State Senate candidate Matt Richardson, a teacher and Sumner city councilman, was placed on administrative leave and given a stern reprimand in 2006 after students in his Federal Way middle school class accused him of inappropriate behavior, his employment records show.
The day of his reprimand, while Federal Way Public Schools officials considered whether to renew his contract, Richardson resigned.
Richardson’s actions at Sequoyah Middle School helped turn his English Language Learner class into “a hostile learning environment in which students experienced extreme discomfort and a fear of your reprisals,” Courtney Wood, the district’s director of labor and employee relations, wrote to Richardson in an April 2006 letter of reprimand obtained by The News Tribune.
But Richardson, whose second-place showing in last week’s primary election sends him to a Nov. 2 matchup with fellow Republican Sen. Pam Roach, has been able to remain an educator.
Richardson, 44, said in an interview Thursday that the accusations were made up by students angry at him for sending three girls to the office for dress-code violations.
He said the proof he did nothing wrong is in the district’s decision not to refer the matter to the state. The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has never investigated Richardson, records show.
After leaving Federal Way, he worked in Kent Public Schools and since 2007 has taught English and history to seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders at Wa He Lut Indian School in Thurston County.
The Federal Way School District says the tribal school never called to ask about Richardson’s work history.
Nor did Federal Way officials notify the state about their investigation of Richardson after determining his actions didn’t rise to that level of seriousness.
In her April 18, 2006 letter of reprimand, which followed interviews with 20 people, Wood concluded the students accusing Richardson gave “a generally credible account of events.” Among other things, students claimed Richardson:
• Yelled at them, threatened them and called them derogatory names. “Upon direct questioning,” Wood wrote to Richardson after interviewing him, “you acknowledged that you may have said things like “‘You’re acting like a retard,’ … you reported that you had previously told the class to ‘shut up’ at least three times in the three weeks prior to your interview. Also, you acknowledged that you might have made a statement such as, ‘if you don’t like it, then get the hell out of here.’”
• Failed to “engage in meaningful instruction with students” and fell short of teaching benchmarks.
• Didn’t intervene when asked to stop a boy in his class from touching or grabbing a girl. Wood wrote to Richardson he had said in an interview, “you thought the female students always ‘cried wolf,’” and “acknowledged that you may have said something like, ‘That’s just the way he is,’ or ‘He’s a boy.’”
• Threatened students that if their complaints got him fired from his classroom job, he would still work at Sequoyah and would retaliate.
Multiple reports from female students also indicated Richardson looked at their bodies in a way that made them uncomfortable. Wood called the allegations “probable,” but said she could not conclusively determine them to be true.
Richardson was placed on paid leave in February 2006. The leave continued for about two months during the investigation and four months after he resigned. He had taught less than six months at the school.
Wood, along with Sequoyah Principal Mark Demick and Assistant Principal Patty Elmer, recommended Superintendent Tom Murphy not renew Richardson’s contract for a second year.
The final decision was Murphy’s, but Richardson resigned before the superintendent could make it.
In his resignation e-mail and exit-interview questionnaire, Richardson blamed “aggressive administrators” and singled out Elmer.
“While I disagree with some of the root causes, I agree that a hostile work environment exists at every level at Sequoyah Middle School,” he wrote in the e-mail, “from students who have no shame or sense of consequences for their actions and words, all the way to the administration who left teachers to fend for themselves while at the same time countermanding well-practiced classroom routines that then destroyed the balance we had created in our classrooms.”
Richardson went on to a substitute-teaching and coaching job at Kentwood High School in fall 2006, leaving in August 2008 after taking the job at Wa He Lut, he said.
The kindergarten-ninth grade school on the Nisqually River has about 135 students from many Indian tribes.
Wa He Lut didn’t contact Federal Way to check his background, said Chuck Christensen, Federal Way’s assistant superintendent for human resources. If Wa He Lut had inquired about Richardson’s conduct, Federal Way would have shared information about the circumstances under which Richardson left, Christensen said.
Wa He Lut Principal Harvey Whitford told The News Tribune this week that Richardson was well-screened before he was hired. But Whitford wouldn’t say if the school contacted Federal Way. He didn’t know about the conduct issues in Federal Way, he said.
“I wasn’t aware of a letter of reprimand, but a background check was done on him,” Whitford said.
Richardson said he is “pretty sure I told them I worked for Federal Way, or that they knew,” saying he assumed they would find out by checking with the state. But there is no state database where districts can check teachers’ work history; they depend on job applicants to reveal it.
Federal Way could have reported its findings to the state, Christensen said, but they didn’t rise to the level of a violation of school board policy, such as malicious or sexual harassment.
“We do a lot of discipline work here that’s just local,” he said.
School districts must report to the state when they have reliable information that an employee has acted unprofessionally. But districts have discretion in what to report, said Nathan Olson, spokesman for the state superintendent’s office.
Richardson has made his character a key point in his challenge to Roach, who is a 20-year veteran of the Legislature. He has pointed to the Senate’s repeated reprimands of Roach, touting himself as a voice for civility.
On his campaign website, Richardson says Roach’s “repeated outbursts, mistreatment of employees and uncontrollable temper have not only brought disgrace upon our district but also lost our voice in Olympia.”
Roach’s allies, meanwhile, have been trying to expose Richardson’s past. Documents they’ve posted to an anti-Richardson website include the Federal Way reprimand and personal messages from Sumner’s city e-mail system between Richardson and a Sumner city volunteer. The state auditor’s office is investigating the e-mails.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@thenews tribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/politics