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Teacher holds vigil today at district office
Manteca Unified special education teacher Leo Bennett-Cauchon addresses the members of the Board of Trustees at their February meeting. - photo by The Bulletin

When Manteca Unified School District officials return to work this morning after a three-day weekend off, they will be met by Leo Bennett-Cauchon outside the West  Louise Avenue entrance to the property.

The special education teacher’s vigil is the latest step in his ongoing effort to convince district officials to allow him to go back to teaching his special needs students at Veritas Elementary School. He was placed on administrative leave with pay on Feb. 3 based on allegations he inappropriately touched a severely autistic student which he admitted as true but that everything he is being accused of doing was within the scope of professional ethics and in conformance with the student’s parent and the language in his individualized education program.

The student’s parent, Sharon Anaya, has publicly announced her support of Bennet-Cauchon and, in fact, stated that she is planning to file a lawsuit against the school district if the situation that is threatening her son’s “well-being is not resolved quickly.”

Bennett-Cauchon will be holding his vigil from about 8 a.m. this morning to 4 p.m. 

He is hoping that this will get the attention of the superintendent and grant him the opportunity for a person-to-person dialog.

“I will be available for face-to-face communication during my vigil,” he said in the email he sent to all board members and administrative district officials Monday afternoon.

He is also hoping to be granted that same communication opportunity in the evening before addressing the Manteca City Council during the public comment portion of the meeting, he stated in his email communication. He added that unless he is otherwise occupied, he also plans to appear before the San Joaquin County Office of Education Board and address the members at their meeting starting at noon.

Bennet-Cauchon is hoping that by Wednesday, he will be allowed to go back teaching his students at Veritas School.

If today’s vigil does not get any results, he is ready to take the next step in his plan to obtain a resolution – holding a hunger strike.

In another email sent to all members of the board earlier in the morning on Monday, Feb. 16, Bennett-Cauchon reiterated his appeal to be reinstated saying, “I request again a return to teaching for the morning of Wednesday, 2/18.” Along with that appeal is a polite request for “an update that provides a rationale precluding this safe, cost-effective, and child-centered option after two weeks of investigation.”

He also invited the school district officials to join him today in his vigil in front of the school district property “as I pray, ‘how long, how long,’ while folding a thousand paper cranes as peace officering to (Superintendent) Jason (Messer).”

The significance of the thousand origami cranes is based on the Japanese belief that completion of that task will grant that person’s wish for good luck, recovery from illness or injury and other downturns in life.

“A teachable moment,” he said of the paper-crane activity during his day-long vigil.

• • •

Manteca Police continues investigation into the case

Late last week, Bennett-Cauchon received an update on the investigation into his case from Sgt. Julie Renfroe of the police department’s Investigations Division.

“I received your email of concern from Chief Obligacion,” Renfroe explained to Bennett-Cauchon.

“The investigation is still in the preliminary stages and being investigated at a patrol level by Officer Steele. Once she completes her initial investigation, it will be forwarded to the Detective Division. At that point, it will be formally assigned to Detective (Stephen) Schluer. He will then contact you, when he is at that point in his investigation, and set up a time to interview you.”

Renfroe added that she appreciates Bennett-Cauchon’s “concern for a speedy resolution,” but that “the need for a thorough investigation based on the best needs of the child takes priority.”

Bennett-Cauchon countered in his response to Renfroe that while he fully understands the need for a thorough investigation, he remains confused given the fact a detective has already visited the student’s home and has talked to his mother as well.

To further shed light on the situation between him and the student’s family, Bennett-Cauchon explained to Renfroe that “since my wife and I are tasked by the child’s mother, Sharon (Anaya), with providing essential caretaking, 1:1 support and specialized services (we are both teachers of students with significant support needs), we agree with Sharon that after more than a week, speed is also a priority for the best needs of (student) Giovanni.”

The Bennett-Cauchons are the support providers designated by Anaya for her son when school is not in session.

Anaya has informed school district officials that the couple had been consistently working with her “for the best interest of my son” the last three years they have known each other.

“We have both friends and dedicated supporters of Giovanni’s growth. We have supported other parents as well and seek the continuously (ongoing) education, research and methodologies to better serve Giovanni. Giovanni has become a grandchild for them and they have become part of family that Giovanni needs, and seeks their love on a daily basis,” Anaya said.

Anaya strongly believes that district officials have complicated the situation by involving the Manteca Police Department in an investigation that, she said, should have remained on the school district level.