District pays ousted teacher
Sunday, May 4, 2003By Amy M. E. Fischer
A well-known Cascade Middle School teacher who was put on leave last year after repeated complaints of inappropriate conduct with female students is still on the payroll and will be until 2004, when he becomes eligible for a full pension, according to public records The Daily News has obtained.
Although physical education teacher Steve Mansfield, 51, is no longer in the classroom, he still had close contact with children until eight days ago, when he resigned as director of the private Swing Kids dance troupe. He did so after parents confronted him with new information they had received about his troubles with the Longview School District.
Some Swing Kids parents are angry that the school district didn't do more to protect their children after it removed Mansfield from school.
"They darn sure didn't make it very public," said Swing Kids spokeswoman Tina Trigg, whose daughter joined the co-ed 1940s-style dance group several months ago. "If there was a danger, they should have been blowing a bullhorn."
Another Swing Kids mother said, "I blame the school district for not doing more. They should have fired him." Her daughter quit Swing Kids in 2001 because of what the mother considered Mansfield's increasing possessiveness of the teenager.
To protect the identities of children involved, The Daily News is not disclosing the names of parents, except for Trigg, the group's spokeswoman.
Last month, The Daily News obtained through the state's public records law the 142-page report from the school district's 2002 investigation of Mansfield as well as other district records about him.
The school district hired an investigator, who interviewed parents, school employees, community members and students. They reported seeing Mansfield giving girls piggyback rides, letting girls sit on his lap and massage his muscles, "snuggling" with girls and engaging in public displays of affection, spending time alone with girls, and inviting girls to spend the night at his house.
Superintendent Nick Seaver said keeping Mansfield on the payroll was "a reasonable way to resolve the issue" and was cheaper than firing him. If he had been fired, Mansfield could have exercised his statutory right to have a formal hearing. The conflict could have dragged out for months -- and Mansfield would have collected a paycheck and benefits the entire time, Seaver said.
"It's not just, 'Let's pay somebody to stay home,'" Seaver said Wednesday. "This was a certain way to reach the objective, which was that Steve was not going to be teaching kids. ... People say, 'Just fire him.' For certificated staff, that's not the way it works."
"What we wanted to do was the best thing for kids and the best thing for the community, which means taxpayers," Seaver said in another interview late last month. The school board knew about the case but wasn't involved in the settlement decision, he added.
The district did not notify Swing Kids parents about the allegations and suspension because it is a private club no longer associated with the district, Seaver said.
"We do have a limit in terms of our authority," Seaver said. "We're not in charge of that club. There was really no way to know who all those people are. There's a pretty fine line between doing our job and acting in the best interest of our students and crossing the line into individual privacy considerations. We did exactly all that we could do, based upon the best legal advice that we could get."
Mansfield would not speak to The Daily News except through his attorney, Thomas Doyle of Portland, who called the evidence against his client "far-fetched and weak."
"These allegations have no basis in fact and are utterly unsupported by the evidence," Doyle said late last month. "Mr. Mansfield is aware he cannot control what a small group of detractors say about him."
The school district has long been aware of problems regarding Mansfield's questionable interactions with students. Mansfield has been put on administrative leave three times, beginning in 1986, when a mother discovered that Mansfield had been writing what "can fairly be characterized as love letters" to her high-school age daughter, according to the investigator's report.
In 2000 and 2002, the school district put Mansfield on paid leave again while it investigated allegations that he had crossed professional boundaries with female students in numerous ways, according to a report compiled by personnel consultant Jan Marchbanks of Bellingham, whom the district hired to conduct the investigation.
The district reported Mansfield's case to the state Office of Professional Practices, a subsection of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, which has the power to suspend or revoke a teaching certificate. The case is still under investigation and no details are available, said OSPI spokewsoman Kim Schmanke.
"He didn't get the message the first time around, and he still hasn't gotten the message," said a Cascade Middle School teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear that Mansfield would sue.
Mansfield signed a settlement agreement with the district in June 2002. Under the terms of the agreement, Mansfield will receive $33,895 annually, a cut from his 2001 pay of $41,293. He and his wife also will receive benefits for two years until August 2004, when Mansfield will resign. The settlement also stipulates that Mansfield may not teach in Washington or anywhere else until September 2009.
By getting credit for 30 years rather than 28, Mansfield will get a larger pension, but the difference is small, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
"It's a joke in the district with some people," said the teacher. "One person said, 'If we just start a swing dance group, then we could get suspended with pay for three years and just retire.'"
A graduate of Eastern Oregon State College, Mansfield started his career at Monticello Middle School in 1974. He began teaching P.E. and health at Cascade Middle School in 1979.
According to background information in the 2002 investigation report, Mansfield in 1986 had a relationship with a high school girl who had been his student at the middle school. The district put him on paid leave after a parent found 82 letters Mansfield had written to her daughter. The district ordered Mansfield to undergo a psychiatric evaluation and intensive psychotherapy before it allowed him to return to the classroom, according to the report.
No details about the psychiatric evaluation were available. The psychiatrist's findings, however, satisfied the district that Mansfield did not pose a threat to students, according to a letter the district sent The Daily News last month.
Mansfield's career as a dance coach began in 1997 when Cascade Middle School added swing dancing to the P.E. curriculum. That year, after Mansfield performed with students at a school talent show, administrators ordered him not to dance with kids at school, according to the investigation documents.
In the 1999-2000 school year, Mansfield formed the private, non-profit Swing Kids group, which used school facilities for practice space until the district cut off the arrangement after the 2000 allegations arose. Mansfield kept the dance troupe alive, booking as many as 60 performances in cities around the state in summer 2000.
The troupe gained a reputation as the life of the party and performed at various events around the region and was featured several times in The Daily News.
In September 2000, the district put Mansfield on leave with pay for seven months after an incident at his Castle Rock home. An adult acquaintance saw Mansfield in his hot tub with a 13-year-old female student on his lap with her arms around him, according to the investigator's report. No criminal charges were filed after the girl and her mother said Mansfield was a close family friend and denied that anything inappropriate had happened.
"There was questionable behavior, but it did not constitute a crime," Longview police investigator Olga Lozano said last month. Longview Police reviewed the complaint because the allegation was made while they were investigating an unrelated incident in Longview.
School officials concluded that the 2000 investigation did not produce enough evidence to justify firing Mansfield, according to a statement prepared in April by John Vencill, human resources executive director for Longview schools, in response to The Daily News' questions.
"Even though the evidence was inconclusive, the district was concerned about the situation ...," Vencill's statement read in part.
Mansfield was reinstated in April 2001. At that time, Superintendent Seaver gave Mansfield a list of expectations of conduct with students. The list stipulated, among other things, that Mansfield avoid physical contact with students, not be alone with individual girls, and avoid situations that "may give the appearance of impropriety."
Less than a year later, more allegations surfaced that Mansfield was behaving questionably with students in the Swing Kids group, according to the investigator's report.
"He didn't change when he returned to school," a former Swing Kids dancer said of Mansfield's conduct after the teacher was reinstated in 2001, according to the investigator's report. "He just got more gooey and gross ... craving more attention, more huggy, wanted more and more and more."
The district launched another investigation in February 2002 and put Mansfield on leave with pay the following month.
The 2002 investigation
The investigator's report, a compilation of interviews with parents, teachers, community members and school staff, outlines scores of instances in which Mansfield allegedly violated the expectations of conduct that Seaver had set for him in the April 2001 letter.
- In one instance, a Swing Kids mother told investigators and The Daily News she saw Mansfield become visibly physically aroused when rehearsing close dance moves with her teenage daughter.
- Other parents and community members told investigators that Mansfield, a bald man with a bulky weightlifter's build, allowed girls to hang on him, massage his muscles and sit on his lap.
- Teachers and administrators saw Mansfield frequently hanging around one particular girl's locker, and his body language was that of "a young, flirtatious middle school boy," according to the report. They also observed him holding hands with girls and giving them rides in his truck, with the girl sitting in the middle of the seat next to him, according to the report.
- The investigator's report included this statement by a community member who described the following interaction between Mansfield and a student at the Cowlitz County Fair in July 2001:
"I saw them standing next to the wall nestled in ... holding her hand when they walked ... her leaning up against him as he leaned against the wall with his arm around her shoulder and she was holding his hand in her hand just above her breast area."
- A 13-year-old girl who dropped out of Swing Kids told The Daily News that during Swing Kids' trips out of town, Mansfield and a girl in the group would rub noses and play "footsie" under restaurant tables.
"I can understand hugs, but they were flirting," the girl said. "It's just gross for a 50-year-old man to flirt with a teenager."
Some Cascade Middle School teachers say they are disgusted by the ultimate outcome of the investigation.
"I don't understand why the evidence of misconduct wasn't great enough, and especially when this wasn't the first time, why this wasn't enough to suspend him without pay, at the very least," said a Cascade Middle School teacher who did not want to be identified. (The teacher explained, "I don't trust him. I just don't want to deal with him.")
"The district should've pursued this one. He should've been fired. If for no other reason, this guy should not be working with kids," the teacher continued. "He's really flaunted the fact that they tried to fire him in the past. ... He's managed to escape any consequences for his behavior."
The Swing Kids' parent board had been unaware of the allegations against Mansfield until mid-April, when Mansfield told them about The Daily News' investigation and revealed snippets of his past, said Swing Kids spokeswoman Trigg. She and other Swing Kids' parents began making inquiries and learned the extent of Mansfield's prior troubles with the school district.
"The deception was part of the problem. All the allegations in the last 15 years had been kept from the parents. There was no indication that there was ever any previous problem," Trigg said last week. In the future, she said, adults who want to work with the Swing Kids must undergo "significant" background checks.
On April 24, Swing Kids parents held an emergency board meeting after learning the extent of the allegations against Mansfield, Trigg said. Saying that he wanted to do what was best for the kids, Mansfield offered to resign.
"At this point, the parents, the board and the kids are committed to seeing this organization rise above this little downfall and not let it be the demise," Trigg said. "Steve Mansfield is not involved in Swing Kids at all, in any shape or form."
The group is trying to re-establish its credibility with the community, Trigg said.
"He had a big following for a long time. That's why we joined," said one father, whose 12-year-old daughter dropped out of Swing Kids last summer because she didn't like the controlling way in which Mansfield treated parents or how he allowed girls in the group to hang on him.
"There were probably 25 or 30 kids, and there had already been a whole bunch quitting. Then after we got in, people were dropping out left and right."
Many parents who have pulled their kids out of Mansfield's Swing Kids group said they did so after becoming increasingly uncomfortable with some of the choreography that allowed Mansfield to touch their daughters intimately. While performing certain aerial routines, Mansfield's face was pressed against his young partner's breasts, or his hands were in her crotch. In one move, Mansfield boosted his partner onto his shoulders so his face was in her crotch.
"Maybe they do those moves in swing dancing, but you don't do those moves with a teacher and a little 11-year-old girl," said another father, whose 13-year-old daughter quit Swing Kids after two years when she heard rumors about Mansfield behaving inappropriately with one of her peers.
"It's nothing illegal -- it's just not right. I wouldn't want him doing those things with my daughter," he said.
Among the district's documents are photos of Mansfield executing the questionable dance moves with his young partners. One photo depicts a bare-legged girl in a short dress sitting on his shoulders with her thighs clamped around Mansfield's neck, her crotch in his face.
When parents objected to the choreography -- or to Mansfield as a middle-aged dance partner for their daughters -- Mansfield would threaten to kick their children out of the group, several parents said.
"For girls that age, dancing is their life," said one father. "They're all hyped up on it and he builds their ego up, and one wrong move by the parents, and he makes them leave. The girls are totally upset ... all they want to do is dance. He controls kids, he controls parents. ..."
Mansfield's attorney pointed out that "the swing dance style ... raises questions with some unfamiliar with the dance moves. Many conclude that Steve has made up moves for his own gratification. As a male swing dance instructor, Mr. Mansfield is subject to criticism simply because he is dancing with teenagers."
Experienced Swing Kids dancers will be taking over as the group's dance instructors, and the controversial moves won't be a part of the Swing Kids' choreography anymore, Trigg said.
"Our main lead male ... had personally declined to do that move because he felt it was inappropriate," Trigg said, referring to the
Some parents who stuck by Mansfield despite the allegations defended the swing dance troupe, saying it boosts self-esteem and gets kids in shape with its high-energy footwork.
"She's terrible at sports," one mother said about her teenage daughter, who has been a Swing Kids dancer for several years. "We did put her in basketball once, and she was the worst player on the team. She's found her niche. This is the one thing she can do. I'm supposed to take that away from her?"
The program also provides an option for kids whose parents can't afford to place them on school sports teams, the woman said.
A 13-year-old girl whose parents withdrew her from Swing Kids explained the appeal Mansfield held for the young dancers who flocked around him.
"Steve did a lot for us," she said. "He made us feel pretty special. He made you feel really good, so you didn't like to think bad things about him. ... I just didn't want to see it, that he was like that."
Amy Fischer is the education reporter for The Daily News. She may be reached at 577-2532 or at email@example.com.
trips in its handling of ex-teacher
May 4, 2003
Former Cascade Middle School teacher Steve Mansfield, now on administrative leave after repeated complaints of improper conduct with female students, is being paid a partial salary for two years. In all, he'll get more than $67,790.20 plus benefits for doing nothing from March 5, 2002, when he was ordered out of the classroom, until he retires in August 2004.
The Longview School District's argues that it's cheaper to pay Mansfield than to fire him and then fight him in court, a process that would allow Mansfield to be paid his full salary while the case was being fought. Also, school officials say that settling with Mansfield ensured that he will not be in contact with girls at school.
It's a fact that a strong teachers union can make it nearly impossible to get rid of a teacher. But the school district had ample evidence of Mansfield's inappropriate behavior around young girls. The district's own records show that he was given ultimatums as far back as 1986.
It seems as if the district preferred to sweep the Mansfield case quietly into a corner to protect its public image.
What kind of a message does that send to other teachers who may have the same inclinations? Do what Mansfield did and you'll get paid for more than two years for doing nothing?
What does it say to students, who hear repeatedly in health class that they should speak up and get help about inappropriate behavior?
And if the district really wanted to keep Mansfield away from kids, why didn't it notify the parents of the Swing Kids of its concerns?
Until eight days ago, Mansfield had regular contact with Swing Kids dancers. Some of these parents told us they had heard rumors about Mansfield but thought they were instigated by parents who had had a falling out with the popular dance instructor.
The front page article in today's newspaper quotes robustly from public records. Had the parents known to ask for them, they could have obtained those records. Even so, the school administration had an obligation to let parents know, and thus protect children attracted to the dance troupe.
Because school administrators said nothing, their silence may have left some parents trusting that nothing serious was wrong.
The administration's desire to resolve this issue quietly left vulnerable children at risk, as well as blew an opportunity to remind other teachers what standards are acceptable -- and what are not.
The administration had an opportunity to show decisive leadership in the Mansfield case. It failed that test.
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
After reading the front page
of the Sunday paper, I am aware that our children are not as safe in
school as we had hoped. I thought our worries for our children in school
were drugs, STDs and bullying -- not inappropriate relationships with
I am sick to my stomach that this was allowed to go on as long as it has, that no warning was given to the parents of the children at Cascade Middle School and in the Swing Dance troop.
Our school system does not
seem too geared to the safety of our children. It almost seems like
nothing is being done to stop this and that, instead of punishment,
there is now a reward.
I may re-think my vote the
next time the school system asks for more money. All of us parents and
guardians with children in school need to wake up and smell the smoke
A name for the next school
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