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Sauter v. Mount Vernon School District No. 320

May 29, 1990

ROCKE J. SAUTER, APPELLANT,
v.
MOUNT VERNON SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 320, RESPONDENT



Coleman, C.j. Pekelis and Forrest, JJ., concur.

Author: Coleman

Rocke Sauter appeals from the trial court's judgment affirming his discharge by the Mount Vernon School District. We affirm.

Sauter was a math teacher at Mount Vernon High School. On October 10, 1986, the superintendent of the Mount Vernon School District notified Sauter by letter that he had found "probable cause for your discharge as a certificated employee of the District." The letter stated:

The cause for my determination is your patently unacceptable, unprofessional, and immoral conduct in relation to [J], a District student and a minor. As demonstrated by your handwritten note delivered to [J] last month, you have engaged in sexually exploitive conduct toward [J]. The note -- itself highly suggestive and totally unprofessional -- was delivered by you in the context of a dialogue concerning a potential liaison and sexual relationship between yourself and [J]. By your written

admission of last month, you acknowledged that such a dialogue did in fact occur. It was you who solicited her for a sexual relationship, according to [J]. The sexual dialogue occurred in the context of proposals by you for private get-togethers of yourself and [J].

So far as we know at this time, you did not succeed in seducing [J]; but your reprehensible and predatory conduct toward [J] plainly is inherently destructive to [J] and to the student-teacher relationship and constitutes a material breach of your duties and obligations as a teacher. Your conduct has a material and substantual [ sic ] adverse effect on your fitness to teach and lacks any positive educational aspect or legitimate professional purpose. Further, your conduct materially and adversely detracts from your teacher-teacher, teacher-administrator, and teacher-community/parent relationships.

Upon receipt of the letter from the superintendent, Sauter requested a hearing. After an extensive hearing before a hearing officer, findings of fact and conclusions of law were entered. The findings of fact can be summarized as follows.

Rocke Sauter began teaching at Mount Vernon High School in 1985. Prior to that time, he taught math and coached sports at a middle school in the Mount Vernon School District since 1971. During the 1985-86 school year, Sauter taught algebra. J was one of his students. During that year, Sauter and J had daily contact and many conversations together. She expressed concern over some surgery she needed. Sauter was genuinely concerned on her behalf, however nothing unusual happened in the relationship between the two during that school year.

During the summer of 1986 Sauter rode his bicycle daily. On one occasion he rode past J's residence and stopped in to see her. He was curious as to how she was doing and if she had completed her surgery. They took a bike ride together, and at one point they stopped to rest, during which time they had an extensive conversation. Sauter told J that he thought she was very attractive and was pretty enough to be a model. He told her that he had seen her in her apartment when he had ridden by her house before. He told her that he was glad he had taught at a middle school for so many years because he did not know if he could handle "the girl situation" in high school when he was younger.

When the 1986-87 school year began, J dropped by Sauter's office on a regular basis, during which time they discussed many of her personal problems. At one point she told Sauter she would like to make love to him. During these conversations, Sauter confided in J that he was having difficulty with his marriage and that his wife might be going to California. Sauter told J that he found her very attractive, that he had had a vasectomy, and that he wanted to make love with her too. Both expressed reasons why this potential relationship should not take place, but their discussions continued.

On September 19, 1986, Sauter wrote a note to J during his second period class which he gave to her immediately after second period. The note was not addressed, dated, or signed. The note read as follows:

I wrote you a letter at 2:22 last night -- I couldn't sleep -- A little war was going on inside me. One part of me was saying "forget her -- time will take care of things." Another was saying "she is beautiful, stimulating, sensational and can make you feel so alive. Go for it."

What I wrote last night depicted a little scene between us. A fantasy of an encounter. I must admit I liked what I thought about, and I planned to give you the note -- It was full of feeling and emotion -- but I chickened out -- After reading it this morning I couldn't go through with it -- I was too embarrassed to have you read about my fantasy with you -- I am in a difficult situation -- I want you to be around and yet I don't trust myself to keep it at a friendly level -- and yet I must -- The temptation is so great -- But let's just play it cool -- come and see me -- I do want you to come around -- we can talk, share our thoughts and just see how time affects us -- Sorry I missed you this morning.

When Sauter gave J the note, he told her to "rip it up and don't let anyone see it."

J subsequently brought the note to the attention of school authorities. A few days after J turned the note in and J's written and oral statements concerning the incidents with Sauter were taken, Sauter prepared a written statement which he delivered to the school authorities outlining his interpretation of the note and his reply to the

accusations made by J of previous sexual advances. Sauter's statement is as follows:

To the best of my recollection, Monday or Tuesday, the week of the 15-20 of September, [J] was in my office upon my return from my third period class. I could tell that she was upset. I didn't ask her if she had a class. I assumed she was on lunch. I was on lunch/prep so we talked. She related to me that things were pressing in on her at home. Her boyfriend lived with them and she wasn't comfortable with that arrangement. She also said they would be moving soon and he would be moving out at that time. I listened and told her that just give it some time, when he moved things would look better, that what they probably needed was some space of their own. She talked some more about her situation relative to her boyfriend and finally she brought up the subject that she was attracted to me. She stated "I want you" or something to that effect. She asked me if I had a desire to make love to her. This did catch me off guard. I said: 1. If I weren't married; 2. Not a teacher; 3. Twenty years younger, sure, but I proceeded to explain about the trust society puts in teachers, the significance of my feelings about marriage and the fact that I was old enough to be her father. I tried to be as delicate about the whole thing, thinking that I didn't want to make her feel terribly rejected after she had taken the risk of revealing her feelings to me, but at the same time establishing the fact that there was no way that we would ever have anything but a student/teacher friendship. I left it at that and felt there was no need for further action. I didn't find out that she was supposed to be in French until the bell for end of lunch rang and I asked her where she was supposed to go. She told me she was skipping French and had second lunch. When we parted she seemed to feel better about her situation and asked if I could give her a note to excuse her absence. I told her I would talk to her teacher and her teacher would have to decide if the absence was excused or not.

The next day I went to first lunch and returned to my office to correct papers fourth period. [J] showed up during lunch and we engaged in conversation. She told me that her boyfriend had moved out the night before. She proceeded to converse about various matters. She again brought up the topic of having an affair. I again spelled out in no uncertain terms that I wasn't going to do anything like that. We discussed at length various facts of life relative to what she wanted to do. At each point I just reaffirmed why I would not get involved, quoting the three previously stated reasons. When this conversation ended I felt she should have no doubt of where I stood, but felt also that she wasn't uncomfortable at coming to talk to me. I

should have at this time reported the incident to the counselor, but felt there was no need to.

[J] didn't come by at lunch any more that week, but did come by in the morning. She again engaged me in conversation about person's desires, etc. I really don't remember the entire conversation or which morning it was, but I do recall again confirming that I liked her as a friend, would be someone for her to confide in, but that was all. As a result of this encounter, I wrote a note to her -- I gave it to her later that day or the next. It again confirmed that time would take care of desires felt and that she could come and talk, but that was all.

I saw [J] at the game Friday. She informed me that she had broken up with her boyfriend and asked if my wife was with me. I told her no and she said, "let's go somewhere." I said no, but that we could talk. She was really shaken by the breakup. I told her to maintain, go to the dance and have a good time. During the game [J]'s friend Jennifer Franklin ran into me on my way to get coffee. She said [J]'s boyfriend was looking for her and wanted to beat her up. After the game I dropped in on the dance and helped out. When I left the dance, I saw [J] and Jennifer outside. [J] walked to my truck with me. She was still upset about breaking up with her boyfriend. I simply told her to just take it easy, go and spend the night with Jennifer, stay out of trouble and to take care of herself.

Monday morning before first period, I was in my office. I had felt that everything had probably blown over by now. [J] came by again and said that she couldn't go through with it if it came down to having an affair and I couldn't either. I confirmed her statement saying that I was glad she had finally gotten the message and that she really needed to be cautious because you can't ever tell how someone will react.

On October 6, 1986, Sauter was suspended with pay.

On July 1, 1987, based upon these facts, the hearing officer concluded that the District had sufficient cause to discharge Sauter and affirmed his discharge. The District then discontinued Sauter's pay and withheld his last two monthly paychecks for July and August 1987. Sauter appealed to the Superior Court where the hearing officer's decision was affirmed on February 23, 1989. The ...


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