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Firing teachers can be a costly and tortuous task

May 03, 2009|Jason Song

Half or more of the students refused to change into gym clothes, and it sometimes took Daniel more than 15 minutes to get enough control to take roll, administrators reported in commission and court documents.

Del Cueto and her assistants repeatedly observed Daniel, counseled him and offered help, compiling meticulous records over three years.

But the commission sided with Daniel, saying the evaluations by Del Cueto and her staff were so frequent that they undermined Daniel with his students.

"Students at the middle school level are very perceptive," the commission wrote. "This atmosphere led students to believe that they could openly defy [him]."

Essentially, the administrator was faulted for making too many observations.

"When that decision came out," Del Cueto said in an interview, "I really thought it was a classic example of damned if you do, damned if you don't."

Daniel agreed to resign from the district in late 2006. As part of a settlement, the district agreed to pay lifetime health benefits and $50,000 in attorney fees. Daniel's attorney said the former teacher did not want to comment.

In the Polanco case, as in Daniel's, there was no shortage of documentation. The account of the history teacher's interactions with the apparently suicidal boy came primarily from his teaching assistant, who wrote a detailed letter to administrators. In addition, students submitted written statements that were introduced at Polanco's hearing.

One student wrote that Polanco had told the boy that he "should cut himself more bigger next time (cuts himself like a little wussy)." Another wrote: "Polanco tell [him] that he should cut himself with something sharper." A third wrote that "Polanco would call [him] 'the cutter kid' and would sometimes call [him] stupid."

Polanco testified at his hearing that he had not made these remarks and instead had told the boy -- who was not named in the commission documents -- that he was glad his suicide attempt had not succeeded. The documents suggest he had showed concern about the boy, asking a counselor about his well-being.

"Knowing that I caused pain, whether I did it on purpose or without knowing it, it's a weight on my shoulders because I'm responsible [for] what happened in my classroom," testified Polanco, who declined to comment for this story.

The commission accepted the accounts of the teacher's aide and students as accurate. But it did not see the statements of Polanco, an otherwise well-regarded teacher and former union representative, as goading or callous. The teacher, the panel concluded, was trying "to defuse the awkward situation."

The Times could not determine what became of the boy. As for Polanco, he now teaches at East Valley High School in North Hollywood.

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jason.song@latimes.com

Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.

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About this series

This is the first in a series examining California public school districts' effectiveness in removing teachers and other educators who harm or poorly serve their students.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A look at differing outcomes

FIRINGS OVERTURNED

Terrance Britt

Position: School counselor, Henry Clay Middle School, L.A. Unified School District

Allegations: At after-work gathering in 2006, got in argument in which he grabbed a female co-worker. Her 57-year-old boyfriend later confronted Britt, 36, and Britt beat him severely. Britt pleaded no contest to assault.

Defense: He paid restitution, attended AA, anger management classes. Told commission he was not "totally innocent" but believed others played a significant part in the incident. His lawyer said Britt acted in self-defense.

Decision: Firing overturned in 2007. L.A. Unified "failed to establish that [Britt's] misconduct or his conviction has adversely affected students or other district employees." He's now a counselor at Bret Harte Preparatory Middle School in South L.A.

Matef Harmachis

Position: Economics and government teacher, Santa Barbara School District

Allegations: Put student in headlock; made offensive remarks such as: "Just because you're good in bed doesn't mean you can eat in class." Hugged, kissed a girl, told her to "rub her body all over his."

Defense: He denied some of the statements, said others were not intended as sexual. Said prominent parents pressured district to dismiss him and he did not get proper notice of the allegations.

Decision: Firing overturned in 2006. His comments show an unfitness to teach in some respects but he "did not have improper sexual motivations for his conduct. Rather he sought to achieve class goals or to counsel students about life choices." Appellate court upheld earlier decisions reinstating his job.

Michael Klinkert

Position: Special education teacher, Grossmont Union High School District

Allegations: Delayed or denied meals to misbehaving students, sometimes for a full afternoon. Allowed staff to use foul language, tell inappropriate jokes in front of children.

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