Teacher investigated for slapping special education students

August 23, 2012 1:47:45 AM PDT
Police say a North Bay school district is not cooperating with its investigation, refusing to turn over the name of a witness who saw a teacher slapping special education students. Willie Swindle has gone from being honored as teacher of the year to being investigated by police for striking students. The ABC7 News I-Team asked district officials why they are not cooperating fully with the police investigation.

In many ways, Michael Delgado is just an average teenager -- he likes music, loves his parents and enjoys going to Santa Rosa High School. He's starting his junior year this week.

Dan Noyes: "Do you like school?"
Michael Delgado: "Yes."
Dan Noyes: "What do you like about school?"
Michael Delgado: "Girls."
Dan Noyes: "You like the girls."

And, like many students, Michael sometimes acts up -- for example, kicking another student or teasing a boy about his name.

"I've called this kid 'Jessica,'" Michael said.

But, the punishment Michael received in his special education class is far from normal. Michael says 67-year-old Willie Swindle took him into the hallway several times last semester for what the teacher called a "pow wow."

Michael Delgado: "He would go..." (smacks his ears)
Dan Noyes: "With both hands."
Michael Delgado: "Yes."
Dan Noyes: "On your ears? On your ears?"
Michael Delgado: "On my ears, he's done it on my face. He's pinched my cheeks."

Michael's parents didn't believe him at first.

"And then he came home a couple days later and said, 'Mom, the teacher is hitting me in the ears, really hard,' going to smack him like that, 'in my ears and it hurts,' and then we started thinking there's something going on," Jeannie Delgado said.

They pressed the school district to investigate. Could it be true? Could the man they named "educator of the year" for 2011 be hitting students? After failing to reach Swindle by phone, the I-Team stopped by his Santa Rosa home.

Dan Noyes: "The family says that you struck Michael."
Willie Swindle: "Yeah."
Dan Noyes: "Is that true?"
Willie Swindle: "No, that was unfounded, they did an investigation."
Dan Noyes: "It was unfounded?"
Willie Swindle: "Yeah."

The I-Team obtained a copy of the district's findings, signed by Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Mark Klick. Witnesses confirm Swindle took Michael into the hallway for "pow wows," but could not see what happened there.

According to the report:

  • "On at least two occasions Mr. Swindle has been observed clapping another student on the ears while he is sitting in his desk."
  • "One witness also reported seeing Mr. Swindle clap Michael on both cheeks with his open palms while they were standing facing each other in the classroom. ... Michael said, 'Ouch', and then no more than five minutes later, Mr. Swindle came back to Michael from behind and slapped his cheeks again."
  • "Witnesses describe seeing Mr. Swindle touch Michael's ears, describing the contact as 'flicking', 'pinching' and 'pulling.'" The teacher asked at one point, "Does this hurt?"
  • "A witness reported seeing Mr. Swindle tickle various students."

Despite those findings, Swindle says he's back teaching the same class, as the school year kicks off this week.

Willie Swindle: "Yeah."
Dan Noyes: "You are, in the same class?"
Willie Swindle: "Yes, yes."

Dan Noyes: "A letter signed by you--"
Mark Klick: "That's right."
Dan Noyes: "--says that he struck two students."
Mark Klick: "That's right."
Dan Noyes: "And had several other incidents where he's pinching, pulling, that sort of thing, hitting kids on the cheeks, slapping their ears together like a thunderclap they call it, how is he allowed back?"
Mark Klick: "OK, you are mixing a lot of different things here, I think I said very--"
Dan Noyes: "It's all in the letter."
Mark Klick: "--very clearly in the letter, so I'm not going to review those types of documents on the air with you here."

Klick wrote to the parents, "... rules of confidentiality of employee records do not permit me to identify the action taken, although I can assure you that action was taken and that there should not be a recurrence of this incident."

But that's not enough for the Delgados; they say the teacher's actions left a lasting mark on their son.

"When you go up to give him a hug or whatever because of the teacher smacking him, he jerks, like that," Jeannie Delgado said.

Dan Noyes: "Are you satisfied with the response by the school district?"
Manuel Delgado: "No, sir."
Dan Noyes: "Why not?"
Manuel Delgado: "Because this is a crime."

The Delgados contacted police, who say their investigation is stalled because the school district refuses to turn over the name of a key witness -- an adult staff member who saw swindle striking students.

"The school conducted a personnel investigation and they will not provide that information to us," Santa Rosa Police Lt. Ben Harlin said.

Dan Noyes: "The police tell me you didn't provide this information to them, why not?"
Mark Klick: "I don't know what the police told you, Dan, to be quite honest."
Dan Noyes: "Well, it's going to be on TV, I'll show you on TV, I'm happy to tell you right now what they said."
Mark Klick: "We have fulfilled our disclosure requirements."

"Just because he and the district may have the right to do this, doesn't mean it's the right thing to do," school security expert Gregory Thomas said.

Thomas is former security chief for New York City public schools, the largest district in the country with 1 million students. He says Santa Rosa authorities should force the district's hand and subpoena the name of the witness and that it's against the law for a teacher to strike a child as discipline. He says returning swindle to the same class could traumatize the students.

"They're very impressionable and by having a student in a classroom with a teacher who had a propensity and a past of doing these things, it would have a chilling effect on their behavior, on their rights to report it," Thomas said.

Thomas says it also sets the district up for lawsuits, if Swindle strikes a student again. The I-Team spoke with an assistant in that class who says Swindle is a patient, kind teacher. She says she has never seen him strike a student.

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