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Monday, April 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Yakima coach given deal new law forbids
By Chris Bristol
Fired last summer amid allegations he sexually harassed students, the East Valley School District teacher and soccer coach recently negotiated a deal with school officials, who retracted his termination and let him resign retroactively.
But that wasn't all. Although it lacks the force of a court order, the agreement also sealed records in the case, restricts what East Valley school officials can say about his departure and withdrew a complaint about him to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The deal lets him say he "chose" to resign, instead of saying he was forced to. In return, Painter dropped his pursuit of a financial settlement from the school district.
Once a common practice for school districts trying to get rid of teachers accused of misconduct, deals like this soon will be history because a new state law that takes effect in June.
The new legislation came in response to a Seattle Times series that documented the ease with which coaches at least 98 in a 10-year period continued to coach or moved from one school district to another in Washington after being reprimanded or fired for sexual misconduct.
Sealing personnel records and concealing findings of sexual-misconduct investigations are two of the practices the new legislation bans. The new law will require that hiring school districts ask for records of sexual misconduct from applicants' former employers and that former employers give it to them.
Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, who sponsored the legislation, was disappointed to hear East Valley negotiated a deal even as The Times' December series, "Coaches who prey," was exposing such practices.
The deal with Painter was made in January. Details of the agreement, along with more than 400 documents in the case, were recently obtained as part of a public-records request filed by the Yakima Herald-Republic.
"It's unbelievable," Kohl-Welles said. "I want to support our school districts, and I really believe most do a fine job. But we know perpetrators are out there, and to think they can leave one school district and blithely go to another and start the same behavior again is just unacceptable."
East Valley schools Superintendent John Schieche defended the deal, saying it achieved two major goals: "One, not to pay (Painter) a dime. Two, that he leave our district and never come back."
Multiple reprimands, warning
By the time Painter left East Valley, some students had nicknamed the 34-year-old teacher "The Perv Painter."
Painter taught science and math at East Valley Central Middle School and coached boys and girls soccer at East Valley High School from 1998 to 2003. Both soccer teams won the Class 2A state title in 2000, his second year as head coach.
According to school records, Painter had been formally reprimanded three times by October 2002 for harassing female students and a staff member. He was warned he could be fired if it happened again.
In May 2003, school officials began a new investigation when another teacher reported in writing that after showing a film on sexual harassment by teachers, "three girls in the back row shouted out simultaneously, "Mr. Painter!"
The district suspended Painter, and Schieche fired him July 31. In doing so, he cited new allegations that Painter had touched, swatted and kicked female students on the buttocks, tickled and hugged them and made frequent flirty remarks.
In a recent interview, Painter denied the allegations against him and said school officials were forced to settle the case because of credibility problems with some of his accusers.
Painter said he settled to spare students the trauma of testifying. Painter also said he has since come to regret that decision.
"I should have went all the way and made them suffer," he said.
Genesis of the deal
Painter appealed his firing and got a lawyer paid for by the state teachers union, the Washington Education Association. Nearly two dozen students were deposed under oath in preparation for the hearing.
Meanwhile, Schieche notified the state superintendent's office that Painter had been fired for sexual harassment of students and other conduct that demonstrated "poor professional judgment."
In October, Schieche added another allegation: An East Valley High graduate, a former soccer player on Painter's team, told school officials he had brought liquor to her dorm room at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.
By December, Painter's attorney and the school district's attorneys were negotiating a settlement that would allow him to resign retroactively.
Painter sought $10,000.
The sticking point was money. In a letter dated Dec. 4, Painter's attorney, Ed Shea Jr., of Pasco, offered to settle the case on the grounds that taking the matter all the way to an appeal hearing could cost the school district at least $15,000 to $20,000 in legal costs.
The school district, which had rejected a demand for one-year's salary, didn't want to pay Painter. On a copy of Shea's settlement offer, somebody wrote "NO MONEY AT ALL!" in the margins.
Six weeks later, the negotiations were complete. Painter agreed to walk away empty-handed and promised not to sue or seek reinstatement.
In return, the district agreed to let him resign retroactively and to withdraw the complaint to the state superintendent's office. It also agreed to seal records about the case.
Under the agreement, only the East Valley superintendent can answer inquiries from prospective employers about Painter and must confine his answer to a simple statement that says Painter received satisfactory teaching evaluations and won state titles as a soccer coach.
If a prospective employer asks more questions, the superintendent is required to say that female students had accused Painter of "inappropriate comments and behavior," but that two or three of them later retracted or altered their accusations.
Schieche said he believes he could almost always tell prospective employers about the allegations. Even the hint of such allegations would dissuade other districts from hiring Painter, he said.
Scope of legislation
The agreement with Painter says the district will disclose the records "as required by law." It also requires the district to tell Painter who is seeking the records.
Even though Painter's file is sealed, Schieche said the district would release it if somebody with a valid interest in the case filed a public-records request for it.
The legislation will prohibit virtually every facet of the Painter settlement. Although the legislation takes effect June 10, it does not apply to existing agreements.
Kohl-Welles, the state senator, took exception to Schieche's belief that hiring school districts will ask tough questions about Painter.
The "Coaches who prey" series in The Times documented numerous episodes in which hiring school districts failed to check references or, desperate for qualified coaches, looked the other way, she said.
The new legislation requires that hiring school districts request sexual-misconduct records from applicants' former employers. Current state law says only that school districts "may" request such information.
Agreements that conceal records of sexual misconduct are also prohibited. The state superintendent's office also is required to finish investigations of misconduct within one year and verify, as previously required by law, that allegations of criminal behavior have been reported to the police.
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