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A position of trust

KJZZ and The Arizona Republic have spent months investigating Arizona teacher sexual misconduct. Reporters Mariana Dale and Lily Altavena looked at hundreds of cases where teachers abused a position of trust and were disciplined as a result. The reporting reveals how weaknesses in the system can allow educators accused of misconduct back into the classroom.

Teachers accused of sexual misconduct are investigated, but Arizona falls short in protecting kids

'A Position Of Trust,' Part 1: Sexual Misconduct Claims Dominate Arizona Teacher Investigations
'A Position Of Trust,' Part 2: Uncertified Educators Slip Through Loopholes
'A Position Of Trust,' Part 3: When Rumors Are Ignored
'A Position Of Trust,' Part 4: Halting Attempts To Find Solutions

Nearly 20 years ago, a Phoenix third-grader said elementary school teacher Jose Mada lifted her shirt above her chest and placed a hand on her stomach.

It took almost a decade and another set of students to come forward before he would leave the classroom. He was sent to prison for abusing a young girl he didn't teach — but never was charged for what may have transpired at school.

It has been nearly a decade since a teenage girl testified in court that Joseph Massey, her track coach at a Tucson middle school, lured her into sex acts on school grounds when she was 15.

A jury acquitted Massey. In the years after the trial, he groped at least three students at the charter schools that hired him, court records show, before he was again charged — and this time convicted.

And it has been three years since police first started investigating Alan Grantham, a former Mesa teacher, after a former student alleged he drew her into a yearslong sexual entanglement while she was in high school.

He resigned after the district alleged misconduct, but he has never been criminally charged. The county attorney declined to prosecute, citing "no reasonable likelihood of conviction."

The chaos of that relationship has followed the student into adulthood. He still texts her. Over and over. One-word messages like "Sleepover?" invade her phone’s home screen.

Arizona has about 55,000 certified, working teachers. Every year, about 40 teachers are disciplined by the Arizona State Board of Education or surrender their teaching certificate after allegations of sexual misconduct.

→ SEARCH DATABASE: Teachers investigated for sexual misconduct since 2015

Arizona Department of Education building
Mariana Dale/KJZZ
Arizona Department of Education building in downtown Phoenix.

KJZZ and The Arizona Republic together reviewed more than 180 allegations of teacher sexual misconduct from the past four years investigated by the Arizona Department of Education.

The cases encompassed a range of offenses, raising questions about oversight and children's safety.

One teacher inadvertently displayed, on a Smartboard where students could see, sexually explicit Facebook posts between himself and another adult. Some teachers sent students sexually explicit texts. Some were caught viewing pornography on district-issued computers.

And dozens were accused of molesting or inappropriately touching children.

The data showed that sometimes the system works: Misconduct is reported to the proper channels, it's investigated, teachers receive their due process, and those found to have acted inappropriately are forced out of the classroom. Some are charged and imprisoned.

But it also showed numerous instances where the state's confusing and inconsistent system of school, state and sometimes criminal investigations failed young survivors of sexual abuse and their families.

The KJZZ/Republic investigation found that cases stalled at all levels, revealing vulnerabilities in the state's framework to discipline teachers:

  • School investigations fall short. Officials sometimes conduct only cursory investigations into rumors that a teacher may be abusing a student.
  • Training requirements fall short. Arizona does not require teachers to take training specific to sexual misconduct.
  • The state falls short. Years of disorganization at the Arizona State Board of Education and Department of Education led to a backlog of 332 disciplinary cases, some of which involved sexual offenses, discovered in 2015. The state has since caught up with the backlog.
  • The Department of Education falls short. Investigators who look into allegations of sexual misconduct still carry caseloads as high as 165 cases, extending the time it takes to finish an investigation.
  • The charter system falls short. There is no system to keep watch on the thousands of educators without certification, allowing some offenders to fly under the radar. About 40% of teachers in charter schools are not certified.

State education officials have identified some of the loopholes in the system and have begun discussions to try to fix them.
Lucas Narducci, Arizona State Board of Education president, urged board members in August to take action to fix identified problems in the state's teacher discipline system "as soon as possible," particularly for uncertified teachers.

"Yeah, we can get all the other education stuff accomplished with respect to what our test scores are going to be, etc.," he said. "But every kid who gets abused by a teacher should never happen. This is a priority for our board."

It should also be a priority for schools, a woman who said she was abused at 15 by a teacher in Tucson told KJZZ/The Republic.

“How lax are your hiring laws? How bad is your teacher shortage? How desperate are you for teachers that you're not willing to hire people with quality?” she said.

Violating 'a position of trust'

A teacher in Arizona serves in what state law calls “a position of trust.” Parents, step-parents, coaches and clergy also fall into that elevated category.

When former Goodyear teacher Brittany Zamora was sentenced to 20 years in prison in July for molesting a 13-year-old student, Judge Sherry Stephens admonished her, saying Zamora "violated and abused a position of trust.”

Brittany Zamora
Arizona Republic/Pool
/
editorial | partner | Pool photo sent by Mike Meister (Republic) [email protected] Jul 12, 2019, 12:16 PM
Brittany Zamora at her sentencing on July 12, 2019.

“Teachers have power. They have the power of persuasion, of personality … They have power that's different than what students have,” Charol Shakeshaft, a longtime academic researcher of sexual misconduct by teachers, said. “Teachers need to be really careful about their boundaries, and careful they don't exploit and use that power for bad purposes.”

While the profession is predominantly female, about 80% of the teachers disciplined for sexual misconduct in Arizona were men, according to the data.

Teachers were disciplined for sexual misconduct at a higher rate than any other offense: Out of 633 total discipline cases from 2012 to 2018, 40% were categorized as sexual offenses, according to a report by the state Board of Education. The next most common category was substance abuse, accounting for 24% of the cases during those years.

Not all instances of sexual misconduct under the board's definition are criminal.

Investigations usually begin with school administrators. State law requires that administrators report claims of unprofessional conduct to the Arizona Department of Education’s investigative unit.

School personnel, among other mandatory reporters, must notify law enforcement or the Arizona Department of Child Safety if they reasonably believe a child has been abused.

The time it takes for investigators to complete their inquiry varies based on the circumstances, according to Stefan Swiat, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education. The department notifies teachers when they are under investigation.

Once the Department of Education completes its investigation, it forwards its findings to the Arizona State Board of Education's Professional Practices Advisory Committee. The committee considers whether the behavior more than likely happened and whether it warrants discipline. Its recommendations for discipline are sent to the State Board for consideration.

KJZZ/The Republic took a deeper dive into the board's more recent sexual misconduct cases, from 2015 to mid-2019. In that time period:

  • About 49% of teachers voluntarily surrendered their teaching certificates after investigators started looking into claims of sexual misconduct.
  • About 35% of the time, the State Board permanently revoked the teacher's certificate. These were typically criminal cases.
  • About 9% of the time, the State Board revoked a teacher's certificate with the slim possibility of reapplying for credentials in five years.
  • About 6% of the time, teachers accused of sexual misconduct negotiated a temporary suspension of their certificate, which allowed them to reapply after a few years. Sometimes they must attend a class about maintaining boundaries with students.

It's difficult to compare Arizona to other states in handling these cases, because each has a different system for disciplining educators.
Arizona's process only applies to teachers with certificates, whether in a district or charter school. Arizona is one of several states that do not require charter teachers to be certified.

The Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, which oversees charter schools, does not have the authority or capability to discipline teachers.

At 16, she denied the gossip

In some cases, The Republic and KJZZ found, an offending teacher's misconduct is no surprise to school administrators.

Rumors spread quickly among students, often reaching teachers and staff, too. But administrators aren't uniformly investigating them or notifying parents when their child is the subject of such rumors.

At 16, Tiffany Franco insisted to her high school’s on-campus police officer that, contrary to the rumors sweeping through Red Mountain High School, she was not in a relationship with teacher Alan Grantham.

At 18, she told police they had been in a relationship — but that they'd only had sex once before she was 18.

Now 22, Tiffany said she and Grantham started having sex around the time she was 15. He was in his 30s, according to police record.

Grantham did not respond to multiple interview requests from KJZZ/The Republic. His attorney, Flynn Carey, responded via email.

"Mr. Grantham unequivocally denies the unsubstantiated accusations made against him," Carey said in the email. "He has rightly never been charged with any offense."

By the time Grantham resigned from Mesa Public Schools after accusations of sexual misconduct, Tiffany’s life had been consumed by the relationship for half of her high school years and into her first years as an adult.

Now she's not sure whether the "relationship" part was just in her head, and instead he was using her.

“Somebody should have looked at me and dumbed me down and said, ‘You're not an adult. You're a minor,’” she said.

No one did.

Tiffany Franco
Tiffany Franco
In a photo provided to The Republic/KJZZ by Tiffany Franco, Tiffany is pictured with a man she says is former Red Mountain High School teacher Alan Grantham sitting on a couch. Tiffany said she took this picture at Grantham's house.

Tiffany met Grantham, a special education teacher and assistant football coach at Red Mountain High, in about 2013. She was getting math tutoring from a different teacher; Grantham tutored in the same classroom.

Tiffany’s life revolved around her dance career. She danced competitively, was the president of the school's dance team her senior year and a member of the pom squad.

Grantham and Tiffany started talking casually, about her daily life at school. They often messaged over Snapchat. One night, he sent her a bet, she said: Come to his house.

It was the first time Tiffany saw the educator outside of high school. They didn’t have sex, but that first visit broke the ice. She kept visiting. For months, nothing physical happened, but there were intensifying exchanges over text and social media.

Months after they first started texting, Tiffany and Grantham had sex, Tiffany said.

“Alan was my first time ever,” she said. “That's why it was very emotional. I also fell in love with the fact that it wasn't like a typical high school (relationship), where you had to go to somebody else's house, and you had to sit on their couch with their parents.”

Tiffany wouldn’t learn the word grooming until years later, from a Department of Education investigator.

Shakeshaft, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, has studied grooming for decades.

“One of the things that's part of grooming is to isolate the student to try to have the student believe that they can't really trust their friends, they can't really trust their parents, they can't really trust other people," she said.

In 2014, someone — the officer did not remember who, according to a 2016 police report — approached School Resource Officer Karrie Flanigan about rumors of a relationship between Tiffany and Grantham.

That person offered few details, but Flanigan still approached Dr. Jim Gowdy, in charge of Red Mountain’s athletic program. Gowdy spoke with Grantham, who denied the relationship, according to a police report and Helen Hollands, a spokeswoman with Mesa Public Schools.

Flanigan, who was close enough to Tiffany that they took an Instagram photo together in September 2014, spoke to the teen.

“No, no, no, Flanigan, I would never do that,” Tiffany told the officer, according to Flanigan’s recollection written in a 2016 police report. “It would ruin my dancing career.”

That appeared to be the end of Flanigan’s 2014 investigation.

Mesa police launched an investigation into Grantham in 2016, after Tiffany told her father about Grantham and he reported it to police.

In February 2019, Mesa police opened an internal affairs investigation into how Flanigan handled the case, according to spokesman Nik Rasheta. The investigation is ongoing.

Peril in ignoring the rumors

Mark Joraanstad, executive director of Arizona School Administrators, advises districts on how to handle disciplinary issues. Speaking generally about school-level investigations, he said that at the very least, when officials hear rumors, they should document those conversations and call a child’s parents.

“You always take the statements. You always call the parents,” he said.

In the Zamora case, Las Brisas Academy Principal Timothy Dickey sat on rumors for more than a month before parents discovered the sexual abuse on their own, according to a lawsuit against the Liberty Elementary School District filed by the student's parents.

And a lawsuit settled in February against Mesa Public Schools claimed district officials ignored reports of an inappropriate relationship between a teen runner and Skyline High School track coach John Shea.

Two coaches in Skyline's athletic program alerted the school's athletic director to alarming behavior by Shea toward the student, but the director took no steps to investigate the concerns, according to the lawsuit.

In court filings, Shea's attorneys and the school district's attorneys deny the allegations. Without evidence that Shea sexually crossed the line with the teen while she was under 18, police closed the case.

Shea resigned from the school district and surrendered his teaching certificate in 2017. Mesa Public Schools declined to comment about the Shea lawsuit.

In Tiffany's case, Gowdy did not document his conversation with Grantham, Hollands wrote in an email. Tiffany’s dad, Richard Franco, said the school never told him about the rumors in 2014.

Shaun Holmes, Mesa Public Schools assistant superintendent, said Gowdy did not believe the rumor was credible based on details from Flanigan.

"The information that I've reviewed suggests that we did exactly what we should have done at every step of the way,” Holmes said.

Tiffany may not have been the first student Grantham messaged with.

In 2009, Mesa police investigated Grantham after he was accused of sending a picture of his penis to a female Red Mountain student. He denied sending the picture, according to the police report. Police closed the case, concluding that there was no probable cause to believe a crime was committed.

Hollands wrote that the district has no record of hearing about the 2009 claims until 2016, when officials started investigating Grantham after allegations he was carrying on a sexual relationship with Tiffany.

The district put Grantham on paid leave in August 2016 after Mesa police launched its investigation into the relationship.

Grantham participated in a meeting with his attorney, Holmes and the district's attorney, according to a transcript of that 2016 meeting from Mesa Public Schools.

Grantham in the meeting initially said he "knew of" Tiffany before she graduated, but that after her graduation, she started watching his dog. He first denied ever having a relationship with her, but then later in their interview said they'd become friends the month Tiffany turned 18.

Asked if that friendship turned into something more, he said, "Within the last 10, nine months, yeah."

According to the transcript, the district official asked, "OK, so you have been involved in a romantic relationship with her?"

Grantham answered, "I guess our definition is a little bit ... I did have sex with her in the last nine, 10 months."

Grantham resigned in November 2016, citing personal reasons.

Mesa Public Schools prepared a list of accusations against him, obtained by KJZZ/The Republic. The list claims that he broke state law by having sex with a teenager.

However, the district does not have record or knowledge that Grantham reviewed the claims before he resigned, Hollands wrote.

→ SEARCH DATABASE: Teachers investigated for sexual misconduct since 2015

Read more at azcentral.com.


How To Report Child Abuse

The Arizona Child Abuse Hotline 1-888-767-2445 (1-888-SOS-CHILD).

You can also make a non-emergency report online a dcs.az.gov/report-child-abuse.

How To Report Teacher Unprofessional Conduct

Email the Arizona Department of Education’s Investigative Unit at [email protected].

How did we report this story?

KJZZ’s Mariana Dale and The Arizona Republic’s Lily Altavena reviewed 181 cases between 2015 and mid-2019 where certified educators were disciplined by the Arizona State Board of Education or surrendered their teaching certificate after allegations of sexual misconduct.

We used public records from the Arizona Department of Education, law enforcement agencies, school districts and courts to describe what happened in the cases included in our stories. We also interviewed more than two dozen people, including survivors who say they were abused by Arizona teachers and their parents, the executive director of the State Board for Charter Schools and State Board of Education, attorneys, an academic who has studied teacher sexual abuse, school district employees and elected officials.


THE KJZZ AND ARIZONA REPUBLIC TEAMS

  • Research and reporting: Mariana Dale, Lily Altavena
  • Data: Lily Altavena, Mariana Dale, Kyra Haas, Claire Rafford
  • Editing: Al Macias, Alia Beard Rau
  • Digital: Sky Schaudt, Cameo Hill
  • Photography and videography: Patrick Breen, Cheryl Evans
  • Social media: Danielle Woodward, Jean Clare Sarmiento, Sky Schaudt
  • Additional contributors: Leah Trinidad, Kaila White, John Paul McDonnall, Will Flannigan

Special thanks to Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism’s Walter Robinson and his students for contributing documents to this story and to the University of Arizona School of Journalism.