The Fourth District Court of Appeal recently overturned the firing of an elementary school teacher from San Diego, who served over three years of a 15-year-to-life sentence, after an earlier appellate court threw out his child molestation convictions, according to Metropolitan News-Enterprise. Justice Terry O’Rourke said the teacher was fit to teach and had not engaged in immoral conduct. He also ruled that Superior Court Judge William Nevitt, who had upheld the termination, had failed to show compelling reason to overrule the commission on professional competence, which had vindicated the teacher.
Thad Jesperson, who taught at Toler Elementary in the Clairemont neighborhood of San Diego, had fought for 10 years to clear his name of accusations that he molested students between 2001 and 2003. During his first trial he was convicted of only 1 of the 13 counts for which he was charged, with the jury deadlocked on the remaining counts. During his second trial he was again only convicted of 1 count, with the remaining resulted in acquittal or further deadlock. In his third trial he was convicted of 7 counts and sentenced to 15 years to life. However, in 2007, all convictions were reversed due to juror misconduct and ineffective counsel.
Despite the 2007 ruling in his favor, his school district fired him in November, 2008, for “unfitness, immoral conduct, and failure to maintain a professional relationship with students.”
So did he or did he not act inappropriately or unprofessionally? Was the school district protecting students from an actual threat, or was this yet another case of administrators hanging a teacher out to dry in order to appear to be protecting children?
The commission on professional competence ruled that the allegations were unproven. While Jesperson had been “physically affectionate” with pupils—something that is relatively routine in the lower grades, where children are constantly in need of reassuring hugs and affection, particularly when they hurt themselves—he had not done so in an inappropriate way, The children initially denied that Jesperson had touched them in an inappropriate way and only changed their stories under pressure from parents, police and social workers, his attorney said. One student’s testimony was particularly suspicious, claiming the “bad” touching occurred every day in front of all the other students, something that is quite unlikely. Yet Judge William Nevitt said he believed her based on the “hundreds” of children’s testimonies had had heard in juvenile court and used this argument to justify ignoring the commission’s administrative findings.
Parents today have plenty to worry about, from the terrible state of the economy and material insecurity to the threats posed by climate change. Perhaps nothing is scarier to parents than the possibility that a stranger at the playground or school yard will steal their child’s innocence and cause lasting emotional scars. This risk, however, is probably no greater today than in the past, but our awareness of it is, thanks to better preventative education and outreach programs, increased reporting and monitoring, and a prurient media that whips up hysteria with every accusation, even the meritless ones.
Heightened awareness and fear are no justification for witch hunts, judicial hysteria, or imprisoning innocent people. The current witch hunt for pervy teachers is reminiscent of the satanic day-care molestation panic of the 1980s and 90s, in which a few false accusations led to the arrests and harassment of numerous innocent people and a mass fear that every preschool was a front for satanic molestation cults.
The most infamous of these cases involved the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, which resulted in the longest and most expensive criminal trial in U.S. history and perhaps the most frivolous. From the start, observers and police should have been skeptical of the absurd claims of hidden tunnels, ritualistic animal slaughter, Satan worship, coprophagia, bloodletting and orgies. Furthermore, the credibility of the McMartin’s accuser, Judy Johnson, was suspect as she was a diagnosed schizophrenic and chronic alcoholic.
Rather than doing its job of investigating, questioning and critiquing with a skeptical eye, the media simply aped back the ridiculous allegations with prurient delight, thus pandering to the public’s lusts and fears, exacerbating parents’ anxieties about their children’s safety and creating mistrust of all preschools and day care centers. The SDUSD case was not much different, with absurd accusations by a young child that she was molested daily in front of the entire class and a gullible judge buying it all, as well as media reports with salacious descriptions of what he supposedly did to the girls.
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