A recent spate of school-based sex-abuse cases shows what can happen when teachers and administrators neglect their most basic responsibility—protecting those in their charge. The shocking crimes and ensuing cover-up at Penn State rocked the country and made national headlines. The case of Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt horrified Los Angeles parents, especially as details emerged that the adults in charge suspected the first-grade teacher was up to no good for nearly two decades and did nothing. When an adult in a position of school authority does act responsibly, taking precautions to protect the children in her care, one might expect appreciation, even celebration. For principal Eileen Blagden, though, things didn’t work out that way.
Blagden’s story begins in 2008, when a teacher named Kevin Kirby was arrested for lewd and lascivious behavior and indecent exposure, but not at school. Nevertheless, Kirby’s arrest prompted his suspension from teaching at Leal Elementary School in the Southern California city of Cerritos. The following year, while awaiting trial, Kirby pleaded guilty to an unrelated trespassing charge. A jury ultimately found him not guilty on the sex-related charges, though he was required to “stay at least 100 yards away” from schools in Long Beach. In September 2009, the ABC Unified School District transferred Kirby to Blagden’s school—Stowers Elementary in Cerritos, where he was assigned as a kindergarten teacher.
Almost immediately, Blagden told me, Kirby began showing signs of irresponsibility and instability. He was absent frequently and would often fall asleep in class. Kirby’s fellow kindergarten teachers reportedly feared him, calling him a “ticking time bomb.” On January 26, 2010, Kirby had an accident on his motorcycle on his way to work. Despite being bloody and distraught, he refused medical assistance from paramedics and showed up at the school. Blagden had kept a wary eye on Kirby. With the accident, her concern grew into alarm, especially when Kirby began talking about suicide and killing Stowers’s other two kindergarten teachers.
The principal notified Carol Hansen, the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources. Hansen, in turn, summoned the local teachers’ union president and vice president to address the situation. District officials assured Blagden that the disturbed teacher would receive psychological help right away. But three days after she made her report, Blagden discovered that the district had taken no action. With the threats of murder and suicide still fresh in her mind, Blagden told Hansen she would inform her teachers about Kirby’s statements and notify the police. Hansen responded with a warning: Say nothing. As Blagden later told KCBS News, Hansen “said to me, ‘if you report this, you’ll be sorry.’”
Caught between a directive from a superior and her responsibility to protect her teachers and pupils, Blagden chose the safety of her staff and students over the edicts of a central-office bureaucrat. She told the other two kindergarten teachers about Kirby’s threats and called the police.
Three days later, district superintendent Gary Smuts placed Blagden on three months’ administrative leave, citing “poor performance.” Eventually, the district demoted her to a teaching position. Blagden was devastated. “My career was stolen from me,” she says. “They pulled a part of my heart out; physically stabbing me would have hurt less.” With no other recourse, in October 2010, Blagden sued the ABC Unified School District, alleging that her bosses retaliated against her for whistleblowing. She knew that if she won, taxpayers would be forced to pay for the school district’s actions, but she wanted to send a message that protecting people—especially children—was more important than worrying about the image of her school or the district.
In response, the district claimed that Blagden’s demotion had “absolutely nothing to do with her reporting any threatening behavior to the authorities.” Instead, district officials cited “performance issues” from 2008, when they’d called in a coach to aid her with unspecified teachers’ complaints. But according to Blagden, no serious discussions ever took place about her competence or performance as a principal—nothing from the teachers, the coach, or her district superiors.
The judge at the summary hearing appeared to agree with her, declaring that Blagden “has provided evidence that despite being trained to do so, Hansen has no notes describing complaints against [Blagden], and Hansen cannot remember who made the complaints against plaintiff or the conduct that generated the complaints. This evidence raises an inference that the defendant’s claim of receiving complaints against [Blagden] is false.” In the same judgment, the judge raised doubts about the credibility of district officials, indicating that the evidence “supports the argument that [Blagden] was really punished because . . . [Blagden] actually did involve the police against Hansen’s directive not to do so.” The judge pointed out that Blagden “was placed on administrative leave within 72 hours of her reporting to the police that another teacher had made death threats” and even suggested that the district had fabricated evidence against her.
During the depositions, departing superintendent Smuts and deputy superintendent Mary Sieu seemed incapable of giving straight answers. Their evasions made for a stark contrast with the tough and forthright questioning of Blagden’s attorney, Ron Wilson. Sieu’s hemming and hawing for 12 minutes in response to one question—did she have prior knowledge of the 2008 charges against Kevin Kirby?—is downright painful to watch.
Blagden’s trial had been set for October 31, but the school district decided to settle the case first. A confidentiality agreement bars those involved from discussing the terms, but whistleblower Eileen Blagden has resigned from her school and left the district. Crushed and angered by the district’s treatment, she is now unemployed. She knows that because of her demotion, her chances of being offered a principal’s job ever again are slim. Meantime, Carol Hansen remains safely ensconced at her post in the district’s human resources department, Gary Smuts is enjoying his retirement, and Mary Sieu is now superintendent.
Kirby was “publicly reproved” by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing in 2010, and he remains banned from certain parts of Long Beach. He let his teaching credential lapse as of October 1. But thanks to workplace privacy rules, he could conceivably go to work for any private school that will have him (assuming, of course, the private school in question doesn’t know how to use Google). Any prospective employer who requests information about his background will be directed to the ABC School District’s assistant director of human resources, whose response will be “limited to dates of employment, salary placement, and job titles.”
How can someone like Kevin Kirby remain eligible to teach while a devoted and courageous educator like Eileen Blagden sees her career destroyed? To ask the question is to answer it. Until authorities in charge of our public schools put morality above self-interest, children will remain at risk from irresponsible and sometimes even dangerous teachers. And as Blagden’s case shows, children aren’t the only victims.