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Teacher calls potential dismissal unwarranted, fights back over email

A Claremont teacher, frustrated by what he sees as persecution on the part of the Claremont Unified School District, now faces termination.

Over the past months, Claremont High School social studies teacher Dave Lukkarila has sent hundreds of updates on his struggles with CUSD administrators, teacher’s union representatives and school board members to the personal email accounts of nearly 200 members of the district community. 

In late March of 2012, Mr. Lukkarila was placed on paid administrative leave, pending dismissal under the Education Code. He was suspended on charges stemming from complaints by CHS staffers that his behavior made them feel unsafe, according to CUSD Superintendent Jim Elsasser. Mr. Lukkarila is currently on unpaid suspended status.

Mr. Lukkarila has maintained from the start such allegations are false and that he has not been given the opportunity to defend himself. In April, he demanded an Office of Administration Hearing. In an OAH, a panel—which includes a representative chosen by the district and another selected by the employee whose job is at stake—makes a binding determination of whether the staffer should be terminated or not. Unless either Mr. Lukkarila or CUSD requests a continuance, that hearing is coming up in a matter of weeks. 

Mr. Lukkarila’s emails—more than 300 of which have been sent to the COURIER since June 2012—have typically been met with little response. That’s not the case, however, for a May 26 missive sent to Claremont Faculty Association President Dave Chameberlain, in which he attacked school board member Sam Mowbray in an expletive-filled tirade. Among other statements, Mr. Lukkarila said he was looking forward to urinating and defecating on the board member’s grave, a statement he later classified as no more than a colorful metaphor.

The language was such that CUSD Superintendent Jim Elsasser—who described the email as “laced with crudeness, profanity and angry expressions”—felt compelled to respond with a statement to the COURIER (see below).

“The email was deemed to be threatening by Dr. Mowbray and others, who reported such to the district and the Claremont Police Department. Accordingly, the district is investigating these recent concerns and working closely with those affected, along with the Claremont Police Department,” Mr. Elsasser wrote. “The district cannot, at this time, comment further on this ongoing personnel matter, other than to assure staff and others in our community that the safety and wellbeing of our students, staff, and school officials is always our first priority.” Mr.  Elsasser’s full statement can be seen in the online version of this story at www.claremont-courier.com.

In an interview with the COURIER, Mr. Lukkarila said he has no plans to harm anyone. He followed up his electronic confrontation of Mr. Mowbray with an email in which he apologized for his profanity, but noted he would continue to hold Mr. Mowbray accountable for his “leadership responsibility.”

The COURIER spoke to Police Chief Paul Cooper, who said that while “Mr. Lukkarila is clearly emotionally distraught and frustrated with lengthy labor issues he is having,” the teacher’s language does not fit the definition of a criminal threat and no formal police report has been filed, according to Lieutenant Mike Ciszek.

“The guidelines are pretty specific,” Chief Cooper said. “You have to threaten to commit a crime that can result in bodily injury to you or others. It has to be unequivocal, unconditional, immediate and specific.” 

Chief Cooper noted that Mr. Lukkarila said he also feels threatened and has requested police presence at various district meetings he plans to attend. A Claremont police officer was stationed outside a recent meeting of the teacher’s union at El Roble Intermediate School, but Mr. Lukkarila opted to not attend.

Mr. Lukkarila has written several mass emails since his apology, airing grievances against a variety of people and organizations. These include Claremont Faculty Association president Dave Chamberlain, whom he says has manufactured charges against him; the COURIER, which he has accused of being unprofessional and biased; school board member Hilary LaConte, whom he calls a “New-Age fascist”; and CTA rep Kim Breen, who he has said “should have handcuffs on her wrists with an orange jumpsuit.”

In a Tuesday email, he warned Mr. Elsasser that he plans to defeat him legally before seeking punitive damages. “You can run back to Anaheim but even then we will pursue you—individually—for every dollar you now—unlawfully—seek to take from our futures,” Mr. Lukkarila wrote.

 

A longstanding conflict

Mr. Lukkarila has a lot on his plate.

On May 23, the results of the most recent CFA election, in which Mr. Lukkarila ran for president, were announced. He lost to incumbent Mr. Chamberlain, 237 to 1.

He is preparing for the impending employment hearing, where he will be expected to make a case against his potential firing. He says the charges against him were based on an anonymous petition. In the wake of the petition, Mr. Lukkarila said he was scrutinized by an armed private investigator at the behest of the district’s law firm, Fagan, Friedman & Fulfrost, whom he believes is systematically corrupt. He also contends that while administrators worked to fire him, his students were lured into interviews in which they were encouraged to share damaging information about him.

The COURIER has submitted a public records request for the private investigator’s report and the district has replied that it will be provided by Thursday, June 12.

Mr. Lukkarila must also prepare for a September hearing with the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) involving complaints that that the district is not taking his grievances seriously and that he is being forced out of his job via unsubstantiated and insubstantial charges. He has filed 11 complaints with PERB against CUSD in the last year and a half. Many of the charges have been dismissed as containing insufficient evidence to merit a hearing and others have been withdrawn by Mr. Lukkarila.

He was granted a PERB hearing in May based on his charges that water infiltration was threatening the health of CHS staff and students and that he was being singled out for punishment as a whistleblower. He failed to meet the judge’s timeline with regards to document submission, so the case was withdrawn. Mr. Lukkarila can still re-file those charges if he wishes, but will have to start all over at the beginning of the process.

Mr. Lukkarila filed seven other PERB charges against the Claremont Faculty Association, according to union member and Sumner Elementary teacher Joe Tonan. Mr. Lukkarila claims the teacher’s union has not represented him fairly, while union reps contend that they “continue to offer him all the support that is his due as a CFA member,” Mr. Tonan said. Most of Mr. Lukkarila’s PERB charges against the faculty union have been denied and he has withdrawn a few of them. One PERB charge is still pending the judge’s determination on whether it merits a hearing.

“CFA is confident that it will be rejected by the PERB board as every other one was,” Mr. Tonan said. 

Mr. Lukkarila says he has little choice but to fight against a biased district in every legal way possible. He says his troubles with the district began after he filed a Williams Complaint with the California Department of Education (CDE) in February of 2012, maintaining that leakage in the classrooms in the 700 quad of Claremont High School was causing dangerous mold to sprout. He was right.

The district responded to the complaint by hiring a company specializing in health and environmental risk assessment, which detected four feet of black mold growing in a classroom near to the one in which Mr. Lukkarila taught. Forty feet of mold was also found growing outdoors in the area, on a plywood ceiling of an overhang.

The district hired a company to clean up the mold, reported to the state about the measures they had taken, and the CDE agreed that CUSD had fixed the problem to the best of its ability.

Mr. Lukkarila appealed that decision and then, before his appeal could be addressed, filed a second Williams Complaint. In the second complaint, he asserted that the measures the district took to alleviate the mold were superficial and failed to address larger issues of poorly maintained facilities. He also said that he was being harassed as a whistleblower. Mr. Lukkarila maintains that following the mold incident, CHS Principal Brett O’Connor made an unusual number of visits to his classroom to scrutinize his teaching.

Mr. Lukkarila said he was subject to observations over five consecutive days, two of which yelded an unfavorable assessment, following his reporting of the mold. A summary report of the observations was issued in mid-February. Mr. Lukkarila disputed the accuracy and conclusions of the report, and requested that administrators destroy them, along with all reports of “pop-in” observations of his classroom. In the following four-month period, Mr. Lukkarila alleges that he was visited 12 times in the classroom for observation, a figure that is in excess of what is permitted by the Claremont teacher’s union collective bargaining agreement.

Along with the Williams Complaints and PERB charges, Mr. Lukkarila has filed about 15 grievances with the school district. When they were rejected, he appealed the district’s decision to the teacher’s union. In each case, the union has rejected his appeal, accepting the determination of Mr. Elsasser and other CUSD administrators.

In a recent email, Mr. Lukkarila, who was described as “a favorite” among students by a 2009 CHS graduate, said he won’t let his career and reputation be destroyed without a fight.

“I have done nothing wrong and will defeat CUSD in a real PERB courtroom, if not others,” he wrote. “My family has no other choice and I will spend every business hour moment pursuing legal matters, because that’s what [my wife and I] did to earn our career, started by substitute teaching on both of our parts, followed by [a combined] 40 years of successful teaching—typically—including summers.”

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com

 

CUSD Superintendent Jim Elsasser's full statement on this issue

David Lukkarila, a teacher at Claremont High School, is presently serving in an unpaid suspended status from his regular duties, while also pending dismissal under the Education Code.  The causes and charges necessitating these actions are quite involved, but primarily stem from a variety of issues and concerns brought forward from numerous staff and others at Claremont High School.  Some of these concerns focused on staff members' beliefs of fear for their own personal safety around Mr. Lukkarila.  While these matters have been pending, staff has continued to report concerns regarding Mr. Lukkarila’s ongoing correspondence via private email to numerous staff members, including a recent late night email over the Memorial Day weekend in which, for unknown reasons, Mr. Lukkarila chose to vehemently attack and frankly threaten the well-being of a sitting board member, Dr. Sam Mowbray.  The email was laced with crudeness, profanity, and angry expressions deemed to be threatening by Dr. Mowbray and others who reported such to the District and Claremont Police Department.  Accordingly, the District is investigating these recent concerns and working closely with those affected, along with the Claremont Police Department.  The District cannot, at this time, comment further on this ongoing personnel matter, other than to assure staff and others in our community that the safety and wellbeing of our students, staff, and school officials is always our first priority, and we are exploring all options in those regards to ensure safety at all times.  
 
—Jim Elsasser, Ed.D., Superintendent

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