Manteca Unified School District Superintendent Jason Messer and the Board of Education have been investing time and money in pushing the slogan, Proud to be MUSD, which is aimed at focusing on all things positive about the district — from students’ accomplishments and teachers’ innovative instructional approaches, to a slew of progressive-thinking educational programs such as the $30 million Going Digital and the be.tech vocational charter school that has shown phenomenal growth in the mere three years it has been open.
But since the beginning of February, the district has been increasingly challenged to focus on those happy notes. Not when special education teacher Leo Bennett-Cauchon steadfastly kept a visibility that not only threatened to shadow all the positive strides the district slogan has managed to accomplish, but actually impacted in a distractive way all of those accomplishments. It was not Bennett-Cauchon’s intention to affect all that, as he repeatedly pleaded with Board trustees and district officials to bring to a quick resolution the complaint lodged against him over alleged inappropriate touching involving one of his students.
From the outset, Bennett-Cauchon addressed the allegations and, before the board, publicly stated that the incidents that were reported to have transpired actually took place but then went on to explain the whys and the wherefores. The hugging and kissing that occurred with the 8-year-old boy was not unknown to the child’s mother but was actually a part of his education and care as outlined in his independent education plan (IEP) hammered out by the IEP team that included the student’s parent and Bennett-Cauchon and which were approved. That was confirmed by the boy’s mother, Sharon Anaya, who independently fought with the school district and, later, with the Manteca Police Department to reinstate Bennett-Cauchon because her son as well as other students affected have retrogressed due to all the unexpected changes in their familiar learning environment. At one point, Anaya and about half a dozen parents pulled out their children from the classroom. They also wrote petition letters to the board members which was later presented in person during the trustees’ meeting in March.
The job-reinstatement campaign was relentless. The story about a teacher being punished for hugging his student which first appeared in the Manteca Bulletin soon caught the attention of regional and national news media including several television stations and newspapers like USA Today.
Television crews filed live reports for the noon and evening news in front of the school district office interviewing Bennett-Cauchon.
At one point, he took his fasting and vigil to Lathrop High School where a teacher’s conference on Going Digital was being held and where he was scheduled to be one of the presenters but was informed that his appearance was being cancelled.
An online petition at www.forcechange.com aimed at getting Bennett-Cauchon reinstated to his job collected, as of latest count, about 1,500 signatures to an online letter addressed to the superintendent. He held daily vigils and fasting in front of the entrance to the school district office on West Louise Avenue, holding placards with messages addressed to district officials and folding origami paper cranes that he later presented to the superintendent as a peace offering during the March school board meeting.
Parents like Anaya held a rally next to where Bennett-Cauchon was holding a vigil, holding large signs that urged district officials to look into the plight of students with special needs and to allow the teacher to go back to teaching their children.
With the controversy swirling around the resignation of Weston Ranch High School Principal Jose Fregoso effective the end of the current school year in June and receiving a whole year’s pay after that, and with the Manteca Educator’s Association demanding that the salary raises taken away from them during the last Great Recession so the district can balance the budget — all that on top of the Bennett-Cauchon maintaining a continuous visibility during school board meetings and standing in front of the district office — was quickly chipping away any inroads and advancements to the public-image campaign that the district was working hard to project.
While the Bennett-Cauchon debacle is not completely resolved, he has been allowed to go back to teaching since Thursday, and the district and police investigation has been completed. The police report is now being reviewed by the county District Attorney’s office. There are also still some wrinkles in the directive that allowed Bennett-Cauchon to go back to the classroom that will need to be ironed out in 45 to 90 days to make permanent his return to his job.
But the good news is, that’s one negative publicity spot removed, and the district can once again fully turn its attention to polishing and pushing a positive image to the world and, once again, be truly Proud to be MUSD.