Education

After civil molestation case, Woodland parents see loophole in teacher hiring

Angry parents in Woodland are demanding to know how a man accused of molesting two students in Sacramento was able to teach physical education for nearly three years at Beamer Park Elementary School without anyone discovering his history.

Parents say the case of Abdol Hossein Mehrdadi has exposed flaws in how school districts screen teachers, wondering how administrators at three Sacramento-area districts were unaware of accusations easily gleaned from a simple Google search.

Mehrdadi, 66, was able to continue teaching because his teaching credential remains valid and he has never been arrested or charged in the alleged Sacramento incidents.

“I feel like the school district failed our kids. Not only our district, but Sacramento (City Unified School District),” said Ryan Hiett, whose three children attend Beamer Park.

Woodland Joint Unified Superintendent Maria Armstrong said her district has begun an investigation into its hiring of Mehrdadi, including whether its human resources staff called Sacramento City Unified for a reference. She said the controversy is an opportunity for the district to review and strengthen its hiring practices.

Mehrdadi was released from his Woodland job on June 5.

“I don’t want to seem to be on a witch hunt,” Armstrong said. “We absolutely have to make sure our kids are safe. On the other hand, we want to make sure our employees are supported and not accused on a whim or because someone is upset with a teacher.”

In 2012, jurors in a Sacramento Superior Court civil case awarded $4 million to two girls who said they were molested by Mehrdadi at John H. Still K-8 School in Sacramento’s Meadowview neighborhood. In the case of one girl who said she was sexually assaulted four times between 2004 and 2007, the jury assigned 63 percent of the responsibility to the teacher and 37 percent to Sacramento City Unified.

Mehrdadi denied molesting the girls, and the district sided with him. He reached settlements with the families before trial and did not have to pay the damages that jurors assigned to him.

An attorney for Sacramento City Unified argued at the time that the girl who said she was assaulted four times was pressured by her family to implicate the PE teacher after her stepfather was arrested and charged with molesting her. Charges against the stepfather were dropped when she accused Mehrdadi. The defense argued that the second girl came forward only after a relative of the first accuser planted the idea in the head of her guardian.

A juror interviewed by The Sacramento Bee after the civil trial, however, said the jury was convinced that the girl who initially made the accusations was molested both by the coach and her stepfather.

Mehrdadi did not respond to requests for comment last week.

He retired from Sacramento City Unified the month after the jury finding, in April 2012, after being on paid administrative leave for more than four years. But Mehrdadi did not leave the profession.

He found work in Woodland for nearly three years and was employed for shorter stints as a substitute in the Elk Grove and Natomas unified school districts. All three districts released Mehrdadi after learning of the allegations of sexual abuse, but Mehrdadi’s background went undetected at Woodland the longest.

Dozens of parents gathered last week in the stifling heat of the gymnasium at Beamer Park and demanded to know how a man accused of molesting two students in Sacramento became a physical education teacher at their school.

They arrived, many with children in tow, impatient for answers and unhappy with a school district some said betrayed their trust by hiring Mehrdadi. Many parents learned of the allegations from a Facebook post.

Casie Hiett and others at the Monday meeting said they were particularly concerned when they heard that Woodland Joint Unified required only two employment references. “That’s shocking in itself,” she said. “They should be researching more who they’re hiring.”

Legally, California schools don’t have to do that. The only requirement, other than credential and health checks, is to send a prospective teacher’s fingerprints to the California Department of Justice. That will bring up misdemeanor, felony or criminal activity, but not civil judgments such as the one involving Mehrdadi, said David Reilly, associate superintendent for human resources for Elk Grove Unified.

Elk Grove and Natomas Unified have no record of complaints about Mehrdadi when he worked there. It's not yet clear whether any formal complaints were lodged in Woodland Joint Unified, but some Beamer Park parents have said Mehrdadi was verbally abusive to their children.

Reilly said Elk Grove Unified officials might not have hired Mehrdadi had it known of his civil case. “I can assure you that the district took swift action once the civil matter came to our attention,” he said.

Mehrdadi worked as a substitute in Elk Grove Unified from Jan. 22 to Oct. 2, 2013. He was terminated Oct. 22 as soon as district officials became aware of the Sacramento case, said Xanthi Pinkerton, spokeswoman for the Elk Grove district.

School districts are required to notify the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing whenever a teacher is dismissed because of allegations of misconduct. District superintendents can be held criminally liable if they don’t make the report, according to CTC officials.

Elk Grove Unified sent a state form related to allegations of misconduct to the CTC three days after terminating Mehrdadi’s employment.

Sacramento City Unified didn’t send the form, but told the CTC in reply to an inquiry that Mehrdadi had retired and that the district had found insufficient evidence to substantiate allegations of wrongdoing, according to a letter from the district responding to CTC’s inquiry. It noted that no criminal proceeding has been initiated against Mehrdadi.

The commission’s website shows Mehrdadi has a valid single-subject credential for physical education that expires in September 2016. The credential, issued in 1997, authorizes him to teach physical education in preschool through 12th grade. The commission has taken no adverse action against Mehrdadi.

Joshua Speaks, a legislative representative for the CTC, said he could not say whether Mehrdadi’s credential was under review because he could not comment on an individual case.

He said that a civil suit, in itself, would not prompt the commission to initiate an investigation. But the agency would launch an inquiry based on a criminal conviction or report of misbehavior by a school district.

Once an investigation is underway, it can be a long road to suspension or revocation. The subject of an investigation has the right to present their side to investigators and to appeal if their license is suspended or revoked.

“Unfortunately, for the more involved cases, it can take years,” Speaks said.

Linda Moderow and other Woodland parents are planning to lobby the state to require more stringent background checks.

“Do we want to be known as this country agriculture town who had the wool pulled over their eyes and move on, or do we follow this through?” she said.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

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