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'Housed' teacher tells his side of the story

Matthew Kim, one of LAUSD's educators removed from schools with full pay and benefits while awaiting resolution of misconduct cases, speaks publicly for the first time. He denies harassment claims.

May 07, 2009|Jason Song

The teacher whom the Los Angeles school district has spent seven years and nearly $2 million trying to fire spoke publicly for the first time Wednesday, saying he did not sexually harass students and is the target of discrimination.

Matthew Kim, a former special education teacher at Grant High School in Van Nuys, had declined to speak to The Times numerous times over the last several months. But his mother, Cecilia, contacted the newspaper Wednesday after publication of a story that highlighted her son's case. Family members were angry and charged that the article has embarrassed them, and they wanted to tell their side of the story.

The Times article described the Los Angeles Unified School District's "housed" employees: About 160 teachers and others have been removed from schools with full pay and benefits while they wait for misconduct cases to be resolved. Kim has been housed the longest.

Asked about those employees at a news conference Wednesday, district Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said: "If I had my way, I would fire all [of them], and they would not get another damned penny. . . . They're milking the system."

Kim, 41, has been accused of inappropriate behavior with two aides and six students, including groping them with his left arm, the one limb over which he has limited control. A state panel that oversees contested teacher dismissals has ordered him returned to the classroom twice, but L.A. Unified officials have appealed.

Kim suffers from cerebral palsy and is restricted to a wheelchair. His speech is nearly unintelligible -- he occasionally had an aide translate in the classroom -- but he insisted Wednesday that he is innocent and said he was anxious to resume his career.

"I want to go back" to the classroom, he said.

Kim was placed on administrative leave in 2002, spending most of his time in local district offices in the San Fernando Valley. Because of an agreement between the district and the teachers union, such educators are not assigned work.

The district transferred Kim to his home about two weeks ago. A personal aide, who was paid about $14 an hour by the district, is no longer assigned to work with him.

Speaking from his bedroom in his Northridge home, where he has several shelves full of books including former President Clinton's autobiography and "Star Trek" movies, Kim and his family insisted that he was the victim of discrimination by the district and his former principal. They said school officials were slow to provide him with a personal aide and wheelchair accessible facilities.

Kim began teaching at Grant in 1999 but maintained that his principal didn't like him.

The principal, Joseph Walker, has denied those claims. He was sued by Kim and has said the case was so draining that it led to his retirement.

The Kims accused the district of bullying them in court. When Kim sued the district and his former principal for discrimination, the district spent almost $1.4 million on the case and hired an outside law firm.

Cecilia Kim, 65, said she had to take a $130,000 loan against her house to help pay for the case, which her son eventually lost.

The family also said the district has been vindictive. The state panel initially found no evidence that Kim was a bad teacher or had injured his students and found the district did a shoddy job of documenting the case.

"We won, but they won't let him back to the classroom," said Cecilia Kim, a special education aide herself who transferred to Grant in part to help her son. When she got there, he had already been reassigned.

The family also complained that The Times story ignored testimony and evidence from Kim's students and co-workers who wrote in court documents that he was a good instructor. She also asked the reporter to contact Korean newspapers to try to dissuade them from publishing a translated version of the article, which The Times has not done.

Kim said he was motivated to become a teacher after his struggles with his disability.

"He wants to be somebody who's a contributing citizen, not someone who's on welfare and getting disability," Cecilia Kim said. "He could have done that, but he didn't want that."

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jason.song@latimes.com

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