Opinion

Lucia Mar agreed to keep quiet about predatory wrestling coach. That’s an outrage

California has yet to pass a law to prevent predatory school employees from moving from one district to another.
California has yet to pass a law to prevent predatory school employees from moving from one district to another. Getty Images

Here’s a dirty little secret about California’s school system: In some cases, it allows predatory teachers to quietly walk away from their jobs – only to find employment at another district where they prey on more innocent children.

This is no different from what the Catholic Church has been doing with priests accused of molesting children, yet the level of outrage over what’s happening in schools is not even close to the horrified reaction the church has been getting.

That must change.

Whether it’s a parish or a school district, a leadership that remains silent is complicit in molesting children.

That’s why it was so disturbing to learn the Lucia Mar Unified School District agreed to keep quiet about former Nipomo High School teacher and wrestling coach Justin Magdaleno, who was accused of inappropriately touching members of the girls wrestling team, using excessive force and making grossly inappropriate and hurtful comments to them.

This was not a case of a few minor missteps by a rookie teacher; there were multiple incidents prompting at least one formal complaint to the Sheriff’s Office.

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While the District Attorney’s Office concluded there was not enough evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, the school district’s own investigation confirmed several of the allegations, including inappropriate touching, use of profanity, making derogatory comments of a sexual nature and making retaliatory statements about his accusers including, “It’s taking all of me not to kill her,” and “If I had a baseball bat, I’d kill that kid and her mom.”

Knowing that, the Lucia Mar school district still allowed this man to quietly resign, taking with him $32,000 in severance pay and a written guarantee that the district would provide only “dates of employment, position held, and salary information” if contacted by a potential employer in the future.

That’s sickening.

If a teacher, coach or custodian can’t be trusted around children in one district, it’s beyond unethical to pass that person to another, unsuspecting district.

Sure, Lucia Mar got rid of a toxic employee, but if the district was hoping to avoid legal entanglements, it failed spectacularly. And if it was hoping to maintain any moral responsibility for future kids coached by Magdaleno, it failed there as well.

The district is now facing two lawsuits — including one filed just last week — that celebrity attorney Gloria Allred is bringing on behalf of two of Magdaleno’s alleged victims. And due largely to the investigative reporting by Tribune writer Matt Fountain and former reporter Lucas Clark, the district’s sorry role in this has been exposed.

Unfortunately, it’s not just Lucia Mar that’s engaged in this practice.

The Paso Robles Unified School District unwittingly employed a child predator as an agriculture teacher at Paso Robles High. In 2015, Jeremy Ryan Monn was convicted of having a sexual relationship with a minor student.

It turned out that Monn had formerly worked for a school district in Tuolumne County, which did not disclose previous complaints of inappropriate conduct. Both districts were sued by the family of the Paso Robles victim; the Paso district agreed to pay $1 million of a $5 million settlement, even though the district had not known about Monn’s past.

And that’s not all: During the course of the Paso Robles investigation, it was discovered that Monn also had a sexual relationship with a then-15-year-old student at Don Pedro High School in the Central Valley community of La Grange, where Monn taught. He also was convicted in that case.

California isn’t the only offender. In 2016, USA Today published findings of a yearlong, nationwide investigation into how school administrators are putting children in danger by allowing predatory school employees to transfer from one district to the next. The newspaper found dozens of examples of teachers who had been disciplined in one district and had then gone on to repeat the same behaviors somewhere else.

“They include a New Jersey teacher who molested five elementary school students, an Oregon substitute teacher who reached under a table to touch a student’s genitals and an Illinois teacher who forced elementary students to eat food off his crotch,” the paper reported.

There have been efforts to prohibit districts from passing off predators.

A 2015 federal law requires states to pass laws prohibiting school districts from entering into secret agreements that allow abusive teachers to move from district to district — or risk losing federal funding.

So far, only a handful of states have done so. California is not one of them.

Last year, Republican state Sen. Mike Morrell introduced a bill that, among other mandates, would have required applicants for positions involving contact with children to disclose allegations, investigations or findings of child abuse or sexual misconduct with a child, unless the allegations were determined to be false.

The bill failed to advance as written. Supporters blamed a powerful teachers’ lobby and the American Civil Liberties Union for killing it by arguing that employees’ due process rights could be violated.

It’s true that teachers aren’t immune from false accusations, but a skillful investigator should be able to weed out bogus claims.

In the end, it comes down to priorities: Do we put kids first, or educators whose inappropriate behavior around children has raised red flags?

If districts won’t do the right thing on their own — and so far, they haven’t — California lawmakers must make a new, bipartisan push to pass legislation that prohibits them from hiding the truth about predatory ex-employees.

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