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Abuser got past PED before getting a job in Española

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

In 2004, the New Mexico Public Education Department had an opportunity to examine alleged misbehavior with female students by then-teacher Gary Gregor. PED could have suspended or revoked his license, and there was discussion at the department of reporting him to the police.

Ex-teacher Gary Gregor faces up to 168 years in prison for convictions on multiple counts of molesting fourth-grade girls at an Española elementary school. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

But, just as had happened when accusations against Gregor were investigated by the Santa Fe Public Schools and, before that, at a school district in Utah, Gregor survived to teach another day.

PED gave Gregor only a reprimand, and that action came after he had already moved on from Santa Fe and taken a job at Española Public Schools.

The PED reprimand appears to have resulted after an attorney for Gregor raised questions about the most serious evidence against the teacher, saying student interviews had been conducted in such a way that they would not hold up in a court proceeding. The police were not called in.

The checkered teaching career of Gregor ended after he was again accused of improperly touching elementary school girls, this time at Española’s Fairview Elementary.

And in December, he was finally convicted in a criminal court and faces up to 168 years in prison for sexually touching two Fairview fourth-graders – now adults who testified against him – during the 2007-08 school year.

Gregor’s zigs and zags from state to state and, in New Mexico, through various educational bureaucracies despite repeated allegations of misconduct has gained national attention. His case is pointed to as an example of “passing the trash” – allowing teachers accused of sexual misbehavior to move from school to school without accountability.

Records recently obtained by the Journal reveal details of PED’s probe of Gregor after Santa Fe Public Schools officials forwarded documentation about the accusations made against him when he taught at Agua Fria Elementary in 2004.

Docents at the International Folk Art Museum had reported him for inappropriate behavior with girls on a field trip. Also sent to PED was a letter from a Santa Fe Rape Crisis Center representative that said Gregor’s students told her that they could feel Gregor’s erection when they sat on his lap.

As the Journal has previously reported in a series of articles about Gregor, SFPS leaders struck a deal with Gregor – he agreed to voluntarily resign and accepted a “neutral” recommendation, with no mention of alleged improprieties with girls.

One of the documents recently released by PED shines new light on that arrangement. Eleanor K. Bratton, then an attorney for Santa Fe schools, endorsed the neutral recommendation for Gregor in a May 2004 email to a school district human resources official.

“Bottom line, he’s (Gregor) gone,” Bratton wrote. “Ben (Baur, Gregor’s attorney) wants a neutral recommendation. No problem. He also wants no reporting to the licensure board. I said we would not make any gratuitous reports, but there were reports we were required to make, and have done so or will do so.”

PED licenses New Mexico teachers and had jurisdiction to take action against Gregor regardless of the district’s resolution of his case.

Veronica Garcia, now superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, was secretary of the state Public Education Department in 2004 when allegations of misbehavior with female students against then-teacher Gary Gregor were reviewed by PED. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Veronica Garcia, now superintendent of Santa Fe Schools, was PED secretary in 2004. The Journal recently showed her documents that were obtained from PED under a public records request.

The records include internal emails in which PED attorneys discussed Gregor possibly committing criminal conduct, but later offering Gregor a reprimand instead of moving forward with a license revocation hearing.

Garcia said she had never seen the documents before. She said she would have advised attorneys to call the police and that she had trusted PED attorneys to do their jobs.

“You don’t know me, but I am very hard core and have very little patience or compassion for anybody who’s going to molest or hurt kids,” Garcia said.

“And if I’m going to err on a certain side, I’m going to err on the safety of kids. Just reading this is really upsetting me and making me very angry. Why didn’t they just contact the police?

“If I had seen something like this, do you think I would have signed a letter of reprimand? No, you don’t know me, but I can tell you, no.”

Docents’ report

Gregor was placed on administrative leave by SFPS in early 2004 after the Folk Art Museum docents complained that Gregor was behaving inappropriately with two blonde girls on a field trip, including having them sit on his lap and holding their hands.

While Gregor was on leave, Helen Nakdimen from the Santa Fe Rape Crisis Center spoke with Gregor’s class and collected new allegations. She sent a letter to Agua Fria Principal Vickie Sewing reporting how some students said that as they sat on his lap they “felt his ‘boner,’ ‘his thing was sticking up,’ ‘nasty!’ ”

PED also later received that letter, according to the PED documents provided to the Journal.

Ida Lujan, then PED assistant general counsel, sent an email to the department’s Professional Practices Director Joe Mendez in June 2004 that said she believed Gregor may have committed a crime and that police should be called.

“The new information contained in Ms. Nadkimen’s (sic) letter, in my opinion, elevates the seriousness of the initial allegations,” Lujan wrote. “It is probably very appropriate to refer this matter to local law enforcement because it appears the elements of criminal sexual contact of a minor may have been established.”

But Baur, then Gregor’s attorney and now New Mexico’s chief public defender, argued the Rape Crisis Center discussions were tainted evidence because of lack of proper controls and students could talk among themselves about what was said. He sent a letter to the center’s executive director, Barbara Goldman, in May 2004.

“If any of the allegations that arose in the program were indeed true, the way that they were brought out makes them highly subject to attack in court,” Baur wrote. “If, however, as I suspect, they are not true, they have only served to denigrate the reputation of this teacher even further. It is alarming to think that these kinds of allegations are talked about in a group setting in other classrooms, as well, and what kinds of effects on the students this might create.

“I hope, if it is necessary, that we can work together to improve the performance so that real instances of sexual abuse are effectively brought to light, while false allegations are minimized. That is my main goal in this matter.”

Baur’s arguments about tainted evidence appear to have been crucial. Lujan, the PED attorney, was persuaded, the documents show.

In an email sent to Mendez, PED’s professional practices chief, and department General Counsel Willie R. Brown in August 2004, Lujan wrote:

“Upon review of all the materials recently supplied to me in this matter, I do not believe that there is credible evidence or adequate investigation to support the contention that Gregor engaged in overtly sexual contact with his students although there is sufficient evidence, in my opinion, that teacher/student boundaries were crossed and that he engaged in favoritism.

“I agree with his attorney that the class discussions/training sessions documented by the Santa Fe Rape Crisis Center are tainted and would not be very useful.

“… Since Joe (Mendez) seeks a reprimand out of this matter, I propose to present the approved but unissued NCA (notice of contemplated action) to Gregor’s attorney in an attempt to negotiate a pre-NCA stipulated agreement resulting in a reprimand. Even if this matter goes to a hearing, I believe that the most the department is looking at is a reprimand.”

Six months went by before PED Assistant General Counsel Bruce Berlin sent a letter to Baur introducing himself as PED’s new licensure attorney, in February 2005. Berlin offered Gregor a deal in which PED would close any licensure action in exchange for Gregor voluntarily accepting a reprimand.

“Consequently, the PED would like to know whether Mr. Gregor would voluntarily consent to a Reprimand being placed in his file,” Berlin wrote. “If he agrees, this matter will be closed. Otherwise, the PED would take formal action against Mr. Gregor … which action may be in the form of licensure suspension or revocation.”

Garcia said she doesn’t know why Gregor was offered a reprimand if there could have been evidence for suspension or revocation. “When I read that, that concerns me because it looks like if you take a reprimand, then we won’t go for contemplated action,” she said.

Gregor mailed a response on March 3, 2005.

“… I, without admission of guilt regarding the context and/or the nature of the ‘said allegations’ … do hereby voluntarily consent to your Reprimand and its placement in my file,” Gregor wrote.

Utah history not mentioned

There is no indication in PED records provided to the Journal that PED employees considering how to handle Gregor’s case in 2004 were aware of or took into consideration that, in Utah, he had faced criminal child sex abuse charges in 1995. A judge dismissed the charges for lack of evidence.

Three years later, Gregor was getting a teacher’s license in New Mexico. Records show that he provided PED with a handwritten note saying he had been terminated from the Davis County, Utah, school district. The dismissal was for “what they considered insubordination” when he violated a “direct order” against participating in after-school activities with students by serving as co-leader of 4-H program, Gregor wrote.

Also, in 1996, the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Committee reprimanded Gregor for “exhibiting a lack of professional judgment in some of your teaching activities,” although the commission also expressed “great empathy” for “the ordeal you have gone through.”

Gregor was issued a reprimand by PED on May 16, 2005. According to a 2014 civil lawsuit filed on behalf of some of Gregor’s alleged victims, Gregor was hired at the Española Public Schools in January 2005, four or five months before the reprimand became part of Gregor’s PED file. Gregor started teaching in the Española district at the start of the 2005-06, according to the lawsuit.

Ethics violations

The reprimand, which was signed by Garcia, mentions Santa Fe Rape Crisis Center interviews, but not the allegation that Gregor became aroused with girls on his lap that was part of the evidence challenged by Baur.

The reprimand cited Gregor for five violations of the Code of Ethics and Standards of Professional conduct for teachers, including one “prohibiting educators from interfering with a student’s right to a public education by sexually harassing a student … .”

“Licensee is advised that future professional standards violations or licensure infractions of a similar nature may warrant more severe licensure action up to and including suspension or revocation,” the reprimand said.

Garcia said she signed reprimands her attorneys put in front of her and trusted that they didn’t have enough evidence to revoke a teaching license.

“Anytime you’re going to take someone’s license away, there’s a tremendous amount of due process, and it’s like preparing for a trial,” she said.

Years after the reprimand, in 2010, Berlin was the PED official who denied Gregor a teaching license renewal after the additional allegations arose in Española. Three alleged victims testified at a PED hearing, and depositions and other documents of the licensure total more than 1,100 pages.

The Española Police Department had an active criminal investigation at the time, according to a transcript of the hearing, but no charges were filed. No school official ever reported Gregor to police; the Española police probe resulted from a parent’s complaint.

New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas, first elected in 2014, became interested in Gregor’s history a couple of years ago and has obtained numerous indictments against him. In addition to the Española case that resulted in convictions in December, Gregor was tried in January for one count of criminal sexual contact of a minor against a second-grade student, also at Española’s Fairview Elementary, during the 2006-07 school year. That trial ended with a hung jury. He is scheduled for a retrial in that case later this year.

Gregor will also be tried for several counts of criminal sexual penetration of a minor for crimes he allegedly committed against the two girls at Santa Fe’s Agua Fria in 2003-04.

Civil suits against Gregor and Española schools have resulted in settlements amounting to more than $9 million in payments to the victim plaintiffs. There is also a pending civil lawsuit against Gregor and the Santa Fe school district.

Garcia says she would not have signed the reprimand for Gregor back in 2005 if she had seen the report from the Rape Crisis Center that included the graphic comments by Santa Fe students.

“That (reprimand) was all that I had, because I can tell you that if I read this other stuff, I would have been pushing back, and you can take that to the bank,” Garcia said.

“My personality hasn’t changed much over the years, and how I feel about children, how I feel about protecting them, how I feel about following the law, about being ethical in my work, and I feel like my body of work and my reputation I think stands for itself. And anyone who has worked with me knows that if I had been presented with information like this, I’m not the kind of individual that sweeps things under the rug or runs from the truth.”

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