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Case dismissed against middle school teacher

The Oak Harbor city prosecutor dismissed a charge last week against a 53-year-old North Whidbey Middle School teacher accused of assaulting a student.

Under the plea bargain, Jim Pruss agreed to retire from the school district, Prosecuting Attorney AnhKiet Ngo said.

“It got him out of the Oak Harbor School District,” he said. “It got him away from the children. That was our foremost consideration.”

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction is currently investigating Pruss for possible action against his teaching license in connection with the alleged “inappropriate touching,” according to Charlie Schreck, director of the Office of Professional Practices.

But the Oak Harbor Education Association filed a complaint against the school district in Island County Superior Court Thursday over the way in which Pruss was fired last May. In fact, Peter Szalai, president of the association, said Pruss may ultimately be able to “unretire” and clear his name through an arbitration process.

Pruss’ attorney, Michael Andrews of Everett, said the charges against his clients were completely false. He pointed out that the charge, a single count of assault in the fourth degree with sexual motivation, was dismissed with prejudice — which means it can’t be re-filed.

“They had a non-credible complainant,” Andrews said. “Her testimony was directly contradicted by two student witnesses.”

While Ngo admits the case wasn’t a “slam dunk,” he said it would have been a long, complex trial possibly involving a multitude of current and former students testifying about Pruss’ allegedly inappropriate actions in the past. He said Oak Harbor Police Detective Teri Gardner, who investigated the case, was contacted by a least a dozen current and former students with complaints about Pruss, but Ngo wasn’t certain how much of the testimony the judge would allow him to introduce.

According to Gardner’s report, Pruss is accused of grabbing a 12-year-old girl’s breast during basketball practice in seventh-grade gym class Feb. 7. Two other students, who weren’t well-known to the victim, witnessed the assault and were concerned enough to ask the girl if she was OK, the report states.

In a statement to school officials, Pruss wrote that the contact was an accident.

“There was no time to swerve, so we both spontaneously did what was necessary to avoid a more serious collision,” he wrote. “During a basketball game this would be termed ‘incidental contact.’”

The case against Pruss was covered by at least one Seattle TV news station.

The girl’s mother was very critical of the way in which the school district handled the case, especially in light of the past complaints she uncovered against the teacher.

The school district never reported the incident to police. Pruss was teaching until the day he was arrested at the school.

The district terminated Pruss’ employment over the incident last May.

Under the teacher’s collective bargaining agreement, a teacher may elect to challenge adverse employment actions by the district through either a hearing officer or arbitration process.

Oak Harbor School District Superintendent Rick Schulte said Pruss selected the hearing officer procedure and started going through the process. Pruss then withdrew his request for the hearing officer and instead wanted to go through arbitration.

Schulte said Pruss couldn’t change his selection mid-process.

“He had already selected the option he wanted,” he said.

Szalai, however, said Schulte was wrong to deny Pruss his option under the teachers’ contract. He pointed out that the arbitration process is usually more favorable to a teacher than the hearing officer option.

“I was surprised and confused at this response,” he said. “I’ve never seen them act like this before.”

In response, the education association filed the “complaint to compel arbitration.” Szalai said the case isn’t just about Pruss, but about protecting all teachers’ rights under the collective bargaining agreement.

“We’re not saying Jim is right or wrong,” he said. “We are saying he has the right to be heard.”

The News-Times was unable to reach Pruss for comment.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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