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Tuesday, January 22 , 2019, 10:18 pm | Fair 45º


Fired Teacher Returning to the Classroom at Santa Barbara High

Matef Harmachis is ordered reinstated after a five-year legal battle with the school district over accusations of physical threats and inappropriate language toward students

The Santa Barbara School District spent about $1 million trying to fire high school teacher Matef Harmachis. It failed. This fall, after five years of bitter legal wrangling, he’ll return to the classroom at Santa Barbara High School.

Harmachis, 52, was accused by district officials of issuing physical threats, making sexually inappropriate comments, using inappropriate physical force and swearing when dealing with various students in separate incidents.

To some, the Harmachis case shows that the district was overzealous in its quest to get the teacher fired. To others, it underscores how difficult it is to fire a teacher in California.

In any event, Harmachis’ reinstatement comes with an awkward complication: It means another teacher must go. In this case, the displaced teacher might turn out to be among the school’s most popular.

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

But in the spring of 2006, an administrative law panel found the district’s evidence to be unpersuasive, and overturned the firing. The school district appealed twice — once to the Santa Barbara County Superior Court, and once to the state Court of Appeals. The district lost both times. The courts ordered Harmachis reinstated, and his attorneys’ fees reimbursed.

On Aug. 24 — the first day of school — the saga will come to an end, and Harmachis’ career will begin anew.

“I’m very excited to go back,” Harmachis told Noozhawk. “I’m looking forward to it.”

He said he doesn’t know exactly what he’ll teach, but it will probably be U.S. history, world history, government or economics.

Meanwhile, Harmachis’s victory could be another teacher’s loss.

On Monday, parent Ken Rotman told Noozhawk that the ousted instructor will be Mike Moyer, a well-liked history teacher and the school’s mock-trial coach. (Moyer declined to comment for the story through a spokesperson, citing a reluctance to ruffle the feathers of administrators who may hold the key to his fate.) Rotman, a volunteer assistant coach for the mock-trial team, said Moyer was hired as a temporary replacement for Harmachis four years ago, and is lowest on the seniority list of the school’s faculty.

He credits Moyer for single-handedly breathing life back into a program that four years ago was all but dead.

“We have made it to the final four in the county the last two years,” said Rotman, adding that he has heard firsthand from Moyer that he is out of a job and searching for a new one. “We used to be a noncompetitive team. ... I would 100 percent attribute it to him.”

Superintendent Brian Sarvis said he isn’t sure whether Harmachis will replace Moyer, but added that it could be true.

Sarvis, who in the past has gone on record saying he believed Harmachis was “a detriment to students,” on Monday declined to comment on Harmachis’ ability to teach, or the specifics of the case.

“I do expect that Mr. Harmachis will conduct himself professionally and interact with students appropriately,” he said. “I’m looking forward to a successful year.”

Sarvis added that the nearly $1 million the district spent on the case includes the $60,000-a-year salary Harmachis drew while on paid administrative leave.

As for Harmachis, he said the case never would have reached the point it did had some of his accusers been honest.

“My parents told me when I was a child, ‘The truth will out,’” he said. “It’s a message of ‘Just do the right thing, and tell the truth.’ People should have listened to these things as children. ... Sometimes we forget those basic principles we all should follow.”

He added: “Anyone can read the decisions of the three independent courts that said I was the only credible witness.”

As a teacher, Harmachis was popular and known for fostering impassioned classroom debates. During the hearings, even Sarvis admitted he believed Harmachis to be a “spirited teacher.” At the end of the semester in election years, Harmachis would bring voter-registration forms to class, in an effort to encourage older students to get involved in civic matters.

During the proceedings, Harmarchis’ attorneys presented the panel — known as the Commission on Professional Competence — with a favorable job-performance review written by former Dos Pueblos principal Dave Cash, who testified against Harmachis.

“I appreciate your willingness to engage the students in a consistent critical analysis of history and current events,” Cash had written.

At the hearing, Cash testified that Harmachis seemed to want to “fool” the school district into granting him tenure — a status public school teachers receive after two years on the job that makes it more difficult to fire them. During those first two years, he said, Harmachis dressed conventionally. In the third year, Cash said, Harmachis began to sport African apparel.

Harmachis also was openly critical of some of Israel’s policies in Palestine, which may have set the stage for the initial explosion.

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 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. According to court documents, 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 said that Harmachis could not touch him, to which Harmachis replied, “Touch you? I’ll knock your dumb a** out.”

The incident was reported, and again, Harmachis was placed on paid administrative leave — where he has remained 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.

On one occasion, when the girl was violating school rules by eating in class, Harmachis allegedly 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.

In addition, the January decision from the state Court of Appeals 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,” the January 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.

Meanwhile, Rotman — the parent at Santa Barbara High — said he has no way of knowing whether Harmachis is a good teacher, but added the school will miss out if Moyer has to go.

Rotman said Harmachis’ termination in 2005 left the school without a mock-trial coach. Rotman, a cell phone-marketing entrepreneur by trade, had been on the debate team in high school, and decided to fill in as the Santa Barbara High team’s part-time adviser to help it stay alive.

“It might as well have been a full-blown student organization,” he said. “There was no coaching, no anything.”

In 2005-06, he said, Moyer was hired on a temporary basis to fill in for Harmachis. He hit the ground running, recruiting teammates and arranging for scrimmages with championship teams from Los Angeles County, Ventura County and Simi Valley, Rotman said.

Moyer recruited a dozen or more lawyers in town to act as judges for competitions on weekends. He organized the fundraisers, held pizza parties, booked the Santa Barbara County Courthouse for weekend tournaments and e-mailed parents.

“Mike Moyer would do all of that stuff, and the kids were able to flourish,” Rotman said.

He added that Moyer was paid a stipend of $1,000 for his services as a coach. “It probably came out to about a dollar an hour,” he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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