A Washougal High School sophomore has filed a tort claim against the school district, seeking $50,000 in damages, for allegedly failing to protect her and other students from inappropriate touching by math teacher Jay Jenkins.
“This student is now in counseling and her ability to trust has been disrupted,” said the student’s Vancouver attorney, Josephine Townsend.
The April 18 claim states that Jenkins created a hostile educational atmosphere by touching female students inappropriately.
“He inappropriately touched at least three students while teaching their classes at the high school. The investigation by the school verified that the touching occurred and that Mr. Jenkins had at least one documented prior event of inappropriate touching. The school failed to properly supervise Mr. Jenkins…and allowed the behavior to repeat itself with new victims.”
Townsend forwarded records of the school district’s investigation into Jenkins’ conduct to the Post-Record and the Washougal Police Department. Those documents were obtained through a public records request.
“Unwelcome touching is considered assault in Washington state,” Townsend said. “Based on the information we received, this continued pattern of (Jenkins’) behavior is alarming.”
Jenkins has been teaching in the district for 13 years. Prior to that, he held positions teaching math and business at five other high schools.
On Friday, Feb. 21, three female students told a school counselor and administrator that Jenkins had touched them during instructional time in math classes. One said Jenkins wrapped his hand around her waist and touched her hip, another said he put his hands on her shoulders “a couple times,” until she told him to stop. The third student said Jenkins regularly pats her on the shoulder and rests his hand on her arm.
One student withdrew from his class, citing that she felt “creeped out,” by his physical contact. Another said she felt a knot in her stomach and did not want to ask questions for fear of being touched.
Jenkins was immediately placed on paid administrative leave. An investigation began on Monday, Feb. 24. The district’s attorney, Don Austin, as well as Aaron Hansen, WHS principal, interviewed the students who lodged the complaints, with their parents present.
“We wanted them to know everything that was being alleged and was going on in relation to their child so that they would be in a position to best protect their children if that became necessary,” Hansen said in a Feb. 28 letter to District Superintendent Dawn Tarzian.
During the week-long investigation, Jenkins, school counselors, staff members, other students and former staff members were also interviewed. The conclusion was that Jenkins frequently touches both male and female students during class times. Not all students said they were bothered by the touching.
In addition, the physical contact, while considered not sexual in nature, was deemed to be “inappropriate, an invasion of the students’ personal boundaries, and something that needs to stop and not be repeated.”
Jenkins is currently back in the classroom, but has been granted a 1-year, unpaid leave of absence for the 2014-15 school year, at his request.
When contacted by the Post-Record, Tarzian said the district takes complaints made regarding inappropriate touching, “very seriously,” and that all complaints made by students are investigated. She added that the district has specific policies concerning employee professional boundaries, and a policy protecting students from unlawful harassment, bullying and intimidation by anyone.
“Board policy outlining required expectations for staff interaction with students is provided to all staff at the start of the school year,” she stated in an e-mail. “Staff are given time to review the policies and to sign a document (which) indicates that they have read and understand the requirements.”
She added that administrators work to establish a climate of trust in the school setting to make it possible for students to come forward when they have a concern.
“Every district school is staffed with a counselor or a social worker to provide a staff member that might be more comfortable for a student to talk with,” she said. “The identity of students is kept confidential when it is important to assure an effective investigation and to protect the students involved.”
Tarzian declined to comment about Jenkins’ specific situation.
“Because the tort claim against the district is an on-going matter that involves a student, I am not able to comment on any specifics because of confidentiality requirements,” she said.
Jenkins’ Portland attorney, Margaret Olney, forwarded a statement from Jenkins.
“I believe it is essential to be clear about the nature of the allegations that have been made against me,” he said. “At no time have I been accused of sexual conduct, nor have there ever been any findings of sexual conduct. Like many of my colleagues, I touch students as a gesture of encouragement and support. I understand that this physical contact has been unwelcome by some; I deeply regret making anyone uncomfortable. I love teaching and will work hard to ensure that all students feel supported and comfortable in my classes.”
Jenkins reprimanded, training ordered
A March 4 letter of reprimand to Jenkins from Hansen stated that his touching students has no valid educational or health reason, creates a hostile learning environment, and interferes with the ability to teach. Additionally, it demonstrates a “flagrant disregard and clear abandonment of generally recognized professional standards in the course of treatment, instruction and supervision of students.”
The letter also states that Jenkins has been disciplined in the past for inappropriately touching students, and continuing to do so demonstrates insubordination that could potentially result in his termination.
In 2008, a female student alleged that Jenkins sat on the same chair as her and rubbed the outside of her leg with his hand, and rubbed her shoulders and patted her face.
“She asked you to stop touching her, but you did not stop,” the reprimand letter stated. “A second female student complained that you touched her on the leg above the knee and that it made her feel uncomfortable.”
Other students accused Jenkins of touching them inappropriately as well. Former Human Resources Director Doug Bright investigated the incident and Jenkins was reprimanded in writing. However, the letter is no longer in his personnel file, according to Hansen, because Jenkins successfully filed a grievance with the teachers’ union, which claimed the School District violated the collective bargaining agreement.
Additionally, a student complained about the touching during the 2011-12 school year, and Hansen met with Jenkins and told him not to touch students.
When interviewed by Austin on Feb. 27, 2014, as a part of the most recent investigation, he asked Jenkins what should happen if a student wasn’t comfortable with his physical contact.
“Well, they would either go to another teacher, they would go to a counselor, they’d go to their parents,” he replied, according to the transcript. “And, in most cases, those individuals would come directly to me and talk to me about it, and then I would directly talk to the student about it, apologize for making them feel uncomfortable and making sure they were comfortable from then on, 100 percent.”
In the Feb. 28, 2014, letter to Tarzian, Hansen stated, “It apparently did not occur to him that his touching some students would interfere with his relationship with those students or impair his ability to teach them. This approach was not acceptable because it places a burden on the student to tell the teacher to stop doing something that the teacher does not need to do and makes some students uncomfortable with no benefit to instruction.”
According to the March 4 letter of reprimand, Jenkins was investigated in November 2013 by the district after officials learned he hired a student to work in his home business, gave her rides in his vehicle and gifts. He was also involved in a car accident while the student was a passenger in his vehicle. He allegedly told her to leave the scene and “find another way home.” After the incident, Jenkins received a letter of reprimand for having a close relationship with a student outside of school, a violation of School Board policy.
Jenkins is currently appealing the discipline through the collective bargaining grievance process.
“Whether this discipline stands, whether it constitutes an oral or written reprimand or warning, it is another step in providing you with discipline which has given you notice that you need to reform your professional boundaries with students,” the letter stated.
On advice of the district’s lawyer, if the March 4 disciplinary action is removed from Jenkins’ personnel file, it and all material relating to the recent investigation will be retained by the district’s Title IX officer.
“If any new administrator works with you in the future, this letter should be shared with that administrator so that proper monitoring can occur,” the letter stated. “Your touching students while teaching is forbidden and not tolerated. Immediate change is required in your conduct, otherwise additional discipline may occur which could result in your termination.”
Before Jenkins returned to the classroom in early March, he was required to undergo training on inappropriate boundary invasions and why such behavior is inappropriate, and to take a test afterward. He also had to sign an “acknowledgement of understanding,” which directed him to refrain from any and all physical contact with students unless there is a legitimate educational or health reason.
Jenkins files grievance
On March 7, Jenkins filed a grievance with the union, claiming the district violated the collective bargaining agreement by reprimanding him. He requested that the district destroy the letter and purge all information that resulted from student complaints. The grievance was denied, based on failure to meet requirements and failure to provide the required content of the grievance.
In a March 10 letter to Jenkins explaining the denial, Hansen stated, “In meeting with you on March 4, I had hoped that you understood that you were in the wrong in touching students, that you saw a need to change your behavior…I am no longer sure of these things based on your grievance where you seem to be saying that I had no cause for the concerns expressed in the reprimand letter. Therefore, once again, please understand very clearly: No student should be expected to put up with unwelcome touching by you as a requirement to be in your classes.”