Crime

Tacoma kindergarten teacher fired after students had sex in class fights to get job back

A Tacoma kindergarten teacher fired for “exceptional misconduct” — including failure either to notice or report sexual activity among her students — is fighting to get her job back.

Sandra Holmes, who taught at Grant Elementary School until being fired in May, has requested a hearing to appeal her termination, court records show. State law allows public school teachers to ask for such a hearing.

Holmes and Tacoma School District officials have been unable to agree on a hearing officer, so last week they asked a Pierce County Superior Court judge to appoint one. That action has yet to occur.

In addition to the allegation concerning sexual activity, Holmes is accused of letting her students have access to “unidentified pills” and of leaving some of her students in charge of the classroom.

Holmes has denied wrongdoing and blames her troubles on parents intent on seeing her replaced. She called the allegations against her “false, scurrilous and defamatory.”

“I have never done anything to place my young students in harm’s way, nor have I ever failed to do what is necessary and responsible to ensure their physical and mental health and well-being while they are in my care during the school day,” Holmes wrote in a statement she provided to The News Tribune on Friday.

She also said she believes she is not wanted at the school because she’s black.

“I am sad to say that I believe this scheme was based in large part on the fact that I am a proud, strong, 63-year-old African-American educator,” Holmes wrote. “There are only a handful of people of color at Grant Elementary School.”

The school also is known as Grant Center for the Expressive Arts.

Superintendent Carla Santorno notified Holmes by letter May 13 that her employment was being terminated and that the district would not renew her contract for the 2014-15 school year, according to district records filed in court this month.

Santorno cited numerous reasons for firing Holmes.

Among them were accusations that Holmes knew students were engaging in sex acts in her classroom and failed to report it to law enforcement or Child Protective Services as required by law.

Santorno also said the sexual activity resulted from Holmes’ lax supervision of her classroom.

The sexual activity included a boy crawling under the desk of a female student and performing oral sex on her, records show. Holmes was in the classroom at the time but was working with another group of students at the reading table, records show.

There also were allegations that another student was undressing in class and that there might have been inappropriate touching between two of Holmes’ students in a bathroom.

Police investigated the claims, but no criminal charges were filed.

Holmes contends she reported some of the activity to school Principal Steven Holmes, records show.

The district also accused Holmes of allowing her students “to have access to unidentified pills” and of leaving her classroom in the charge of 5- and 6-year-old students while she attended to matters in other parts of the building.

A parent volunteer discovered “two or three pills of unidentified origin mixed in the bead tray, which was laid out for your kindergarten students to access,” Santorno wrote in her letter.

“By failing to adequately supervise your students, you have violated the basic tenets of professional responsibility and put your students at grave risk of danger,” Santorno said.

“It is also clear that you failed to report behavior that leads a reasonable belief that one or more of the children under your care had been subject to child abuse (including sexual abuse) or neglect despite being a mandatory reporter.

“This is exceptional misconduct.”

Holmes defended some of her actions, including leaving her students alone for periods of time, district records show.

She told district investigators she created a “buddy system” where she assigned certain students to “let grown-ups know” if other kids got out of their seats while she was gone.

She denied other accusations, including lax supervision that led to sex among kindergartners, telling district officials, “I am not going to discredit the students, but this is a lie.”

In her statement to The News Tribune, Holmes reiterated that she harbors no ill will toward her former students, three of which were expelled from school for sexual misconduct in class.

Two since have been allowed to return to school. The third transferred to another district.

“However, during the statutory hearing, I am fully prepared to confront the adults who have perpetrated this violation and attack on my character,” she wrote.

Holmes, a 42-year educator, hired on with Tacoma schools in 2006 to work as an elementary school teacher. She worked at districts in Lakewood and the Memphis, Tennessee, area before moving to Tacoma, district records show.

She said she had no disciplinary actions against her until late 2013, when she returned to work after falling at a skating rink during a field trip and hurting her head, face and mouth.

In January, she received “a letter of direction” from Holmes advising her that she had engaged in “unacceptable” behavior.

“Mr. Holmes issued several directives to you, including knowing all students’ names, to not release students to anyone who had not been approved by a parent or guardian, and to not pull one student’s clothing or body parts,” Santorno wrote in her May 13 letter.

“He also provided you with the directive that you were expected to abide by all district policies and procedures and to perform your duties in a manner that reflects the standards of the district.”

Just a month later, a student’s mother called the school to say her daughter had been the target of a sex act by a boy in the class.

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