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Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Santa Fe school principal Vickie Sewing was concerned about teacher Gary Gregor’s behavior toward some of his young female students and believed that he might do the same thing again.
But Gregor was allowed to resign from the Santa Fe Public Schools and received a “neutral recommendation” that didn’t mention any allegations of wrongdoing.
That meant other school districts weren’t warned that Gregor had been accused of sexually assaulting two students while he was teaching fourth grade at Agua Fria Elementary in 2004.
Sewing, Agua Fria Elementary School’s principal at the time, said in a deposition years later that she believed the neutral recommendation was unethical because of what her investigation into Gregor’s alleged misconduct revealed.
Yet Sewing did not contact law enforcement about the alleged abuse, nor did anyone else from Santa Fe Public Schools. Santa Fe police confirm they have no record of any report about Gregor.
The Santa Fe school superintendent at the time, Gloria Rendon, says she was following legal advice when she OK’d the neutral recommendation for Gregor.
And she said in a lawsuit deposition that museum docents should have reported Gregor to police, after spotting inappropriate behavior with girls by Gregor on a school field trip.
Sewing is a defendant in an October 2018 federal civil rights lawsuit, along with Gregor and the Santa Fe school district, that claims she and the district were negligent for failing to report Gregor’s misconduct to police and the state child welfare agency, the Children, Youth and Families Department.
Allegations in the suit include that, in 2004, Gregor kept one girl alone in the classroom during lunch or recess and rubbed her leg, partially or fully undressed her and took pictures of her with a disposable camera.
The suit also says Gregor, who practiced acupuncture, gave a girl at Agua Fria Elementary “shots” by injecting her with a needle while she had a band around her arm. He told her the shots would make her beautiful and smart. Gregor eventually began fully undressing the girl during the injections, the suit maintains.
In the now voluminous legal and administrative proceedings over Gregor’s tenure at Santa Fe public schools, one major issue is that a state law on child abuse does not specifically require schools to report abuse of students by teachers to law enforcement.
The reporting requirement in the New Mexico Abuse and Neglect Act applies to allegations of abuse by parents and guardians, not teachers. A federal judge cited the loophole in dismissing the Santa Fe school district from an earlier civil lawsuit over Gregor’s treatment of his students.
An effort to extend the reporting requirement to teacher abuse failed in 2017 when it couldn’t get on the agenda for a 30-day, budget-focused legislative session.
Without a criminal investigation and Gregor’s trade-off with Santa Fe Public Schools over his departure – instead of being fired, he resigned and got the neutral recommendation – Gregor moved on to jobs teaching in the Española school district.
He did receive a reprimand from the state Public Education Department for what he did in Santa Fe, but only after he was hired in Española.
It turns out, Sewing’s concerns about Gregor’s potential for wrongdoing down the line were apparently valid.
Last month, Gregor, 62, was convicted on 12 counts of criminal sexual penetration of a minor, criminal sexual contact of a minor and kidnapping. He was charged with repeatedly abusing two female fourth-grade students at Fairview Elementary in Española during the 2007-08 school year and now faces up to 168 years in prison.
And Española Public Schools has also paid more than $9 million to settle civil lawsuits over alleged abuse of his grade-school female students there.
In 2017, Attorney General Hector Balderas decided to initiate criminal proceedings against Gregor for his alleged abuse of students more than a decade ago. Gregor has also been charged with abusing a third Fairview Elementary student a decade ago.
That case went to trial last week. On Thursday, the jury told District Court Judge Mary Marlowe Sommer that it could not reach a unanimous verdict on one count of criminal sexual contact of a minor, a female second-grade student during the 2006-07 school year. Balderas says he will retry the case.
Balderas has also charged Gregor with sexually abusing two girls during his teaching tenure in Santa Fe, at Agua Fria Elementary in 2004. Gregor is expected to go to trial for those counts later this year.
Santa Fe allegations
Records show that Santa Fe school officials did conduct a significant investigation of Gregor in 2004.
It started when docents at the Santa Fe Museum of International Folk Art told Sewing that two blonde girls were sitting on Gregor’s lap and holding his hand during a field trip.
Gregor was eventually placed on leave, and documents obtained by the Journal indicate that Santa Fe Public Schools was ready to go through a termination proceeding.
But administrators eventually allowed him to voluntarily resign and receive the neutral recommendation, even after new evidence emerged. In a discussion led by a Santa Fe Rape Crisis Center employee, students described how they felt Gregor’s erection when they sat on his lap.
To this day, then-SFPS Superintendent Rendon still believes Sewing reported Gregor to police. She also said she still believes it was the duty of the Folk Art Museum docents to report Gregor.
In a January 2015 deposition, attorney Cammie Nichols – who represents Gregor’s former students in several civil lawsuits – asked principal Sewing how she felt about the neutral recommendation given to Gregor when he left the Santa Fe schools.
According to a transcript of the deposition, Nichols asked:
“As you sit here today, how do you feel about Mr. Gregor getting a neutral recommendation from the Santa Fe district?”
“I think it’s bad policy,” Sewing said.
“Q. Why is that?”
“A. I think it’s unethical.”
“Q. Because of what the investigation revealed?”
Nichols also asked: “And what about what was discovered during the investigation made it, in your opinion as an educator, unethical to give Mr. Gregor a neutral recommendation?”
“A. I would have probably been concerned that he would do it again.”
“Q. If he was hired as a teacher at another school?”
Sewing also said in the deposition that she felt Gregor’s “grooming” behavior “perhaps would lead to something more,” and agreed that the something more could include sexual abuse.
Sewing’s investigation began after a Folk Art Museum docent reported about the field trip in an email: “During this time we observed very inappropriate behavior of Mr. —- and several young girls in the class,” the docent wrote. “There was a lot of touching and sitting closely side by side. … I have been a teacher for 30 years and a docent for five years. During my career I have been involved in countless field trips. At no time have I ever seen a teacher behave in such an unprofessional manner.”
Sewing later interviewed museum docents and got more information about what they saw Gregor doing.
“In our conversation she (a docent) related to me that two blonde girls were hanging on and hugging a male teacher,” Sewing wrote. “The girls and Dr. Gregor were constantly touching each other and it was troubling to see.” Gregor was often referred to as “Dr. Gregor” by students and others because he practiced acupuncture.
Sewing and SFPS human resources specialist Angela Dawson then interviewed all the girls in Gregor’s class, as well as three boys.
“Based on the interviews of the students, I had serious concerns about Dr. Gregor’s ability to set boundaries and maintain a ‘professional relationship’ with his students,” Sewing wrote. “… While touching does not seem to constitute child abuse or criminal sexual contact or a more serious sexual act, I clearly feel Dr. Gregor does not understand boundaries and how to appropriate (sic) interact with his students, particularly the girls. … the sitting on his lap and tickling goes well beyond appropriate physical interactions between a teacher and a 4th-grade student.
“I believe this may well be ‘grooming’ behavior on the part of Dr. Gregor.”
Gregor was immediately placed on leave and was served a notice of discharge in early March 2004.
The Rape Crisis Center’s Helen Nakdimen met with Gregor’s students in April 2004 and shared her findings with Sewing in a written report.
Students told Nakdimen that he would tickle girls as they sat on his lap and that they “felt his ‘boner,’ ‘his thing was sticking up,’ ‘nasty!’ ” Nakdimen wrote.
Sewing wrote in her report that Gregor agreed to voluntarily resign after this information came out.
“SFPS was prepared to have the due process discharge hearing as requested by Dr. Gregor when the Rape Crisis Center report came to light,” Sewing wrote. “Dr. Gregor then changed his mind … and agreed to resign from his position with the Santa Fe Public Schools.”
Sewing recently referred questions to her lawyer, Jerry Walz. Walz referred questions to Albuquerque attorney Desiree Gurule. Walz said he represented Sewing in a separate matter. A message to Gurule was not returned by the Journal’s deadline.
‘Not the district’s job’
Dawson, the Santa Fe schools’ human resources official, said at a 2010 state Public Education Department hearing to revoke Gregor’s teaching license that the police weren’t called because school district officials felt it wasn’t their job to determine if there should be criminal charges. They followed the district’s lawyer’s advice to give Gregor a neutral recommendation, Dawson said.
“As an employer, we are not required to determine if something criminal happened,” Dawson said at the PED hearing. “And so we spoke with our legal counsel, and we did what we were advised to do.”
The name of the attorney who made the recommendation is not part of the hearing documents, and the Journal was unable to verify who the attorney was last week.
In a 2015 deposition for civil ligation focusing on Gregor, former SFPS superintendent Rendon was asked: “Did you have any qualms about allowing Mr. Gregor to have a neutral recommendation?”
She responded: “I think I always had qualms about following the advice of counsel because I didn’t know – I – I wasn’t completely aware of all of the aspects of the law to be able to do anything different.” She was also asked if she felt the need to keep kids in other school districts safe.
“Q. But as an – as an educator, as somebody who always wanted to be a teacher, were you concerned about the students in other districts?
“A. Well, I’m always going to be concerned about – about other students. But my first obligation was to the students in Santa Fe.”
Sewing, SFPS and Rendon had previously been sued in 2014 over the same allegations involving Gregor at Agua Fria Elementary, along with school officials in Española. But a judge dropped the Santa Fe defendants from the case because the New Mexico Abuse and Neglect Act requires school officials to report abuse only by a parent or guardian, not a teacher.
“It would appear, therefore, that this statute mandates the reporting of parental abuse or neglect, not abuse by a school employee,” federal Judge Steven C. Yarbrough wrote in an October 2014 order.
Then-state Sen. Howie Morales, now the newly installed lieutenant governor, introduced a bill in last year’s legislative session that would have required abuse committed by someone who isn’t the child’s parent to be reported.
It’s unclear if a similar bill will be introduced this year. Morales could not be reached for comment last week.