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Fired Santa Barbara School District Teacher Vindicated In Court

A state appeals court rejects the district's arguments that a Dos Pueblos and Santa Barbara High teacher's conduct and classroom actions are firing offenses. Attorney's fees ordered reimbursed.

In a blow to the Santa Barbara School District and a vindication for a teacher it sought to fire, the state Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld a legal ruling in favor of a high school teacher who was fired based on accusations that he issued physical threats, made sexually inappropriate comments, used inappropriate physical force and swore when dealing with various students in separate incidents.

Matef Harmachis
Matef Harmachis
The saga began with a highly publicized incident in June 2004, when twin brothers accused the teacher, Matef Harmachis, of making anti-Semitic comments and forcibly removing one of them from a classroom at Dos Pueblos High. After that confrontation, more accusations from separate incidents followed.

The courts found the school district’s allegations against Harmachis to be unpersuasive, however, and are ordering reimbursement of his attorneys’ fees. It also appears to mean that Harmachis must be reinstated, although Tuesday’s ruling by Division 6 of the Second District Court of Appeal didn’t make that clear. Harmachis has been on paid administrative leave for more than four years.

“In general, Harmachis presents no danger to his students, and is a relatively new teacher who acknowledges his misconduct,” according to the ruling. “In addition, he is a popular, spirited teacher who involves students in the learning process, and his motivation was to advance the learning experience.”

The appellate court ruling upheld two earlier decisions, and so was the third to be handed down in favor of the 52-year-old teacher. The first was the ruling of an administrative law panel called the Commission on Professional Competence in the spring of 2006. The second was the upholding of that decision by Superior Court Judge James Brown a year later.

Tuesday’s ruling essentially held the administrative law panel’s following summation: “Harmachis engaged in unprofessional conduct, but remained fit to teach.”

“We conclude that, although reasonable minds may differ as to whether conduct by Harmachis was sufficiently egregious to warrant dismissal, the CPC and trial court did not abuse their discretion,” Tuesday’s ruling concluded.

As a result of the decision, the school district must repay Harmachis’ legal fees, which were covered by the California Teachers Association. During his administrative leave, Harmachis has been receiving his salary — now nearly $60,000 — and benefits ever since 2004.

Reached Tuesday, Santa Barbara schools Superintendent Brian Sarvis said he stands by the decision to fire Harmachis.

“We don’t think he should be in the classroom,” he said. “We think it’s detrimental to students.”

However, Sarvis said he does not think the district will pursue further appeals.

“I think that’s really the end of the trial,” he said.

Reached by telephone at home, Harmachis said he was happy with the verdict, although not surprised. He also owned up to making some mistakes.

“Did I try to embarrass some people in class? Was that a mistake? Yes,” he said. “Personally, I’d never really spent a lot of time trying to learn classroom management. Clearly I learned my lesson. I have invested quite a bit of time reading, going to seminars, trying to pick up new tools on classroom management. ... Let’s remember I only taught four years. In my head, I’m still a beginner.”

In June 2004, the brothers in the Dos Pueblos incident — neither of whom were students of the school at the time — had walked into Harmachis’ classroom to visit a friend who was in the history class. One of the twins wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the insignia of the Israeli Police Department.

Harmachis — who was known as an advocate for the left and a critic of Israel’s policies in the Middle East — claimed the shirt also bore the image of a gun, which he thought violated school policy. (The twins have denied the T-shirt depicted a gun.)

In any event, Harmachis told the boy to turn the shirt inside out or leave the room, and the boy refused.

The twins claimed he used excessive force in removing the boy with the shirt from the classroom; Harmachis said he directed the teenager out of the class by placing a hand on his arm.

A few months after the incident, district officials put Harmachis on paid administrative leave while they investigated the complaint. In January 2005, administrators reassigned Harmachis to teach at Santa Barbara High.

A month or two into his new job, Harmachis got into another confrontation with a student, this one involving the use of a cell phone in class, which is against school policy. In this instance, when Harmachis saw a female student talking on the phone, she handed it to the owner, a male student. When Harmachis asked the male student to hand over the phone, the boy placed it in his shirt pocket. After Harmachis made a few more requests for the phone, the boy stated that Harmachis could not touch him, to which Harmachis replied, “Touch you? I’ll knock your dumb ass out.”

The incident was reported, and again, Harmachis was placed on paid administrative leave — where he has remained ever since — while an investigation ensued. Then, during the course of the inquiry, the investigator turned up a third, unrelated charge: a girl said Harmachis had made inappropriate sexual comments to her and others in front of friends.

For instance, on one occasion, when the girl was violating school rules by eating in class, Harmachis stated, “Just because you’re good in bed doesn’t mean you can eat in class.” On another occasion, according to court documents, Harmachis used a sexual vulgarity in telling two girls that performing the act with their boyfriends would “prevent them from reaching their goals.”

Not long after the cell-phone incident and ensuing investigation, the school board voted to fire Harmachis.

But the courts, in essence, decided that the charges against Harmachis were trumped up. Based on the review of witness testimonies during a nine-day administrative law hearing in 2006, the courts concluded that although Harmachis “overreacted” in the T-shirt incident, he did not make anti-Semitic comments, or use excessive force in escorting one of the teenagers out of his classroom. Furthermore, the decision notes that the boys were not members of the class, and that one of them had defied Harmachis’ authority in refusing to leave.

Tuesday’s decision also notes that the boy with whom Harmachis got into the cell-phone dispute later testified that the incident was “no big deal.”

“(Harmachis’) overreaction in both the T-shirt and cell phone incidents was mitigated by Harmachis’ desire to maintain classroom control in the face of repeated challenges to his authority,” the ruling said.

As for the “threatening language” used during incidents such as the cell-phone confrontation, the court said there is evidence that the choice of words amounted to “no more than verbal hyperbole.”

The decision also noted that the girl who testified that Harmachis had made sexually inappropriate comments refused to make a complaint. Although she testified that the comments made her feel “weird and a little embarrassed,” she also said the comments “didn’t upset me,” according to court documents.

“The sexual comments are likely to have had an adverse impact on students,” Tuesday’s ruling said, “but Harmachis did not have improper or sexual motivations and sought to achieve class goals or to counsel students about life choices.”

In legal language, the district sought to dismiss Harmachis on the grounds of immoral conduct, unprofessional conduct, dishonesty, evident unfitness for service, and persistent violation of the state school laws and regulations.

Harmachis’ attorney, Bob Bartosh, could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

Although the estimated legal costs weren’t available Tuesday, as early as the summer of 2007, Bartosh told the now-defunct Santa Barbara Newsroom that he was owed $237,000. At the time, Sarvis estimated the district’s legal fees had reached $200,000.

Click here for a copy of the appellate court ruling.

Write to [email protected]

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