Extracurricular expenses

Roughly $300,000 and counting…that’s the ballpark figure the Sunnyside School District is on the hook for in attempting to sever ties with two teachers.

The two English department educators – Sacha Mike and Maria Preston – were found by the school district to be using inappropriate, and sexually explicit, teaching materials in their classrooms at Sunnyside High School.

Complaints from students, as well as from parents of those youngsters, surfaced in early October 2012. Both educators were placed on paid administrative leave at that time. Neither has returned to their classrooms.

Mike’s tenure with the school district, in effect, ended on Feb. 28 of this year when she submitted a letter of resignation, after reaching a settlement agreement with district officials.

Terms of that agreement were just recently disclosed as the result of what proved to be a lengthy and litigious public records request by the Daily Sun News.

A settlement agreement with Preston has been in the works for some time. Final details were still being negotiated earlier this week. And, although local school administrators were optimistic that a final draft of that agreement would be ready to present to the Sunnyside School Board at its regularly scheduled meeting last night (Thursday), that did not happen.

The sticking point, indicated the legal team of Montoya-Hinckley of Yakima this past Thursday morning, is the language the school district used in the notice of probable cause for discharge letter it issued Preston. One such example, noted the attorneys, is the district classifying the poems Preston used in her classroom as sexually harassing.

“That is inaccurate,” said Montoya. “No one was forced to read the poems.”

Preston’s legal team, the same attorneys representing Mike, inferred that if a settlement agreement cannot be reached with Preston, it is prepared to continue on to the next phase, an appeal hearing.

Sunnyside Schools Super-intendent Dr. Rick Cole, this past Tuesday, said because Preston’s settlement agreement was still being negotiated, he was not at liberty to divulge the details. Essentially, though, he intimated the agreement being considered by the two parties mirrors that of Mike’s.

“The drafts (of the settlement agreement) are going back and forth between the attorneys,” Cole said in a follow-up conversation on Wednesday of this week. Cole said he is confident a settlement will be reached in lieu of going to a hearing that is scheduled for mid-November.

Under the terms of Mike’s settlement agreement, she was placed on sabbatical leave through the end of the 2012-13 school year and released of all work-related obligations. The district agreed to pay Mike her normal salary and benefits through Aug. 31 of this year. The district also agreed to award her a lump sum gross payment of $50,254 by next Monday, Sept. 30. The Sunnyside School District also agreed to pay Mike’s monthly health insurance premiums for the current 2013-14 school year.

The settlement agreement also stipulates that upon Mike’s request, letters of reference from two administrators at Sunnyside High School will be provided her.

One of Mike’s two attorneys, Hinckley, said although a settlement agreement was reached with Mike, there is no admission by her that she did anything wrong.

“Both (teachers) maintain they haven’t done anything that warranted a termination,” he said.

Shortly after the complaints against Preston and Mike were filed last fall, the school district officially began looking into the charges. The district also contracted with an Enumclaw law firm to conduct a separate investigation – at a cost of approximately $6,000.

In investigating the complaints against Mike, the attorney retained by the district interviewed nine students, two parents and Mike, herself. He also reviewed numerous documents, such as Mike’s personnel file and training records, data on her school computer and Mike’s course syllabi.

In his findings of fact, which he said were not in material dispute, the investigator revealed that during the 2011-12 school year Mike swore in her classroom, using many terms of profanity. He noted that Mike did not swear at people, especially students, and that she indicated she had not sworn in class during the 2012-13 school year.

The investigator said Mike indicated to him that she engaged in this conduct because the 2011-12 school year was an “emotionally bad year” and she periodically was suicidal.

The investigator also learned that students in Mike’s class used profanity, which happened on a daily basis according to at least two of the students interviewed. All sorts of profanity were allowed, except the ‘F’ word, he learned. The investigator said Mike told him she “gave up” trying to stop students from swearing.

He also disclosed that Mike gave her students a detailed exposition that chronicles the birth of her daughter, although she didn’t tell the students she was the author of the piece, which was written in a first-person account.

The investigative findings submitted to the school district show that Mike told her students to behave differently whenever an administrator was present in the classroom. Mike, said the investigator, admitted to “jokingly” telling students to behave and not to swear.

During September and October 2012 Mike periodically made statements about heaven and hell, saying she once made an “off the cuff” statement that heaven would not take her in and hell was afraid she was going to take over. On other occasions, noted the investigator, Mike addressed Preston as her “hell mate.”

The investigator said Mike admitted to him that she made these statements even though she was aware that her students had diverse religious faiths. The investigator also noted he located a document entitled “Religious Truths” in Mike’s classroom, which he said speaks for itself (it isn’t suitable to relate in this story but describes different religions in derogatory terms).

Another finding of fact the investigator revealed in his report was that of a poster Mike displayed on her classroom wall. In teaching a mythology class, part of Mike’s focus was on the myth of Lilith. In highlighting the notable themes about Lilith she wrote them down on the poster. The themes displayed on the poster included Lilith being the first wife of Adam (not Eve as related in the Bible), being a night demon and a vampire, plaguing and killing children, causing wet dreams, stealing men’s sperm and being created from the same dust as Adam.

The investigator noted he also found that last fall Mike directed students in her freshman English class to read an essay about rape being an initiation ritual for gangs. He said none of the students indicated they were uncomfortable with the reading assignment, but that high school administrators believed it was not appropriate, “…especially in light of Ms. Mike’s conduct regarding the Lilith myth.”

He noted that Mike said she wanted her female students to be aware of the issue, relating that gangs are a problem in Sunnyside. Mike admitted, he said, that she did not tell any parents or administrators about her use of the material.

The attorney hired to complete the investigation also reported that high school administrators indicated they could not locate Mike’s lesson plans. In interviewing Mike she told the investigator the lesson plans were in a notebook. “I subsequently located the notebook and what appears to be Ms. Mike’s lesson plans. They speak for themselves,” he said in providing a copy of those plans to the school district.

Mike, in a brief statement to the Daily Sun News this past Thursday morning, summed up her feelings about the allegations levied against her.

“I do not believe I did anything wrong,” Mike said.

In explaining why she signed off on the settlement agreement, she stressed she was both disappointed and offended by the treatment she received from school administrators, “…and the process that was used by the school district.”

Mike said she is now seeking employment with another school district.

Unable to reach a settlement agreement with the second teacher, Preston, earlier this year, the school district formally issued her a notice of probable cause for discharge letter on May 29.

In that notice the superintendent, Cole, informed Preston he had concluded she had engaged in unprofessional conduct. Specifically, he said, she:

…created a sexually charged classroom environment in which inappropriate sexual content, comments and profanity were allowed and encouraged;

…singled out male students for in-class recitation of particularly profane, sexual and offensive readings, in which unwelcome, offensive and inappropriate sexual remarks and content were sanctioned by Preston;

…presented a video entitled “My First Period,” which was extremely profane and included frequent and extreme vulgarity, and which also made references to religious figures, specifically Jesus and Mary, that were extremely sexual and vulgar in nature;

…violated two school district polices (boundary issues and sexual harassment);

…allowed and encouraged students to refer to each other in an offensive, vulgar and profane matter;

…allowed and encouraged students to refer to Preston as Queen, Queen B or Queen Bitch, and even provided students with extra points and credit for making such references;

…and exposed the school district to ridicule and potential legal liability.

Cole went on to inform Preston that her conduct was a flagrant disregard of generally recognized professional standards, and that her conduct lacked any positive educational aspect or legitimate professional purpose.

Preston, in hindsight, may have done a few things differently in her classroom.

“I made some mistakes but nobody was harmed,” she said in a prepared statement on Thursday of this week.

Preston said she expressed regret to school officials, and was then issued a warning.

“At that point I thought it was done,” Preston said.

Her belief is that a “limited number of parents” disagreed with the way the school district handled the complaints, and it escalated from there.

Because of the potential of Preston’s case proceeding to an appeal hearing, she declined to address any of the charges that Cole outlined in his letter of notice of probable cause for discharge.

Assuming the school district comes to some sort of an agreement with Preston, the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction office will ultimately review the case files of both Mike and Preston. If sanctions or penalties are forthcoming, OSPI basically has three options – to take disciplinary action, to suspend both educators’ teaching certificates for a period of time or to permanently revoke their teaching certificates.

To date, according to Cole, the school district has spent $300,000-plus in dealing with the actions of the two teachers.

Asked whether it would have been financially more prudent to have proceeded with termination proceedings, rather than attempting to negotiate settlement agreements, Cole said the costs would have been much greater.

“Substantially more costly,” he said.

‑ Bob Story can be contacted

at 509-837-4500, or email

BStory@DailySunNews.com

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