BRENTWOOD -- School administrators and their attorney say they were unable to fire a teacher convicted of child abuse, but parents are crying foul.
A Brentwood Union School District attorney told parents at Wednesday night's heated school board meeting that special needs teacher Dina Holder could not be terminated simply for kicking one of her young students at Loma Vista Elementary because the education code tied their hands from pursuing dismissal.
But parents are unsatisfied with that explanation, and an attorney who works with many school districts said a misdemeanor conviction for child abuse is "sufficient grounds" for firing a tenured teacher. And it turns out that what may have prevented the district from firing Holder, 52, was an administrative gaffe. Testimony from depositions in a civil case revealed the district failed to give Holder her 2010 teacher evaluation; such a misstep could doom a dismissal of this type, said attorney and teacher dismissal expert Robert Henry. He spoke hypothetically and without direct information about the Brentwood case.
"That is a real high hurdle to get over," he said.
A felony conviction is automatic grounds to start the dismissal process for a tenured teacher, but a misdemeanor is sufficient only if it involves "moral turpitude," according to the state education code. Henry, who represents school districts across the state, said a child abuse conviction committed on a teacher's own student would likely reach the threshold to pursue a dismissal, but the outcome would not be guaranteed.
"It would not be an open-and-shut case. It would be an issue reasonable lawyers would argue," he said.
The missing evaluation is the latest revelation in the growing scandal over the Brentwood district's initial decision to transfer Holder to another teaching job at a different school rather than fire her. Two weeks ago, the district agreed to settle with the boy's family for $950,000 and remove Holder from the classroom.
At the first school board meeting since the settlement was announced, parents -- many of whom have special needs children who attended Holder's class -- hurled cat calls at board members, shouted at Superintendent Merrill Grant and called for all administrators to be fired.
Laurie Juengert, an attorney representing the Brentwood district, walked parents through a PowerPoint presentation illustrating the pitfalls of firing a tenured teacher. She encouraged angry parents to lobby for change in state tenure law, calling it "arcane."
She told parents the education code prevented the district from dismissing Holder, echoing Grant's earlier comments in which he apologized for the kicking incident and said the district's hands were tied by "legal limitations."
Grant did not speak Wednesday, even though parents bombarded him with questions. Juengert and board members periodically told parents they could not speak specifically about Holder's case, citing personnel confidentiality rules. That did little to quell the anger.
One parent asked Juengert why Holder was not simply handed a desk job once the kicking incident came to light. Juengert responded that Los Angeles and New York school districts have been "skewered" for their infamous "rubber rooms," district facilities where teachers remain, out of their classrooms, while being investigated for possible dismissal.
"They have the rooms where teachers are doing nothing all day long and getting paid for it year after year after year," she said. "That's not a solution."
Yolanda Jackson's daughter has Down Syndrome and was in Holder's class when the kicking incident happened but said she was never told about it. At one point that year, she said, her daughter was found by another parent wandering the school parking lot while under Holder's watch.
"Why didn't I get an opportunity or a chance to have my voice heard ... about my child being put at risk again by this teacher?" she said as her daughter tugged at her shirt. "I got no notification."
Not discussed Wednesday was deposition testimony that revealed the district failed to perform a 2010 performance review for Holder, who was supposed to have a review every two years.
"I just wondered why -- you know, why I never got evaluated and then ... it was brought up that they didn't know who was supposed to be evaluating me," Holder testified.
About a week after the young student was kicked in 2010, Assistant Superintendent Margaret Kruse gave Holder a Notice of Unprofessional Conduct and at the same time asked her to sign a form acknowledging she would be evaluated every five years, not every two. That longer interval is generally reserved for the best teachers, according to Brentwood school policy. District officials have not explained those actions.
Without mentioning the missed evaluation, Kruse testified that she believed the district did not have "sufficient documented grounds to succeed in a dismissal case."
New Brentwood trustee Jim Cushing said: "It is clear that we have a major problem that needs to be solved. I'm going to work as hard as I can with the board to get this fixed."
The board will hold a special meeting Tuesday at 4 p.m. and its next regular meeting is scheduled for Feb. 13 at 7 p.m.
Staff writer Paula King contributed to this report. Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.