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Teacher’s saga reflects poorly on area schools

Gary Gregor, charged with sexually abusing young girls while a teacher at an Española elementary school, sits in court with a defense attorney at his arraignment last week. (Courtesy of KOAT)

The recent indictment of Gary Gregor, a former Santa Fe and Española public schools grade-school teacher, has brought his unfortunate professional history around the West back into focus.

Now, again, parents and taxpayers in northern New Mexico – and maybe elsewhere – are left to wonder how Gregor ever got into the position to commit the numerous counts of child sex abuse that he’s accused of.

In a case handled by the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office, Gregor faces three counts of rape of a minor, five counts of criminal sexual contact with a minor and four counts of kidnapping, in instances involving two victims 12 years old or younger. The alleged crimes took place nearly a decade ago, in the 2007-2008 school year, when Gregor was a teacher at Española’s Fairview Elementary School.

Prior to that, he had a teaching job at Agua Fria Elementary in Santa Fe. Docents at the Museum of International Folk Art said they’d spotted inappropriate behavior by Gregor with girls from his class during a field trip. Subsequent questioning of other Gregor students is said to have shown a pattern of similar behavior before the museum outing. But the Santa Fe district let him go with a “neutral reference” and he ended up with a teaching job in Española.

Last year, the Española schools agreed to a $3.2 million settlement in a lawsuit filed on behalf of one of Gregor’s girl students at Fairview Elementary. The suit accused Gregor of twice asking the fourth-grader to spend the night at his home, giving her gifts like candy and teddy bears and touching her intimately.

There was trouble before Gregor ever got to New Mexico.

In Utah, after he was accused of sexual misconduct with female students, Gregor faced criminal charges, but they were dismissed in 1995. The case started with a parent’s complaint after two girls stayed after school with Gregor for hours, and it turns out there had been more serious earlier complaints.

Gregor moved on to Montana. A still-pending New Mexico lawsuit on behalf of another Fairview Elementary student says that public records show that he acknowledged when applying for a New Mexico teaching license that he was fired from his Montana school job for “insubordination” that had to do with a school policy barring after-school activities with students.

Almost all of these details became public – and generated news coverage – in 2011. The fact that Gregor has finally been charged apparently was inspired by national news coverage of so-called “passing the trash,” the practice of school districts getting rid of teachers accused of molestation or other inappropriate behavior but without red flags to keep other districts from giving the same teachers new jobs.

In December, Gregor’s case was cited in a major USA Today investigative reporting series that inspired coverage by other national news media.

In addition to the “neutral” recommendation the Santa Fe schools gave Gregor when he resigned – which meant the district would only provide prospective employers of Gregor with basic information such as dates of employment and pay rates – there are other troubling details from his case:

• A federal judge in 2014 found that Santa Fe school district officials didn’t violate state law requiring that school officials report suspected child abuse to the state Children, Youth and Families Department and law enforcement, despite the various allegations they were aware of. Why? The judge said the state’s reporting requirement applied only to abuse in which the suspected perpetrator was a parent or guardian, not a school employee.

• Santa Fe Public Schools did send a report to the state Public Education Department in 2004 stating that Gregor had engaged in inappropriate physical contact with female students. PED issued a formal written reprimand documenting findings of inappropriate behavior that was permanently attached to his teaching licensing file. The reprimand also was posted on a national teacher certification clearinghouse. Still, Gregor was hired at Española schools in 2005.

• According to one of the lawsuits over his actions, he first worked at a Truchas school, then part of the Española district. Teachers there reported he had a girl sit on his lap and stroke his cheek. This case was reported to CYFD, which took no action, the suit states.

• Complaints of Gregor’s alleged inappropriate behavior around girls after he transferred to Fairview Elementary were brought to the attention of the principal, starting in the 2006-2007 school year, the suit says. But a police investigation was undertaken only after a parent filed a report with law enforcement in May 2009. Gregor was placed on leave a few days after an Española officer reported the results of a “safe-house interview” he’d arranged for one of Gregor’s students.

• In 2010, both the school district and a principal still recommended Gregor for a state teaching license renewal. PED denied the renewal.

• A lawyer for the Fairview girl whose suit resulted in the $3.2 million settlement with Española schools last year said the family only decided to go to court after the district attorney’s office took no action after the Española police investigation.

So many players in this sad saga, but so little action.

The criminal case now underway should provide some answers as to what precisely Gregor was up to, at least for one school year at Española. Another big question is whether the people in charge of northern New Mexico schools and child protection services will ever let something like this happen again.

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