Published Online: January 19, 2005
Published in Print: January 19, 2005, as Teacher’s Arrest Imperils Charter School

Teacher’s Arrest Imperils Charter School

Orange, Calif., Board Considering Revoking School’s Agreement

A school board in California is considering revoking the quasi- independent status of a charter school that employed a teacher who is charged with having sex with two 13-year-old students.

Educators at Santiago Charter Middle School, in Orange, Calif., were still reeling from the shock of the Jan. 4 arrest of Sarah Bench-Salorio when they learned that the Orange Unified School District board, which granted the school’s charter in 1995, was considering revoking it because of concerns for the safety of its students.

Lawyer Allan Stokke, left, talks to Sarah Bench-Salorio, 28.
Lawyer Allan Stokke, left, talks to Sarah Bench-Salorio, 28, an English teacher at Santiago Charter Middle School in Orange, Calif., charged with lewd acts upon a child.
—Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times

The board of the 32,000-student district southeast of Los Angeles is scheduled to discuss the matter at its Jan. 20 meeting.

Ms. Bench-Salorio, 28, was expected to plead not guilty at a court appearance Jan. 14, her lawyer said. The second-year English teacher is charged with 20 counts of lewd acts upon a child, stemming from alleged sexual relationships with two of her male students in 2003 and 2004.

Ms. Bench-Salorio has been placed on unpaid leave and notified that her contract would not be renewed for the next school year.

Unique Situation

If Santiago loses its charter because of the teacher’s alleged criminal conduct, it would mark the first time a charter school has lost its status for such a reason, national charter observers say.

Of all the charter schools that have opened since the movement began in 1991, 9 percent—about 340 schools—have closed, said Anna Varghese, the vice president for external affairs at the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based charter research and advocacy group that has tracked such closures. Academic, financial, or management problems have prompted those closures, she said.

Orange Unified Superintendent Robert L. French said there is a question about whether, as the chartering entity, his school board is liable for a teacher’s actions, or whether such responsibility lies solely with the board that operates Santiago.

In addition, he believes that the charter school’s relative independence leaves him only one tool in managing it: deciding its charter status. To minimize its liability, as well as ensure students’ safety, the district must reconsider the school’s charter status, he said.

“If it comes to our knowledge there are problems in the school, the only thing to really reduce the liability of the Orange Unified school board is to rescind the charter,” he said.

If Santiago’s charter is revoked, it would revert to its original status as a regular public middle school, Mr. French said.

Kathy Moffat, the president of the district school board, emphasized last week that no such decision had been made. She said the board was gathering information.

Gary L. Larson, the spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group representing 70 percent of the state’s 512 charter schools, disagreed with Mr. French’s view that the only way for the Orange Unified board to deal with a problem teacher at Santiago is to change the school’s charter status. He noted that Santiago is a “dependent” charter school, a legal status that gives the Orange Unified school board more power over it than if it were an “independent” charter school.

He believes the district’s actions are political and said it “still has egg on its face” from a controversy about the California Charter Academy, another charter school authorized in part by the Orange Unified board, and operating in multiple locations around the state. It closed last year amid questions about its enrollment practices. ("Calif. Charter Failure Affects 10,000 Students," Sept. 1, 2004.)

Mr. Larson and Santiago advocates wondered why the school’s charter would be reconsidered when action has already been taken against the teacher, and even district leaders acknowledge the school performs well academically.

“When something like this happens, you don’t shut down the school and punish all the rest of the teaching staff and students benefiting from the school. You fire the teacher,” Mr. Larson said. “It’s that simple.”

‘Totally Bogus’

“The reason they’re citing, that it’s about this teacher, is totally bogus,” said Anna Marie Debski, a Santiago parent and one of its board members. “We voted to not renew her contract.”

Fellow board member and Santiago parent Beverly Deshetler said she was “at a loss” to understand the district board’s move to reconsider the charter.

Superintendent French dismissed as unfounded contentions by some community members that the district wants to revoke Santiago’s charter so it can strengthen its own financial position by retaining the state funding that flows to its charter schools.

Both Mr. French and Ms. Moffat said the district was looking into personnel issues at the school that go beyond Ms. Bench-Salorio, but they declined to provide details. Ms. Deshetler and Ms. Debski said they were unaware of any other personnel problems at the school. Santiago’s principal did not return several calls for comment.

Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, praised the Orange Unified district for taking swift action to investigate the school’s operation, a move she cited as evidence of strong accountability. “It’s hard to overreact in a situation like this,” she said.

But if it turns out that wrongdoing is confined to a single teacher, she said, revoking the school’s charter would constitute letting “one bad apple spoil the whole bunch.”

Vol. 24, Issue 19, Page 3

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