A Santa Barbara courtroom ruled in favor of reinstating a local high school teacher accused of making anti-Semitic and sexually charged remarks to students earlier this month.
Matef Harmachis was suspended from his position at Santa Barbara High for inappropriate conduct in the classroom in 2005, after being transferred from Dos Pueblos High for similar reasons a year before. Earlier this month the Commission on Professional Competence of the Santa Barbara School Districts rejected the school district’s appeal, ruling in favor of reinstating Harmachis.
Since the first incident of Harmachis’ inappropriate behavior, the Santa Barbara School District has attempted to keep him out of the classroom by placing him on administrative leave and appealing the court’s decision.
“We don’t believe Mr. Harmachis should be in a classroom working with kids,” Superintendent Brian Sarvis said.
The controversy began in June 2004, when two 10th grade twins at Dos Pueblos visited a friend in Harmachis’ class. According to court documents, one of the students was a wearing a shirt displaying the Star of David and the words “Israeli Police.” Harmachis instructed the student to “turn his T-shirt inside out or leave the room.” When the student refused, Harmachis led him out of the classroom by the arm, forcing him outside.
According to court documents, the district’s statement of charges alleged that Harmachis “made disparaging remarks against Israel and used profanity and physical force in the T-shirt incident.”
The statement also included allegations of inappropriate sexual comments and the use of profanity while threatening violence toward students.
However, the CPC ruling stated that “most of the comments were friendly banter” and “did not upset the students or negatively impact their school performance.” While the commission acknowledged Harmachis’ comments showed “unfitness to teach in some respects,” it found that the “conduct does not show such unfitness to teach as to warrant dismissal.”
Arthur Gross-Schaefer, the twins’ father and a professor of marketing and business law at Loyola Marymount, said that Harmachis should not be reinstated due to the nature of his conduct.
“Students deserve a safe environment and should not feel unsafe,” he said.
Gross-Schaefer also said Harmachis abused his teaching position by mistreating the twins, who have not forgotten the teacher’s remarks.
“Comments made to a student stay with them,” Gross-Schaefer said, “and a teacher must be very careful not to shame them.”
The CPC supported Harmachis’ overall conduct, and claimed that the incidents occurred as a result of his “desire to maintain classroom control in the face of repeated challenges to his authority.”
However, Gross-Schaefer was “disappointed” with the CPC’s decision and felt that the proper procedures were not followed.
“The standard for disciplining a faculty member was not appropriately applied,” he said.
Harmachis began teaching social studies at Dos Pueblos High School in 2001, and was granted tenure in 2003. Gross-Schaefer said he believes schools occasionally “rush too quickly to grant tenure.”
An investigation into the incident turned up other instances where students claimed Harmachis had displayed inappropriate behavior, including one comment were he told a female student, “It’s okay if you come naked to class but you can’t drink Naked Juice in my class.”
In 2005, following news that Harmachis had shown unprofessional conduct, in addition to the incident involving the T-shirt, he was transferred to Santa Barbara High School. After a month at this new position, a student alleged that Harmachis had told him to “shut the hell up.”
Another student reported Harmachis was threatening while trying to confiscate a cell phone from him. After being told by the student that Harmachis could not touch him, the teacher responded, “Touch you? I’ll knock your dumb ass out.”
Harmachis has been placed on paid administrative leave since 2005. Prior to teaching, Harmachis spent 20 years working as a journalist.