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February 6, 2009 (La Mesa) Did administrators at Helix Charter High School respond appropriately to four incidents of sexual abuse and misconduct involving teachers and students and has enough been done to prevent similar problems in the future? The Grossmont Union-High School Governing Board will consider these questions and review conflicting findings from two reports in closed session followed by open public testimony at the February 12 GUHSD Board meeting.

Helix Charter High School has issued a scathing response accusing the District of issuing a report riddled with falsehoods and bias regarding school administrator's handling of four sexual abuse and sexual misconduct cases involving teachers and students. Simply stated, the facts do not support ESI's unqualified and contemptible conclusions, states the Helix response, released February 3rd.

The GUHSD report, issued January 16 based on investigation by ESI International, Inc, accused Helix administrators of failing to cooperative with the district's investigator, not complying with mandating reporting laws, not taking adequate steps to prevent further abuse, and creating a climate in which educators at Helix who were disposed to this type of criminal activity were likely boosted by the Helix response, because they could assume that the chances of their illegal activity being exposed were lessened, and the chances of them facing significant punishment if exposed were slight. (District report; GUHSD media statement.)

The students involved remained at Helix and have since graduated. All teachers involved have been arrested and convicted. The GUHSD report included lurid details of the sex scandals, ranging from a teacher and student having sex in the band room to sexually suggestive photos of a student posted on a teacher's computer. In a media release, GUHSD board president Robert Shield stated, "These are serious issues that have been identified at Helix Charter High School that require thoughtful deliberation. The Board is committed to handling this issue in a transparent manner while respecting the privacy of the staff and students at Helix."

The GUHSD district office and Supervisor declined requests from East County Magazine for interviews and for information on how much money was paid for the report and what criteria the district used to select ECI. The board does not want to talk it about now, because they are going to be addressing it at the February 12th board meeting, said district spokesperson Tracy McDonald.

EMI International, a San Diego-based private investigative firm, was hired by Stutz, Artiano, Shinoff and Holtz, the law firm that represents the GUHSD, attorney Dan Shinoff has confirmed. Asked how the company was selected, he told East County Magazine, "I've worked with Mr. Price in the past. He is a former FBI agent and he has excellent credentials." Robert Price conducted the investigation and also authored the report, Shinoff confirmed.

Helix Charter Board Chair Cathy Smith offered this assessment of the GUHSD report. "My opinion as a member of the community is that it is a direct attack on Dr. Smith, she said, referring to Doug Smith, former principal and current executive director at Helix. "A member of the board wants to revoke the charter, even though all data shows kids are succeeding at a much higher rate than the district."

She alluded to a press conference held by GUHSD board member Jim Kelly prior to the November school board elections, in which Kelly accused two fellow board members of covering up additional allegations of sexual abuse beyond the four that have resulted in convictions. La Mesa Police disputed Kelly's assertions as false and even the ESI report critical of Helix on other matters makes no mention of additional teacher-student sexual abuse or misconduct complaints. The bogus press conference before the election was a direct attack on Dr. Smith and two board members, but when La Mesa Police investigated these other issues, nothing came to light, she said.

Cathy Smith defended both the GUHSD board and Helix for responding to the sex scandals appropriately. "I think we did everything within the letter of the law and then some, she said. Our first goal is to protect the children of this high and in no way is, or was, there a culture on this campus as the report implies. What Helix has done since the very first incident is a model. We've looked across the country to see what other schools and districts have in place."

Executive Director Doug Smith also defended the school's record. "Certainly we believe that Helix did everything possible in a timely way in conjunction with these incidents", he said. "As we have said, what these people did was horrible. We dealt with them forthrightly, very timely, very transparently in all cases." He added, "We've taken extraordinary steps to work with a national ethics firm to explore this issue and issue policy and practice that is above and beyond other schools. This report does not accurately characterize what Helix did and has been doing in response to these incidents.

The National Institute of Ethics (NIE) is a Congressional award-winning nonprofit organization that has been hired by 12 state governments as a provider of ethics training. An NIE Report of Findings does not conclude that Helix failed to comply with any laws nor does it conclude that Helix has created a culture for enabling sexual misconduct, the Helix response states. Instead, the NIE findings are supportive of Helix administration and their actions. NIE concludes that these four incidents were not the result of a systematic failure of policy or procedures of Helix.

Helix has become the first public or charter school in California to implement a new policy that includes training for all employees, formation of an ethics team to monitor policies and training, and implementation of NIE recommended standards for hiring, discipline and training of all employees. As a result, Helix will be awarded NIE's first charter school Certificate of Integrity, according to the Helix response. Helix was cleared of wrongdoing by the GUHSD superintendent and attorney prior to publication of the January report, the Helix response adds.

The Helix response criticizes ESI's investigator Robert Price as unqualified and lacking impartiality. A prior ESI investigation was used to revoke the charter of another charter school, the response notes.

According to Helix, Price received over 80 names of former Helix employees provided by the district. Amazingly, when the investigation into 80 separated employees from Helix did not produce the results sought by Mr. Price, the Helix response said, Mr. Price thereafter ground its conclusions in the comments of a small unspecified (and unknown) group of separated Helix employees not reported by the district. The report adds, "Clearly Mr. Price has discounted and omitted any positive comments about the Principal or Helix from his Report despite receiving many such statements." Multiple witnesses contracted by Price called Smith and complained that questions asked appeared to be aimed at finding fault; 2 witnesses told the Helix principal that "The investigator was clearly out to get you", the Helix response states.

The ESI report also fails to list corrective actions taken by Helix after the first incident, including meetings at which staff was encouraged to be vigilant in reporting possible educator sexual abuse/misconduct and told that the school would investigate any such reports and terminate employees for such conduct. Other steps included involvement of social workers, counselors, contacts to parents and more. Why is all of this material information absent from Mr. Price's report? The Helix document asks.

As for allegations that state reporting requirements were not met, Helix maintains that police were notified the same day that the Principal was made aware of the first reported case of sexual abuse/misconduct. The school's response did not encourage future sexual misconduct, Helix argues, because the other case in question was an incident that occurred earlier, but was not brought to the school's attention until after the first incident and the teacher was no longer employed at Helix. The school's reporting of two other incidents was not in question in the District report.
Shinoff stood behind the report. "I don't think that is accurate at all", he said when asked about allegations by Helix of bias and omission of facts favorable to Smith. "Quite frankly, Helix from the very inception of the investigation took exception to our investigator talking to their staff." He added, "Absolutely he was never told by us or by the Superintendent or by anybody to come to any specific conclusion. I did not conduct the investigation; these are his findings...I feel quite confident that he was doing his very best for it to be a fair and balanced investigation."

The problems at Helix also raise the question of whether the District provided adequate oversight and whether the fact that Helix is a charter school may have made providing adequate oversight more difficult.

"One thing I can tell you as a former school board member is that Helix is a charter school, and that the District does not have as much influence as they would if it was a regular school", said George Gastil, former Lemon Grove School Board member and current Lemon Grove Councilman.

A parent, who asked that his name not be published, offered this observation. The combination of Helix being run by the faculty and being an academic pressure cooker contributed to a climate in which inappropriate faculty behavior was more likely to be tolerated as long as it did not interfere with academics.

Doug Deane, chair of the San Diego East County Chamber of Commerce Education Committee, called the initial report by EMI unfortunate timing for the District and for Superintendent Collins, but noted that the alleged abuse did not occur on Collins' watch. It is still a question whether or not this alleged misconduct poses a serious liability issue for the District.

After reviewing the Helix response, Deane offered this perspective. "It's very tough for me, as an outsider, to know whose perspective on this is right. What I do know is that ESI was hired by the district, and presumably vetted by the District", he noted. "The GUHSD must either accept ESI's findings which are not supportive of Helix's actions, or admit that ESI came up short and try it again. Either way, it's a problem for the District."
Deane concluded, "Everyone in the East County hopes that the GUHSD Governing Board will take quick and effective action in order to minimize the possibility of something like this happening in the future. If the Board agrees that the investigative report has inconsistencies or factual errors, then I would encourage the Board to re-open the investigation using a different provider."

The February 12 GUHSD board meeting will be held at the East County Regional Education Center, 924 East Main Street in El Cajon. The public portion of the session will begin at 6 p.m.

"It should be a barn-burner", Deane predicted.

An earlier version of this report incorrectly attributed quotes by Cathy Smith to former board member Larry Urdahl, due to an editing mistake. We regret this error.

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