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District Sues Over Teacher's Credential

Newport-Mesa wants the licensing agency to reveal whether an instructor was fired in Missouri. Commission cites privacy concerns.

August 16, 2003|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District is suing the state commission that licenses teachers to learn if one of its high school instructors quit or was fired by another district because of child-molestation charges.

The teacher, who is fighting to keep his job, was found not guilty of the charges in Missouri.

At issue is whether he lied on a job application that asked if he had ever been dismissed or forced to resign. More broadly, the case asks where the line is drawn between a school district's right to know who it has in the classroom and a teacher's right to privacy.

The school district has an obligation to find out what happened in suburban St. Louis and must answer to parents and others on issues of accountability for the schoolchildren in the district, said Steven Montanez, Newport-Mesa's attorney, who filed the action Monday in Orange County Superior Court against the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

Craig Kinder, who taught industrial arts for two years at Costa Mesa High School before he was placed on unpaid leave in 2001, had an unblemished record with the Newport-Mesa district, Montanez said.

Kinder could not be reached for comment; his attorney, Stephen Gamber, declined to discuss the case.

The Missouri allegations surfaced in May 1998. Kinder was found not guilty by a jury April 20, 1999, on three misdemeanor allegations of improperly touching female students.

Newport-Mesa alleges Kinder lied on his Sept. 9, 1999, job application when asked: "Have you ever been dismissed or asked to resign from your job? If yes, give name of employer and explain situation."

Had district officials known about the Missouri allegations, "they would not have hired him," Montanez said.

Kinder now faces a Sept. 29 hearing in which the school district must show cause why he should be fired. Without the commission's information, the school district won't have evidence to fire Kinder and may have to reinstate him with back pay, Montanez said.

It's not the first time the credentialing commission has refused to pass on information. In April, the commission was aware that another Orange County teacher and coach had been charged with possessing methamphetamine and marijuana in 2001.

But under a law designed to protect those diverted into drug-treatment programs, the commission was prohibited from passing on the information to local school officials.

The clash between competing penal codes, one designed to keep criminals out of classrooms and another aimed at rewarding addicts who kick their habit, left officials at Brea Olinda High School unaware that Jon Noel Looney had a previous drug arrest until he was arrested again on suspicion of drug possession.

In that case, the commission kept the charges confidential and took no action against Looney's credential because the case was dismissed once the coach completed the drug treatment program.

By law, the state commission informs school districts about teachers who are convicted of certain serious crimes, including sex offenses, and the instructors face automatic suspension of their credentials.

According to Newport-Mesa's lawsuit, the school district also alleges that Kinder failed to tell it about additional conditions that Sam W. Swofford, executive director of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, added to Kinder's two-year probation for new teachers.

"[Kinder] finished a two-year probationary period and the district wasn't told the credentialing commission had started an investigation or why the investigation was being conducted," Montanez said. "We were under the impression the credential had been pulled but it gave [Kinder] the opportunity to appeal the findings, reapply and the commission granted him a credential again."

The school district first attempted to find answers by telephone, then by letters and even a subpoena.

But the commission refused to release any documents, including those it had obtained from the Missouri case and its own investigation, Montanez said.

A spokeswoman for the California Teachers Assn. supported the commission's action.

"The [credentialing commission] did its job. It did investigate this teacher and issued a credential and did represent the public's interest," Sandra Jackson said. "We support the [commission] to keep the records private. But if he's lied on the job application, it can open up another can of worms."

According to the lawsuit, documents include an investigation by the Rockwood School District in Eureka, Mo., Kinder's former employer, his resignation, written warnings involving allegations of student harassment, a settlement agreement and affidavits from former students who alleged that Kinder touched them inappropriately.

Kim Hunter, the credentialing commission's legal counsel, said the panel doesn't budge on information without a court order.

"That's the law and it's in the education code," Hunter said. "No information other than set forth may be disclosed absent a court order. When the legislature did this they didn't want teachers getting credentials and then letting anyone going on a fishing expedition trying to determine whether there's been disciplinary action taken."

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