SMMUSD HDQTRS — More than 140 people have signed a letter expressing disapproval with the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s handling of a sexual harassment case at Santa Monica High School and asking for more information about the incident.
The letter, written by a district parent named Michael Chwe, concerns the case of a Samohi math teacher who was accused in 2008 of having an inappropriate relationship with a female student. It asks for information about the district’s investigation into the teacher and questions the actions of Superintendent Tim Cuneo related to the case.
According to a letter dated Dec. 4, 2008 from then-Assistant Superintendent Mike Matthews, the teacher was put on leave that school year after an investigator hired by the district determined he had violated SMMUSD’s sexual harassment policy.
The teacher was again placed on leave the following school year after a complaint surfaced that he had engaged in inappropriate communications with students over Facebook, according to people knowledgeable about the case. He has returned to Samohi as a classroom teacher this school year.
Cuneo on Monday defended the district’s actions and declined to discuss the details of the case or Chwe’s accusations, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters.
“If there’s any complaint we immediately investigate,” he said. “We take student safety and employee safety seriously. We also take the responsibility seriously to protect the rights of students and employees [and to follow] due process.”
Chwe, who has assembled information about the case and written several letters to district officials asking for details about it, said his aim isn’t necessarily to get the teacher in question fired, but to push back against what he sees as a district policy that favors teachers’ privacy over the safety of students.
He said his resolve increased after a lawyer for the girl who brought the original complaint against the teacher earlier this year sent a letter to a number of district parents soliciting information about the teacher’s behavior.
When Cuneo learned about the lawyer’s letter, he wrote a memo to school board members, PTA leaders and Samohi principal Hugo Pedroza that called the lawyer’s e-mail “highly inappropriate.”
In the memo, which is included in Chwe’s online chronicle of the case, Cuneo went on to write: “Please destroy all copies of the e-mail and do not forward it or discuss the content of the e-mail with others.”
Chwe said he interpreted the memo as a hostile move against parents who had learned about the teacher’s violation of the district’s sexual harassment policy and were concerned about student safety.
“People have the right to know and people have the right to discuss this in an open manner,” Chwe said in an interview. “I think it’s reasonable to ask, ‘How many times does a person need to be put on leave until the person is taken out of the classroom altogether?’”
Chwe’s letter asks for the district to explain its basis for concluding the teacher is not a danger to current students, whether he is restricted from having one-on-one meetings with students or engaging in electronic communications with them, and what disciplinary actions have been taken against him.
But Cuneo said the district can’t legally disclose details about the case. In written correspondence he has indicated that Chwe could face a lawsuit over the publicity he has given to the case.
“The further dissemination of inaccurate information, which may include slanderous accusations, comes with it legal risk or liability,” he wrote in a letter to Chwe dated Sept. 9.
Cuneo also said Chwe and those who support his efforts should take a different approach if they’re concerned about the district’s sexual harassment policy.
“If they don’t feel the policy is appropriate, then I would recommend they meet with me and we can discuss the policy and what revisions they feel there should be. But personnel issues are private, they’re not public,” he said.
Chwe has not been dissuaded. He called Cuneo’s reply “vague legalistic language which … verges on intimidation” and said he expects to send the letter requesting more information about the case to the superintendent and Pedroza this week.
An e-mail to the Samohi teacher in question requesting an interview last week did not get a response by Monday. Several calls to Harry Keiley, the head of the Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association, were not returned.
Meanwhile, Debbie Mulvaney, president of the Samohi PTSA, said she’s been aware of the case for months but believes district officials have acted appropriately.
“I am comfortable having seen this process that they have done exactly what they are required to do,” she said.
She said she thinks those who have signed Chwe’s letter don’t understand the legal protections that exist in harassment cases against teachers.
“If I thought there was a real issue, as a representative of parents, I would be leading the charge,” she said.