Sunday, August 10, 2014

Was School Too Hasty in Firing Jesus Solis

Last week's column discussed the Jesus Solis case, in which a popular teacher was accused of touching children sexually and was indicted on 52 felony counts. When those counts evaporated, he essentially pled guilty to hugging kids.

Police and prosecutors eventually reached the right result. No sex crime.
Meanwhile, Solis was fired by the school board.

School board members are non-lawyers. Some were teachers. They want to do the right thing.

Solis's termination hearing was run largely by their legal counsel, who also drew up the notice of firing. It's not illegal for him to perform dual roles; but was it wise? He wasn't required to follow the rules of evidence, and he didn't.

So what was the testimony?

No child testified Solis did anything sexual. No one testified to seeing him do such a thing.
(Superintendent Stan Rounds, who had a second school-hired lawyer as prosecutor, probably could have brought in the little girl or girls allegedly involved. He didn't. Solis's lawyer had apparently made a “gentleman's agreement” with the D.A. not to subpoena the girls without the D.A.'s permission, and he was having trouble reaching the D.A. The school's lawyers refused to give him more time. Months after the alleged event, what was the sudden urgency? Could it have been that the school's lawyers feared the charges would be exposed as hokum? When prosecutors, looking to convict Solis, questioned the first girl and two others who initially supported her, there was nothing there!)

School principal and counselor testified that one day as they finished questioning a girl about alleged lesbian activities or improper conversations on the subject, and the girl knew she was in trouble, she suddenly, out of nowhere, claimed that Mr. Solis, her teacher the previous year, had touched her inappropriately.

Principal and counselor testified they did not particularly believe or disbelieve the alleged victim.

Two teachers who'd taught the girl testified she had a bigger problem with lying than most kids. Witnesses said two other girls felt so strongly that the alleged victim was lying that they went to the principal.

Both sides agreed that at least two dozen witnesses would have testified in favor of Solis.

The prosecution had the burden of proof (though just a preponderance of evidence, not the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard). So what did the prosecution present?

Rounds and an HR guy testified they believed the little girl. Neither man had talked to her.
Rounds testified that if the girl recanted, he'd still fire Solis.
Rounds waffled about whether he'd consulted the principal and what she'd said. He testified that the principal's opinion often contributed to such a decision, and he implied that this principal had supported firing Solis. In fact, she didn't, as she testified under oath.

Rounds testified he acted once Solis got indicted. (An indictment describes the charges but isn't actual evidence. Guilt or innocence gets determined in the criminal proceedings that follow the indictment.)

Rounds and the school's lawyer had padded the termination letter with a bunch of other charges that sound minor. Rounds testified these charges alone were enough to fire Solis. But if that's true, why didn't Rounds do it months ago, and save us some money?

The evidence against Solis was hearsay. Unconvincing hearsay, in my view. The school declined to comment, given an imminent appeal and possible litigation.

There's a lot the board didn't hear in the hearing. Here's hoping the board members take a more active role in deciding the appeal. Rubber-stamping a questionable decision could prove costly.

Mr. Solis, his students, and the taxpayers deserve a fair and reasoned decision.
[The column above -- Part II of II -- appeared today, Sunday, 10 August in the Las Cruces Sun-News.  Part  I, which ran in the paper a week ago sub nom A Conscientious Teacher Put Through Hell, is available at A Sad Story - Part I or by just paging down past these italicized comments below.]
[I mention in the column that the school district authorities declined to talk to me, because Mr. Solis's appeal hearing is coming up soon and because there could also be litigation of some sort.  I mention that to explain why the school's point-of-view isn't set forth in the column, and certainly not to criticize that silenceWith what I've had available, I've tried to write a fair and accurate account -- and, obviously, I think I've managed that.]
[I can only reiterate that the deeper problem -- how to ensure that we give a huge and empathetic ear to the least hint of sexual molestation of kids while avoiding unnecessarily ruining lives of beloved teachers or other adults who've done nothing of that sort -- remains important, subtle, and challenging.]

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