Acquitted but punished anyway
Revocation of the teaching credential of Marsh teacher acquitted of molest charge offers closure to long ordeal
When the Chico Enterprise-Record reported, on Feb. 24, 2011, that former Marsh Junior High School teacher Michael Sullivan was about to go on trial for allegedly molesting two female students, a number of people made online comments in his defense.
Writers heaped scorn upon the administration of the Chico Unified School District, as well as upon one of the teenage girls who came forward with accusations against Sullivan (go to http://tinyurl.com/topixsull to read all the comments).
“Chico Unified is a joke!” writes one respondent. “Run the good, honest teachers out of Chico, and keep the dishonest, lousy teachers…” “There is no evidence in this case from what I can ascertain,” says another. “Obviously, junior high school students are a bunch of brats and the worst bunch of kids to teach! … This is the kind of stuff that clogs the criminal justice system and keeps DAs, judges and attorneys employed.”
Yet another, who is identified as “Marsh Mom,” writes: “My daughter went to Marsh. Last year she came home and told me the story. The teacher is being thrown under the bus for grabbing a girl’s cell phone, who was being totally disrespectful and disruptive in class. What is her punishment?”
And, indeed, in October 2011 Sullivan was acquitted on a misdemeanor charge of annoying or molesting a child. Court records, however, offer a somewhat different take on the case, and may explain why the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) recently revoked Sullivan’s teaching credential.
The CTC’s revocation provides closure to a series of sometimes disconcerting events that began with Sullivan’s being suspended and placed on paid administrative leave (and later, unpaid leave) from the CUSD in December 2009 after being accused of inappropriately touching two of his female students.
Despite his subsequent acquittal, Sullivan, who taught eighth-grade history, was let go based on “immoral conduct and/or evident unfitness,” charges court documents obtained recently from the Chico branch of the Butte County Superior Court appear to validate.
According to an official narrative of the events of Dec. 10, 2009—the day after Sullivan’s alleged misconduct toward one of the girls in his class—the girl was in a Marsh counselor’s office, upset “about an incident that happened with Mr. Sullivan the previous day.” A Dec. 10 letter from the counselor to Marsh officials describes Sullivan allegedly stroking the 14-year-old student’s neck and ear as she sat in a computer-desk chair, which was not her assigned desk chair. “He allegedly then asked her if she sat in that chair so that he could sit on her lap,” the letter continues.
A formal complaint dated Dec. 11 from a parent of the girl states that while she was “sitting in a computer chair in Mr. Sullivan’s classroom he held her hand, touched her ear and neck and told her to stop flirting with him, that she was a ‘dirty girl.’ He also pulled her out of her chair with his hands on her waist.”
“A few months ago, he asked me to take my phone out of my pocket,” begins an official statement made by another eighth-grade girl—the one whose cell phone Sullivan allegedly grabbed. “I did and then he grabbed it and he started looking through it. I don’t know what he was looking for, but when I tried to grab it, he again grabbed my arm. But this time my arm turned bright red, and had white spots from where his fingers had been.” This same student also writes of being told by Sullivan, “I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying this, but you are a very pretty girl.”
“He said that I look really mature for my age,” she continues, “and that 18-year-old boys would be looking at me, and that I should be careful. He said that when I was 18 I would know better, and know what to do with them. … And he said that ‘no one needs to know about our conversation.’”
A Dec. 17, 2009, letter from Marsh attendance and counseling secretary Claudia Robbins states that Robbins “received a call from Mr. Sullivan at the office of Marsh Junior High today. … He made a request for me to give him the home address for [the student of the cell-phone incident]. I told him I would not be able to give out that information.”
In the CUSD document, dated Oct. 14, 2011, recommending Sullivan’s termination to the CUSD Board of Trustees, examples of “inappropriate conduct” with four different teenage female students are cited, including the two mentioned above. Allegedly, Sullivan offered to take one student “on a trip in [his] sports car up Old Humboldt Road” and told her not tell anyone about his offer. This same student complained that Sullivan sat in her lap while she was working on a computer, and when she told him to move, he refused.
Another student in one of Sullivan’s history classes allegedly was told by him that he would like to marry her and “would like to see her in a French maid’s costume.”
“My comment would be that we are all working—including Mr. Sullivan, I think—to put this behind us. He and we all want to put this behind us,” said Bob Feaster, assistant superintendent for the CUSD, by phone recently. “I am not going to get into legal issues, who was right and who was wrong.”
The revocation of Sullivan’s credential, Feaster said, “had some meaning to the girls involved. It brings a small bit of closure to the whole incident. That’s about it.
“We [the CUSD] weren’t very involved in the revocation. I think that was initiated by a parent. We cooperated with the CTC when they requested information, and certainly provided information that was requested. The revocation issue wasn’t really our doing.”
Feaster added that he had heard that “a few of the girls [involved] said they were pleased [with the revocation of Sullivan’s credential]. Ultimately, their goal, if they could get anything out of this, was that he not teach again.” The revocation of Sullivan’s credential, said Feaster, makes it so that “he cannot teach—at least in public schools—again,”
Attorneys with the Sacramento-based law office of Langenkamp, Curtis & Price representing Sullivan declined to comment on the case.