Sunday, July 29, 2007

CTA's legal committe picks and chooses who it defends; Albert Truitt got their nod of approval

The following is taken from an article by By Robert Gammon that was published in the East Bay Express on December 7, 2005.

"...The case involves the fruitless attempts by Merced County's Atwater Elementary School District to terminate a teacher accused by five of his former students of molesting them. During the Atwater district's odyssey through the state's tenure rules, officials learned that even though the teacher was arrested, charged by prosecutors with six counts of felony child molestation, and ordered to stand trial by a superior court judge, they still could not fire him.

"These eye-opening lessons were handed out in the case of Albert G. Truitt Jr., a longtime teacher and track coach at Thomas Olaeta Elementary School in Atwater. The case began in December 2001, when one of the coach's former students told Atwater officials that Truitt had molested him. As required by law, school officials immediately notified police, who promptly opened an investigation. Truitt, however, remained on the job, and few people were aware of the allegation against him.

"After four months, police told school officials that they had yet to gather enough evidence to arrest Truitt, who proclaimed his innocence. So the frustrated officials conducted their own investigation, and soon discovered four other students with similar allegations. The boys said that between 1992 and 1998, Truitt repeatedly fondled their penises and buttocks and peppered them with unwanted kisses at his home and on field trips. So on May 23, 2002, the district informed Truitt -- per tenure rules -- that it planned to bring termination proceedings against him in thirty days.

"Before the tenure hearing could begin,
Truitt's union attorneys filed motions to throw out
most of the allegations, citing a provision
that prohibits the use of allegations
against a teacher if those charges are
more than four years old.
An administrative law judge agreed,
effectively ruling that Truitt could not be fired.

"Stunned district officials appealed the case, and a Superior Court judge overturned the earlier ruling and reinstated the tenure hearing. But before it got under way, the California Teachers Association appealed the case to the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Fresno.

"In February 2003, Atwater police finally put together a case against Truitt and arrested him on one count of felony child molestation. The district attorney added five more counts the following July. After a preliminary hearing, a judge concluded there was sufficient evidence to order Truitt to stand trial. He faced up to fifteen years in prison.

"But those developments meant nothing to the appellate court. It ruled against the district and once again dismissed Truitt's termination hearing. The court held that tenure rules clearly state that "no decision relating to the dismissal ... of any employee shall be made on charges or evidence of any nature relating to the matters occurring more than four years prior to the filing of the notice."

"Although Atwater officials appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, they feared they would never be allowed to fire Truitt -- who by then had been put on leave pending a resolution of the case. One option was to wait for him to be convicted of molestation, which would result in the loss of his teaching credential. But that was no slam-dunk. Child-molestation cases can be tough to win, especially if they're based on old allegations without physical evidence. In this case, it would be the word of young boys who had waited four to ten years to come forward against that of a well-liked teacher who was backed by one of the most powerful unions in California.

"With the prospect of children having to testify in open court, school officials signed off on a plea-bargain agreement between the district attorney and Truitt's attorneys. The teacher pleaded no contest, was convicted of a misdemeanor battery charge, and agreed to five years' probation. In exchange, he resigned from the district and voluntarily surrendered his teaching credential. "This broke my heart," he wrote in July 2004 to the court.

"The plea deal kept Truitt out of the classroom and away from children every day. But if he was guilty, justice had not been served. A child molester may have gone free because tenure rules made it virtually impossible for his employer to keep him away from potential victims.

"After suffering a stroke, Truitt died in May of this year at the age of 54. The school district is pressing its case nonetheless, supported by the California School Boards Association and several other major school districts. Atwater is arguing that even though Truitt is dead, key questions remain unresolved. "The essence of this case is to protect the safety of schoolchildren," said attorney Smith, who represents the district. "When you don't know about the misconduct, then why should you be prevented from acting on the misconduct when it comes to your attention?"

"Atwater is asking the high court to liberally interpret the tenure rules to mean that the four-year clock should not begin ticking until the district learns of the allegations. "It contravenes public policy that the employment rights of one individual would be elevated above the rights of schoolchildren," attorneys for LA Unified said in a letter to the court in support of Atwater.

"Union attorney John Kohn maintains to this day that Truitt was innocent. Attorney Thomas Driscoll, who represented Truitt since the original tenure hearing and is still being paid by the teachers' union, said the district attorney's office must have settled the case because there were "problems with it." Mendocino County District Attorney Gordon Spencer did not return two phone calls seeking comment on why he accepted the plea bargain.

"As for the Supreme Court case, Kohn and Driscoll argue that it should be the job of police and prosecutors -- not school districts -- to investigate criminal allegations against teachers and prosecute them if necessary. "I'm glad that the California Supreme Court took this case, because we want to defend this case," Driscoll said.

"But there is more at stake in Truitt than the rights of teachers versus the safety of schoolchildren. Cash-strapped school districts, like most public agencies, are concerned about the costs of getting sued. They want a definitive ruling because school districts forbidden by law from firing a suspected child molester can nonetheless be sued for millions of dollars in civil court -- where the standard of proof is less -- by the victims of such a teacher..."

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