Despite being exonerated recently at a State-level administrative hearing, former Dos Pueblos High School social studies teacher Matef Harmachis is still fighting for his job and his good name in the face of what he perceives as race- and class-motivated attacks from the Santa Barbara School District. Though a 26-page state hearing board report — not to mention countless former students and colleagues — deem Harmachis, 49, fit to teach, the Santa Barbara School Board voted unanimously earlier this spring to appeal the state board’s decision, upholding its July 2005 decision to fire Harmachis. While a superior court judge is expected to rule on the matter sometime this fall, both sides have recently reiterated their resolve.
Superintendent Brian Sarvis commented last week, “Simply put, we cannot have Matef teaching high school students.” And Harmachis — who has been on paid leave to the tune of $50,000 a year for the better part of two years — considers his return to the classroom an inevitable issue of higher calling and karma. “It’s not up to me and it’s not up to them [the district],” he said. “They don’t have the power. They can’t do what the almighty don’t want them to do. … I am going back to the classroom.”
Fueling the school board’s determination to keep Harmachis out of the classroom is a series of events dating back to 2004. The trouble began on a warm June morning at Dos Pueblos High, with the school year nearly done and Harmachis teaching a mid-morning senior economics class. Sometime during the class — which was intended to be a discussion of final-exam results, senior checkout paperwork, and a customary yearbook-signing session — the atmosphere turned confrontational. After the smoke cleared and the class bell rang, Harmachis found himself accused of physically and verbally abusing two Jewish visitors to his class.
By Harmachis’s recollection, “There were two un-enrolled kids in my room, uninvited. They acted a fool and I got them out. Case closed.” However, according to testimony in the state hearing, things may have gone down a bit differently. The visitors in question — though unknown to Harmachis — were not strangers to the school; they were sophomores who had taken the semester off to study abroad in Israel. Having recently returned home, the twins — who are sons of prominent local rabbi and Loyola Law School Professor Arthur Gross-Schaefer — had come to campus that day to fill out enrollment papers for the following fall and to give a presentation about their experience in Israel to a different class later in the day. Their presence in the econ class was not surprising, as Harmachis’s classes were often attended by other students eager to hear the popular teacher talk. In fact, on that particular day, there were six other visitors in the class, in addition to approximately 30 enrolled students.
The conflict flared when Harmachis asked one of the boys to turn his T-shirt inside out, considering it a breach of school policy. The shirt was military green and emblazoned with the words “Israeli Police Force.” Harmachis and at least one other witness maintain that the shirt also had an insignia of two crossed rifles on it, thus rendering it a violation of the dress code; but the twins and several other witnesses say it did not. According to Harmachis, the 15-year-old boy refused to turn the shirt inside out in a very confrontational manner. Harmachis then put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, directed him toward the door, and told him to “cool it” with a promise to discuss the issue outside the classroom once the lesson was done. However, the twins testified at the state hearing that Harmachis said something along the lines of “turn the fucking shirt inside out,” grabbed the teen, and escorted him outside the classroom. He then slammed the door and shouted, “Get the fuck out of my room with the IPF shit, fucking pigs!” Of the eight witnesses not directly involved in the altercation who also testified, six went on the record saying they did not recall Harmachis using the f-word during the incident, and none of the uninvolved witnesses remembered any racial slurs.
At the request of the Gross-Schaefer family, the district investigated the incident and placed Harmachis on paid administrative leave. In the end, Harmachis was reprimanded for improper language and behavior, but he was not fired, as the Gross-Schaefers had hoped; instead, he was transferred to Santa Barbara High School in January 2005 and instructed to curb his obscenities and refrain from touching students. However, Harmachis’s trouble was only just beginning. As Sarvis explained, “The Harmachis situation isn’t just about the T-shirt incident. It is an aggregate of the sexual harassment and then the incidents at S.B. High.”
THE PLOT THICKENS
The superintendent was referring to an allegation by a former female student that surfaced during the T-shirt investigation. While the student readily admitted to having a “good” relationship with Harmachis, she testified that he made comments such as, “Just because you are good in bed, doesn’t mean you can eat in class”; and, “It is okay if you come to class naked, but you cannot drink Naked juice in class.” Further, after serving a suspension, the girl reported her return to Harmachis’s class was marked by a “weird” hug and a kiss on the cheek. However, since little or none of the accusations were corroborated by other witnesses, the state board ruled that the district had “failed to establish” that Harmachis’s actions constituted sexual harassment.
By the time he had taken the reins of social studies and history classes at Santa Barbara High in February 2005, Harmachis felt he could put the sexual harassment accusations and the T-shirt incident behind him; he had been cleared. But within two weeks, he found himself in hot water once again. The first reprimand in his new school came a mere three days after he started to teach again, when he shouted at a repeatedly disruptive student in his law class, “Shut the hell up!” While Harmachis does not deny the outburst, he counters, “You think a teacher has never yelled shut up before? Come on now!” Furthermore, he feels, “There should be a choice on campus and you should take your child out of my room if I am scaring you. That’s okay. … Choice is good.”
The proverbial third strike came 10 days later when he confiscated a cell phone from a student in his special-education U.S. history class. According to Harmachis, the kid was defiant on a daily basis, and when he refused to turn over the cell phone — which school policy outlaws in the classroom — the teacher admitted he “snapped” in his handling of the situation, physically removing the phone from the student’s shirt pocket and possibly uttering obscenities. Three days later, on February 17, Harmachis was once again placed on paid administrative leave, where he remains today.
Putting aside the expected contradictions of he said/she said debate, the Harmachis situation is probably most intriguing for the outpouring of support the embattled teacher has received. From former students to colleagues, the message is clear: This man can teach. Liz Bush — who also teaches history at Dos Pueblos and supervised Harmachis’s student-teaching stint in 2001 — described him as “head and shoulders above anybody I have ever worked with before or since.” And Shane Coggins — a former student of Harmachis’s who was in the classroom at the time of the T-shirt incident — said recently, “I wasn’t doing too hot in high school and he made me realize I could go to college; he raised my awareness of social issues at a time when I needed it most.” Riki Berlin — a Jewish woman who has worked as a special-education aide in the district for 25 years and often visited Harmachis’s class — remembered how parents transferred their kids to Dos Pueblos just so they could take a Harmachis history class. “He got kids to go out into the world and try to fix things and to get civically involved. He was a real inspiration. … It is a true tragedy to lose a teacher like that who can get kids interested in history,” she lamented last week. Even Sarvis has offered that Harmachis was a “spirited teacher who certainly connected with a lot of kids.” But “there were also some students who were afraid,” he added.
Harmachis acknowledges his tendency to provoke fear and considers it indicative of what he perceives as the real reason behind his dismissal. “[The district knows] I ain’t no liberal and they know I ain’t no conservative,” he explained. “But I hate oppression and I am out to kill it wherever I find it. Stomp it out and kill it. People come first with me, no matter what, and I think that scares other people.” In a district with only 12 African-American teachers, Harmachis feels that “this whole thing has never been about me. It is about white male privilege and politics.” To Harmachis — who readily refers to the United States as an “anti-nigger machine” and often dresses in traditional African garb — the Dos Pueblos incident would have been seen in a vastly different light had the roles been reversed; that is, if the un-enrolled students had been students of color and he an Anglo European teacher. “I would have had no problems and no complaints if that had been the case,” he opined. As for the allegations against him for his behavior at Santa Barbara High, Harmachis chalks it up to “card stacking” and dismisses it as “just an excuse to get rid of me.”
Still, Harmachis admits to having made mistakes in the classroom. “Yes, I need better self-control when faced with disobedient students,” he said. “From now on, I’ll be the first person to call the principal or the administration or whoever.” But that isn’t good enough for Sarvis and the school board, who seem poised to fight reinstatement to the bitter end. “The board is resolute in their determination to make sure we don’t see him in front of a classroom ever again,” Sarvis vowed. “It would be quite a quandary for us if he wins.” Accroding to Harmachis’s lawyer, Bob Bartosh, the entire process will most likely wind up costing the cash-strapped district in excess of $200,000 with no guarantees that it will win.
Winning or losing seems to be beside the point to Harmachis. A former journalist and active political organizer, Harmachis considers his job as a teacher to be part of a higher calling. “I have no worries,” he explained. “To worry is sin. … Teaching came to me, I was pushed toward it, and if I just do the right thing, it’s my assumption that things are going to go right … I am going to go back and teach exactly the same way I always have. I am good and they know I am good.” And then, as if addressing his detractors, he confidently added, “Don’t believe the hype. Come to my classroom and you’ll see. Not one person who is trying to exile my career has ever been in my class.”