them to go through the dismissal process."

Once employees under investigation for a noncriminal offense decide to leave a district, they can work elsewhere while the Commission on Teacher Credentialing decides whether to pull their credentials, Preston said.

"It is difficult for a district to know that an employee was under investigation when they left another district," she said.

District administrators are torn between ensuring they don't violate an employee's due process and protecting students and other employees, Preston said.

"We protect the employees at such level, it is at the expense of the kids," she said.

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