Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Sad Story -- Part I

This is a sad story that needs to be told.

One victim is a good and conscientious teacher named Jesus Solis.

I'm not sure there's a villain.

I won't discuss all the details, or name other names. But one day a troubled young girl was called to the principal's office and questioned about talking in the girls' room about stuff schools don't want 10 or 11 year-olds talking about. She knew she was in hot water. After the principal finished questioning her, the girl suddenly blurted out a claim that a teacher had touched her sexually. As best I can tell, he hadn't. As best the District Attorney's Office could tell, he hadn't. But she told her story, and two other girls initially went along with it.

The story that made the news was that Mr. Solis was charged with 52 felony counts. There was a photograph (probably taken after a night in jail wondering whether anyone would believe he hadn't done it) in which Mr. Solis looks like someone who would do any bad thing the newspaper said he did.

But he hadn't touched the girl sexually, according to the weight of the evidence. The school prejudged him guilty. The police investigated, and eventually he was indicted; but as the police and the DA investigated further, the case unraveled. The girls contradicted themselves, recanted, or changed their stories. There was also strong evidence undermining the first girl's credibility.

Ultimately the DA dismissed all the felonies. Mr. Solis pled guilty to hugging kids. A misdemeanor. Nothing sexual. But hugs that were perhaps unwanted. (I get those, not being a huggy kind of guy, but it's in the culture now; and it was in the culture Mr. Solis grew up in.) The DA was agreeable to a suspended sentence for the hugging.

Meanwhile, although some people who should have known better joined the bandwagon, a lot of teachers, parents, and students stood up for Mr. Solis. He is reportedly a popular and dedicated teacher.

Why do I mention all this? Because the guy whose picture we saw in the paper and whom we each casually judged seems to be a pretty good guy, and we have put him through hell. We the citizens whose School Board failed us and him. We the citizens who judged him based on a headline and a bad photograph. We the audience of news media that saw in this a titillating tale.

I doubt the girl understood what she put Mr. Solis through. She appears to have had a bit of a crush on him, and a lot of confusion about her sexuality. On the day she told her story to the principal, she smiled at Mr. Solis and repeatedly visited his classroom on flimsy excuses. She liked him.

The girl is clearly a victim: of a culture dominated by sexual messaging; perhaps of some predatory teen or adult; and of school administrators so determined to CYA that they ignored the fact that she'd made other questionable statements and allegations. Once she was closely questioned, her factual statements didn't even really amount to much.

The point here is not the girl, who probably deserves sympathy and help. It's not her parents, who supported her vigorously even as her account shrank and lost credibility. (Friends say that's because they love her; others hint that the parents thought a lawsuit against the school could turn their finances around.)

The point is to remind ourselves not to rush to judgment, but allow for what we don't know, and to use this incident to assess how our public institutions performed in a tough situation.

[This column appeared Sunday, 3 August, in the Las Cruces Sun-News, under theheadline "Good and Conscientious Teacher Put through Hell by Sex Allegations."]
[As you can imagine, this was a hard column to write.  Two sides [at least!] to the story, and everyone quite convinced that his or her view is The Truth.  Truth is a weird-shaped beast, actually -- nearly as rare as the unicorn, and not always as appealing.  This ain't the first time I've sat in rooms with people on consecutive days hearing diametrically opposed accounts, each delivered passionately and persuasively.  Neither Jesus Solis nor the girl's father would have enjoyed listening to everything I heard about him.  Solis wasn't guilty of molesting kids and got a raw deal here, but that doesn't make Jesus Solis into Jesus Christ.  At the same time, most everyone who looked into this came away believing: that the girl had a reputation for telling stories (a habit you'd figure her parents would have noticed) and that part of the parents' motivation in pushing this was financial.
I spent a lot of time looking into this matter, and have tried to write about a delicate subject fairly and accurately, including enough information for the column to make sense but without adding a bunch of information that would add to anyone's embarrassment.]
[In this extra space, I'll address two questions:
1. Is the DA "soft on criminals?"  Well, I don't think so.  I think the D.A., like most lawyers, wants to win.  Here, Solis was the ideal guy to run right over, an alleged sex offender and thus inherently unpopular in the community.  This would have been an ideal case for the D.A. to use to answer that "soft on criminals" allegation, leveled by political enemies and probably also by people, including victims, who don't fully understand the calculations that necessarily to into decisions on what to charge and which cases to settle at what price.   Sure, people who worked with Solis and kids he taught mostly liked him a lot, but by definition he didn't have any powerful political constituency behind him.  Great case, except for one thing: the facts, as developed by investigators who were not on Solis's side, simply didn't add up to a case with much chance of winning.
By the way, the girl's father says he the D.A. didn't do his job.  He says the case should have been taken to trial.  He has created a website,, where you can add your name to his petition on the subject.    I definitely don't share his view, but some readers may.
2. Then did the police screw up?  For the most part, I think not.  Just because a criminal case settles doesn't mean the police were wrong in bringing it.  For one thing, if you have any doubt at all, how do you not want to see further investigation, with advocates for both sides, of a credible allegation of this sort?
I didn't see this case as the investigating detective saw it, or listen as he did to what the witnesses were actually saying and how they were saying it.  I suspect he was also getting some pressure from the parents. Could the truth have been ascertained earlier, sparing the participants -- particularly Solis -- further angst?  I'm reluctant to judge.
Nearly 40 years ago I was a long-haired motorcycle bum who got hired as the Las Cruces Bureau Chief for the El Paso Times.  Once I was riding along with one of the city's first female police officers, to do a feature story on her. We'd picked up a male officer who needed a ride back to his car.  A call came over the radio of a burglary in progress in a residential neighborhood.  Because the male officer happened to be with us, she could take the call.  She did.  We arrived at a dark house in a quiet neighborhood.  I quickly realized that I'd better stay damned close to the two officers, because any back-up officers would instantly assume the long-haired guy was the "perpetrator."   The officers knocked on the door.  No answer.  We went in, and through the living room, and down a dark hallway.   At the far end, on the left, a door opened.  The female officer, in front, moved quickly from the hallway into a vacant room.  I, in the rear, quickly moved from the hallway into a vacant room.  The officer in the middle had no convenient exit, so he crouched and pointed his gun and shouted "Freeze! Police! at the individual who emerged from the opened door.  That individual, a tall, slender Hispanic gentleman, very sleepy, was in fact a friend of the owners whom the owners had forgotten to mention to the neighbors.  Fortunately, his first reaction was to slowly raise his hands as ordered.  But afterward, the officer and I talked.  He was shaking, because he knew how close he'd come to shooting the guy -- or at least, that if the sleepy citizen had made some sudden move, out of fear and confusion, he'd probably have shot him; and for me -- a young fellow with a radical background and quite varied experiences of police officers -- it was a good lesson.  Had the other fellow made some quick and ambiguous motion, and had there been a shooting, I could not have faulted the officer; but I knew that had I not been there, but merely read about the shooting, I might easily have condemned the shooting of an unarmed citizen.] 
[At any rate, what I hope to do in next week's column is to discuss briefly how our institutions -- law enforcement, public prosecutor, and school administration -- performed in this case.]

[I don't usually bother with stuff like this, but someone called "Sound Off" (which, for those from other places, is a feature in the local newspaper in which folks can call in and have their comments, questions, insults, and what-not printed in the paper) and we saw on Thursday this:
"GOODMAN COLUMN> Peter Goodman routinely offers innuendo, rumor, and lazy fact gathering, then draws wild conclusions.  In his latest instance of reckless commentary, he blames the school board and administrators for a person's arrest and indictment as though they, and not police and a grand jury, perform those functions."
One reason I don't usually answer these is my feeling that if someone does you the courtesy of reading what you write, s/he deserves a little respect in return.  However, it's not clear that this person read much more than the headline.  
I'm open to plenty of criticisms.  But how do you accuse me of "lazy fact-gathering"  and relying on "rumors" when I took the time to interview quite a few people and even read actual evidence, which I suspect most folks have not?   How do you get the idea I'm blaming the school board for an indictment when I say no such thing and discuss what the police and prosecutors did?  The school has certain legal obligations when there are allegations of child molestation and the like.  I think that requirement is right, although it can lead to some unfair situations.  I certainly can't fault the school for complying with the law.  Of course you want to separate the alleged wrong-doer from the kids forthwith.  I have serious questions about the school's conduct, and I'll ask them; but for the moment the school has declined to discuss the matter with me because it's still the subject of an administrative appeal within the school system and could be the subject of litigation.  (I'm not criticizing their refusal, just noting it.)
It's possible that the indictment and the withdrawal of all felony counts were each proper exercise of judgment at the time each occurred.  That's sort of how the police and prosecutors see it; the girl's father has made clear he doesn't agree with dropping the sex charges; the teacher might reasonably feel that interviewers should have gotten to what appears to be the truth somewhat sooner, or delayed an indictment.  I reserve judgment.]
[On the other hand, the reader/complainer has this disadvantage: s/he probably hasn't investigated the matter so fully, and although I've tried to be clear and fair, (1) it ain't as if I know everything there is to know either, (2) some of what folks have shared with me was conditioned on my not attributing it to the person, and (3) I resisted including several additional bits of material that, while they were accurate and (in my view) would have made the case clearer, might have unnecessary embarrassed the young girl or her family.]  

As you'll read in my next column, I do question the school board's action in firing the guy; but even so, I resist jumping to conclusions: I've seen a lot of evidence, but not everything; and


  1. First off, I didn't realize you're an ex-journalist. So am I. Been threatened by the KKK in Decatur, Alabama, avoided an ambush by the Huntsville, Alabama sheriff and his chief deputy (whose corruption trial I was covering), survived the monstrous tornadoes of
    April 3-4, 1974 while riding with sheriff's deputies to Tanner and surrounding areas -, you get the idea. We've both been around. I don't do any citizen journalism any more, but that's another story best left unsaid since I'm in the process of reinventing myself.

    And so your story about Jesus Solis is greatly appreciated, perhaps because it resonates in my heart. Here's why.

    Besides being an ex-journalist I was an elementary school teacher for some 23 years in North Alabama. I moved to Las Cruces in 2001. After I left the Hatch School System I taught at San Miguel Elementary, part of the Gadsden Independent School System (G.I.S.D.). My second year 5th grade class included three girl wannabe gang bangers who delighted in disrupting my class at every opportunity. Following a self imposed grace period wherein I tried to resaon with them, I began tightening the screws, sending them all to the principal's office for any major disturbance. They retaliated by presenting the principal a list of grievances against me, one of which stated, "He looks down our dresses."

    Well, that's a hard accusation to plausibly deny, so, after my initial shock, I simply laughed it off while going over the grievance list with the principal. A few days later I was summoned to the GISD central office, wherein I was made to turn in my room key and told I was being suspended from teaching. A hearing would be forthcoming.

    There is much more to the story than I will relate here, so I'm just going to finish up with the essentials. The GISD human relations director said there would be a hearing attended by myself and the principal. I said that was fine, as long as the meeting was tape recorded. She refused my request, so I refused to attend the hearing. (This was in mid September.) I decided to take matters into my own hands.

    I researched the NM statutes at the NMSU library and discovered that any accusation of sexual misconduct had to be reported to central office within 24 hours of such accusation being reported to school officials. This was not done. I presented the central office administrators with this information. The response was G.I.S.D. paid my full salary the entire school year while I sat at home, reviewing the events over and over in my mind, which only made me fall into a deep depression punctuated by a burst of tears every time a yellow school bus would pass my house. Those were some of the hardest months I ever had to endure, and so I empathisize Mr. Solis's plight. And I thank you, sir, for writing this article. Keep up the good work for, as you and I both know, it's needed.

  2. Thanks!
    Keep in touch. Sorry to hear of your experience in San Miguel.
    Sure we'll talk some time.
    Situations like Solis's are delicate: obviously there were too many decades, centuries, when kids got molested by people they trusted -- uncles, teachers, priests, cousins -- without consequence, 'cause it wasn't discussed; but as with everything, society's opening up to reporting of such incidents (which used not to be reported or to be laughed off as childish whimsey because "Joe wouldn't do thaaat . . .!") has created its own problems, such as people getting sullied reputations and sometimes lost jobs because of false allegations. Steering a fair course is tough for school administrators -- although I think the folks in Solis's case could have done a better job.