It’s day two of Manteca Unified special education teacher Leo Bennett-Cauchion’s vigil in front of the district administration office on West Louise Avenue.
“Let me teach. Bring back joy. How long?” read the message on the placard that he held as he stood outside the entrance to the district from shortly after 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Monday, the first day of his vigil that he hopes will get the attention of Superintendent Jason Messer to consider his case and let him go back to teaching his class of special-needs students at Veritas Elementary School.
He was not given the chance to speak with the superintendent. However, two parents stopped by to give him a pep talk and show their support in the morning. A police officer from the Manteca Police Department also made his appearance but did not talk to Bennett-Cauchon.
“He was very friendly; he took my picture,” said the teacher who was placed on administrative leave with pay on Feb. 3 for allegations of inappropriate touching involving one of his students, an 8-year-old severely autistic child whose mother is a close friend of Bennet-Cauchon and his wife Terry who also teaches children with special needs but is currently on medical leave. A special ed teacher for the last 16 years, 10 of which with Manteca Unified, Bennett-Cauchon has denied the allegations and went as far as explaining what actually took place and why to the Board of Trustees at their Feb. 10 meeting. The student’s mother is siding with the teacher and has pleaded with school district officials to allow Bennett-Cauchon to return to his job for the sake of her child and that of other special-needs children. The mother, Sharon Anaya, have had the Bennett-Cauchons as her support system in taking care of her child since he was in kindergarten.
He has been on administrative leave with pay since Feb. 3 pending the results of the ongoing investigation into the allegations.
While standing in front of the district facility on Monday wearing a beret, a tie with the message, “Teachers are Best,” below a colorful collage of children’s faces, and a cascade of colorful origami paper cranes flowing down below his handmade placard, several people driving out of the compound waved and smiled at him. One driver gave him the victory sign with her two fingers which elicited a big smile and a “thank you” from Bennett-Cauchon.
Bennett-Cauchon said he will continue his vigil and hunger strike indefinitely. His hunger strike is not a part of his vigil whose intent is to dialog with the superintendent to restore him to his job. He is doing the hunger strike on his own, to help him think and focus on the purpose of his vigil. On the spiritual side of it, the hunger strike is also a part of his observation of lent which, in the Catholic Church, is 40 days of penance and prayer and sacrifice.
Later in the evening, Bennett-Cauchon took his case before the Manteca City Council. The Manteca Police Department is currently investigating the allegations after the school district passed on its own investigation to the police. Bennett-Cauchon believes the investigation should have been kept on the district level based on his interpretation of the legal language used by the school district in taking that step.
He also plans to bring his case before the San Joaquin County Board of Education at its meeting today at noon in Stockton.