Records show Tacoma special-ed teacher fired after grabbing, dragging elementary kids

Staff writerJuly 1, 2014 

A Tacoma Public Schools special education teacher will not return to work this fall after he was terminated for using inappropriate physical force with high-need students.

Tim Robnett was fired from Larchmont Elementary School in May after a Tacoma School District investigation concluded his actions were “egregious” and lacked “any positive educational aspect or legitimate professional purpose,” according to documents obtained by The News Tribune.

“You failed to appropriately respond to student conduct, exercised inappropriate judgment in regards to managing student behavior, and failed to maintain a safe classroom environment,” according to the district’s termination letter to Robnett.

The investigation also concluded the teacher failed to follow the district’s isolation policy by not documenting when he used timeouts to address a student’s behavior. The documents state Robnett failed to use positive behavior interactions before turning to physical contact or isolation time, another violation of district policy.

A teacher who witnessed the interactions at the Eastside school told investigators that Robnett put one particular student in timeout two to three times a day for up to 45 minutes at a time over a two-week period, and appeared not to check on him.

Robnett led a classroom for students who have significant social, emotional and behavioral needs, such as requiring help with feeding.

Robnett‘s attorney declined to comment for this article. But in his written statement to investigators, Robnett said he didn’t grab students inappropriately, physically limit their movement or isolate them for long amounts of time. He also said he would never intentionally hurt a student.

He acknowledged in his statement that he didn’t keep records on timeouts and that he had read parts of his students’ files but didn’t know if they had behavior plans.

Robnett was notified on Jan. 17 that he was placed on paid leave pending an investigation. The leave became unpaid on March 14 and continued until he was fired in May when he declined to appeal further.

The school district has reported Robnett to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, said Shannon McMinimee, the district’s attorney. That office could revoke his teaching certificate.

Internal documents show the investigation began after incidents with students on Jan. 13 and 14.

A witness to the first incident said Robnett was yelling at a student who was lying face down on the floor in the fifth-grade wing. When the student refused to get up, Robnett “picked him up by the arm pits and then dropped (the student) who hit the floor, hard,” according to the documents.

Robnett again lifted the student under the arms and dragged him down the hall until Larchmont Principal Cindy Horner and the student’s mother walked in, the documents state.

A similar situation happened the next day, when the same student was found lying on the floor with Robnett standing over him in an “intimidating manner,” yelling at the child to stand up, a witness said. Robnett pulled the student up by one arm, then yanked him under the arms, a witness said.

Later that same day, a girl attempted to join a basketball game Robnett was supervising. A co-worker who witnessed the incident said Robnett jerked the girl by the arms in an effort to lead her away from the game, but the witness did not hear Robnett ask the girl to move on her own accord.

A district spokeswoman said Tuesday that the district has no record in Robnett’s files of police being contacted.

This was not the first time Robnett had been in trouble with the district. He was involuntarily transferred to Larchmont from a similar teaching position at Reed Elementary in early December 2013 for failing to appropriately manage student behavior. He had been working at Reed for three months at the time of his transfer.

Tacoma first hired Robnett as a paraeducator in 2007. Documents indicate he did not participate in optional annual trainings that show staff how to prevent physical confrontations with students and how to intervene appropriately when necessary. The district’s termination letter to Robnett said “it is surprising that you failed to take advantage” of the refresher trainings at any point after he was hired.

Ryan Tarinelli (253) 597-8670 ryan.tarinelli@thenewstribune.com

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