Ballard teacher ‘abandoned’ students on field trip, keeps his job

Jul 14, 2016, 6:00 AM | Updated: 5:02 pm
Ballard teacher, school...
A teacher at Ballard High School was suspended for his actions during a field trip to Deception Pass. (MyNorthwest photo)
(MyNorthwest photo)

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UPDATE: Seattle Public Schools is now answering some of the general questions we’ve asked concerning how often Dr. Nyland overturns recommendations. Through their communications department, they’ve told us the following

  1. Superintendent Nyland personally reviews every case that results in a suspension or termination of a certified staff member.
  2. The specific facts of each case, as well as prior discipline, similar cases, and the perspectives of Executive Directors of Schools, the principal, and legal counsel are considered.
  3. Dr. Nyland also provides the employee facing disciplinary action with an opportunity to meet in person with him so that they, usually accompanied by their union representative, can explain certain facts to him and express a desired outcome.
  4. During this process, Dr. Nyland may learn of facts or information that influences the final outcome, such as a staff members’ willingness to change his or her behavior or willingness to obtain counseling.
  5. Superintendent Nyland takes his role and responsibility in these cases very seriously and makes every effort to make sure staff are treated fairly, equitably, and with an opportunity to change behaviors, yet at the same time balancing the need to set standards and enforce rules so that students, families, and other staff are protected.

–Original story–

A Ballard High School teacher remains on the job, even after an investigation found he “abandoned” high school students on an overnight field trip with no one but one of the student’s 19-year-old boyfriend.

Why did he leave them? So he could attend a Seattle teacher’s union protest.

Even though the Seattle Public School District recommended Noam Gundle be fired for conduct that put these students “at great risk…,” Seattle Schools Superintendent Dr. Larry Nyland imposed just a 10-day unpaid suspension (later downgraded to a seven-day suspension) and he won’t explain why. Meanwhile, Gundle still has his job.

Related: Seattle teacher fired for drinking on field trip returns

Gundle took students on a two-night trip to Deception Pass for his Oceanography class on May 17, 2015. Gundle explained to his students prior to the field trip that it would be cut from two nights to one night so he could attend the SEA Walk Out union protest.

While the majority of his students left with him and other chaperones after the one night, Gundle allowed five students to remain at the campsite without approved adult supervision, nor permission from all the student’s parents. In fact, the only adult around was one student’s 19-year-old boyfriend. This raised serious safety and judgment concerns according to the investigative documents.

Gundle, who is active in supporting union causes, justified his decision by telling the school:

Just as I am not responsible for students and their behavior when the [sic] leave school, I am not responsible for their actions after they leave my care. It was clear that when left, they were no longer in my care. Their parents were aware, they gave permission and the field trip was over.

Actually, it wasn’t clear. The investigation reveals Gundle did not commit to the legwork necessary to allow for this kind of unchaperoned overnight trip.

The exhaustive investigation found that he “made no official announcement before he departed [the field trip] and never indicated that the field trip was officially over.”

Further, in his written statement to the school, he claimed he “received permission from each student’s parent for the student to spend the extra night.” This was absolutely not true, according to the investigation, and even if it were, he did not have the schools’ permission to leave the students to spend an extra night without a chaperone. Further, the district found he didn’t even know how the students who spent the extra night would get home from the field trip.

Gundle admitted he doesn’t remember speaking with one of the parents, but said he “…remembered that [the student] told him that her mother said it was okay.” The investigation found he did not have parental permission for this student.

In fact, the night before the scheduled field trip, the investigation found one mother emailed Gundle to explain it would be inappropriate for him to cut short a class activity so he might attend a union protest.

Gundle admits he didn’t read the email until four days later. He did, however, reply telling her that the students weren’t missing that much with his decision to cut the field trip short.

This is not where Gundle’s rule violations ended. The investigation found:

  1. Gundle did not properly list all the trip’s chaperones with the school
  2. He allowed student drivers to transport classmates to Deception Pass without permission from the school nor the parents;
  3. He allowed two students to drive on their own to Deception Pass, without school permission nor parental consent (one student did not have access to a seatbelt in the car);
  4. He did not obtain permission from the school to leave the students behind.

Days after the field trip, on May 22, Gundle was placed on paid administrative leave as the district investigated.

On June 18, 2015, Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Dr. Brent C. Jones wrote to Gundle to explain that the recommendation from the district that “there is probable cause to terminate your employment as a teacher for abandoning students during a District sponsored overnight field trip.”

Gundle fought the recommendation with the help of his union representative, arguing the termination was too harsh. After meeting with Superintendent Nyland, Gundle successfully lobbied to avoid termination, instead earning just a 10-day suspension without pay. He was also told he couldn’t host overnight field trips for two years, nor day field trips for one year.

This light punishment raises significant questions. If Nyland believes Gundle’s actions put the students’ safety at great risk, and the district’s HR department recommended termination, how did the punishment get reduced so dramatically?

Nyland isn’t answering any questions.

After a protracted back-and-forth, Seattle Public Schools’ only comment is: “Seattle Public Schools cannot comment on personnel issues.” When asked how often recommendations are overturned by Nyland, the district refused to answer, instead referring to their previous statement.

Gundle, similarly, did not respond for comment after multiple attempts to reach him.

But we know this: according to the district’s own investigation, Gundle put students’ safety at great risk, but he’s still teaching and will soon be able to take students on field trips once again.

Listen to KIRO Radio’s Jason Rantz Show Thursday at 7 p.m. for more details on the investigation.

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Ballard teacher ‘abandoned’ students on field trip, keeps his job