Palo Alto school district moves to dismiss teacher accused of sex abuse

Board of Education begins dismissal proceedings for Ohlone Elementary teacher

The Palo Alto school board unanimously voted Tuesday to initiate dismissal proceedings for an elementary school teacher who has been accused of sexually abusing a former student more than 10 years ago.

The board approved the action 5-0 during closed session, Board President Heidi Emberling announced as the board convened for open session. The proceedings are for Michael Airo, who has taught fourth- and fifth-graders at Ohlone Elementary School since 2009.

The district placed Airo on unpaid compulsory leave last month after discovering that he was facing several charges: the continuous sexual abuse of a child under 14 - resident child molesting; and three instances of performing a lewd or lascivious act on a child by force, violence, duress, menace and fear.

Airo, 34, of San Mateo, was charged in late December with four felony counts relating to the alleged conduct, which occurred between 2002 and 2005, according to police.

Superintendent Max McGee initiated Airo's dismissal the same day the district was informed about the allegations via a fax from the California Department of Justice, but it required board approval to move forward. He called the allegations "deeply disturbing."

McGee told the Weekly Tuesday that the district recently sent Airo a letter "inviting him to appear to state his side of the case," which he did not do.

The Palo Alto Police Department began an investigation after receiving a report from the San Mateo County Department of Children and Family Services in May 2014. The female student, Jane Doe, now in her early 20s, disclosed the alleged sexual abuse to her psychologist at the time, according to a police report.

Doe told police in June 2014 that the abuse happened years before, when Airo lived in her home as her mother's boyfriend.

An attorney for Airo told Palo Alto police in September 2014 that Airo asserted he was innocent, but he did not provide a statement at the time, according to the police report. Airo did not return requests for comment for previous articles.

Palo Alto police also interviewed Ohlone Principal Nicki Smith as part of their investigation in January 2015. She did not inform anyone at the district office about the interview, McGee said Tuesday, but she has told him "repeatedly" that the police officer did not ask in any detail about the allegations.

Smith, who was named principal of Ohlone in May 2014, told officer Joel Hornung that she had not received or heard of any complaints filed against Airo, according to Hornung's notes in the police report. She "described him as a teacher that gives his students a lot of attention and care" and said he had become a "favorite teacher amongst parents," according to Hornung's notes.

"She said she would never imagine suspect Airo touching or harming the children in anyway and does not know of any suspicious circumstances involving him," Hornung wrote.

Smith has not returned repeated requests for comment.

McGee told the Weekly that the district will be developing a policy to outline what steps should be taken in situations like this one: "If there are police asking you about anything on your campus ... serious or not, someone from the district office — whether it's the chief academic officer or human resources director or me or the associate superintendent or the communications director — needs to know."

McGee said he has also spoken with Police Chief Dennis Burns about finding a balance between not interfering with an investigation and notifying the district in cases that might affect the health and safety of students.

"I think we have a better understanding about that," McGee said.

Detectives investigated Airo's work history with the school district at the time and determined there was no indication that there were any additional victims, police said in January.

Airo self-surrendered at the Santa Clara County Main Jail on Jan. 13, according to police. He immediately posted $500,000 bail after being booked by the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office, police said.

Airo made his first court appearance at the Palo Alto Courthouse on Tuesday, Feb. 16. He is set to formally enter a plea on Monday, March 21, according to Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Chris Lamiero.

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15 people like this
Posted by Dana Stearns Clohan
a resident of Ohlone School
on Feb 10, 2016 at 10:18 am

Mike has been a fabulous teacher to my grandchildren and I find it very disturbing that he is guilty and fired in the eyes of PAUSD. What happened to innocent until proven guilty?i feel the Superintendent jumped to fire Mike prematurely. Dana Stearns Clohan

21 people like this
Posted by Carole
a resident of Walter Hays School
on Feb 10, 2016 at 10:38 am

Thanks McGee for setting rules for the future. The last superintendent would sweep it under the rug and go back to sticking his head in the sand.

37 people like this
Posted by Kimberly Sweidy
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 10, 2016 at 10:40 am

Kimberly Sweidy is a registered user.

I sent the following email to Dr. Max McGee on January, 16, 2016.

Dear Dr. McGee,

I know nothing about this matter except what you have told us (parents). And I certainly hope it goes without saying that no sane, rational person is pro-child molestation/sexual abuse. But your letters have been on my mind since I read them.

At a time such as this, it is very important to remember that every person is innocent until proven guilty. And anyone can allege anything, regardless of the truth or veracity of the statements.

Part of "doing the right thing by our children" is demonstrating these fundamental values at all times, but most particularly when we face a challenging and emotionally charged situation such as this.

My parents were public school teachers for their entire adult lives, more than 30 years each, prior to their retirements from the Fresno Unified School District. I am a lawyer with an MBA. I have seen just about everything in my 55 years, perhaps too many things---certainly a great deal of bad judgment, despicable behavior and broken trust. And I have also seen many individuals strive for excellence and noble purpose, usually when other paths would have been easier and simpler.

So let us not act as judge, jury and executioner of Mr. Airo. In these United States of America, we have a system of jurisprudence for that. And in my opinion, this is still the greatest nation that has ever existed in the history of mankind. It is our duty---to ourselves, our children and our children's children---to vigilantly protect those ideals that make it so.

Respectfully Yours,

Kimberly R. Sweidy, JD, MBA

11 people like this
Posted by Sarah
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 10, 2016 at 11:06 am

McGee should send out a "less-hurtful to Airo" broadcast email first before his disturbing one. Airo is not guilty until proven!! To be fair, McGee should email his apologies and wrong-doing letter to all parents even though damages have already been done to Airo.

39 people like this
Posted by Thank You School Board
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 10, 2016 at 11:13 am

Thank you to the School Board for taking action to protect our children. [Portion removed.]

An regarding the principal:
"She said she would never imagine suspect Airo touching or harming the children in anyway and does not know of any suspicious circumstances involving him"

It's not enough to never imagine something like this. Your job is to make sure it never happens. The presumption of innocence is used as a rubric to ensure punishment is not doled out to the innocent. It is not the appropriate standard to ENSURE that our children are kept safe. To ensure that, you have to assume that there are people out there who COULD commit crimes against our children but have not YET done so. That is why you need things like two-deep supervision, no adult left alone with a child, etc. You can't let your imagination, limited as it invariably is, get in the way of making sure that children are protected.

And I say that as a survivor of child sexual abuse.

25 people like this
Posted by Lean
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 10, 2016 at 11:27 am

Given the current parents and children did not see this alleged behavior but yet the police and school has seen documentation and they took action to protect further students is an applaud to their effectiveness.

35 people like this
Posted by Gone
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 10, 2016 at 11:43 am

Let's imagine and compare three systems of judgment:

1) criminal justice system: highest standard of evidence(innocent until proven guilty); highest penalties (prison and fines)

2) union protected school job (tenure; ostensibly to protect intellectual independence)

3) At-will employment: lowest standards of evidence (just don't need this guy), low penalties (no prison, no fines, some severance pay in fact, you just gotta go somewhere else)

Why on earth, when the safety of our children is concerned would we apply the HIGHEST standards of evidence for the LOWEST penalty?

If this were the real world, he would have been handed a box and sent packing a year ago when the cops showed up.

His union protection bought him one more year of access to victims that the corporate world would never have allowed.

Those who insist we should apply criminal justice standards (innocent until proven guilty) are confusing criminal penalties with employment.

It's just a job. He can get a new one elsewhere. Our kids well being however, is WORTH MUCH MORE.

He should be fired, and justly so, with only some slight evidence of what he has done, or could do.

I am tired of the UNION shill position that their jobs are an indisputable right in advance of child safety. Treating union jobs as requiring criminal removal is wrong.

Or, rather, gives you some indication of the level of failure needed to remove them. Teaching is no longer a profession based on that standard.

37 people like this
Posted by MARY S.
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 10, 2016 at 12:05 pm

It seems the principal should be put on leave for not reporting this. Very irresponsible.

25 people like this
Posted by Gary
a resident of Mountain View
on Feb 10, 2016 at 1:15 pm

While persons are deemed "innocent until proven guilty" in a criminal trial, that legal principle has little to do with steps to be taken immediately to protect the public (here children) - such as suspending or ending the employment of a teacher long before there could be a criminal trial. Indeed, most persons formally accused of child molestation are locked up pending any trial. Rightly so.

7 people like this
Posted by wow
a resident of another community
on Feb 10, 2016 at 1:23 pm

to "Gone," it is amusing that you want to place the blame on the "union" for the incompetence of the administrator. I guess anytime a student or a parent makes an accusation, the teacher should not be afforded any due process rights at all. Is that seriously your position?

Let's just burn them at the stake.

30 people like this
Posted by Well
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 10, 2016 at 1:39 pm

"At a time such as this, it is very important to remember that every person is innocent until proven guilty."

You forgot the end, which states that this applies in a court of law.

For those who are in support of PAUSD keeping this teacher on - the simple solution is for you to hire this teacher to take care of your children, perhaps afterschool or when you are not at home.

10 people like this
Posted by teacher PAUSD
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 10, 2016 at 2:02 pm

@ Gone.

"tenure" - No. Contrary to popular myth, there is no tenure in PAUSD.
Yes, most teachers have earned "permanent" status, but they can be fired/dismissed if administrators take the time to go through a process of fair documentation of failure to meet California Standards for the Teaching Profession.

36 people like this
Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 10, 2016 at 2:10 pm

The principal is a mandatory reporter as a CA credential holder and should also be sacked or up on charges herself for sitting on information that was brought to her attention. There is no protocol except...well, STATE LAW. She would be dismissed in any other district and possibly taken to court. The abused child could go back and sue her. Why does Palo Alto think it is so clever to tell its parents that now there is a way for this to be handled correctly. There already was and they did not. How many other principals know things that they decided to not report? How many other child abuse cases or not reported while children possibly suffer?

Anyone holding a CA credential knows that even if child abuse is suspected, they MUST report to CPS (child protective services) and their boss. WOW. WHAT the heck is going on that this admin is getting by with this?

Reporting this also gives the teacher accused a chance at due process. I think, because they handled this so incompetently, they can not dismiss him.. They are equally at fault here.

Is the admin. just really inept or really evil?

2 people like this
Posted by Vernon Dicus
a resident of another community
on Feb 10, 2016 at 2:29 pm

[Post removed.]

10 people like this
Posted by Let's get real
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 10, 2016 at 3:09 pm

Yes, 'innocent until proven guilty' is the norm for criminal penalties, but are the posters supporting Airo really serious about allowing him to continue having contact w/ young girls? Would they allow him to tutor their own daughters in unsupervised settings?

Remember OJ Simpson? He's still innocent...

15 people like this
Posted by Old Professor
a resident of Professorville
on Feb 10, 2016 at 3:21 pm

This is every teacher's worst nightmare.

After 10 years it is going to be very, very difficult to determine whether Airo is guilty or innocent. Yet his life is in tatters. And he will probably never be able to recover. Even if he is acquitted the stigma will live on. Surely, surely there is a better way to handle this.

11 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 10, 2016 at 3:34 pm

Whereas I have no knowledge whatsoever of whether this teacher is guilty of a crime, I also have no knowledge whatsoever of the trustworthiness of the young lady who has brought forward these charges. [Portion removed.]

The truth is not going to matter any more. This teacher has his future permanently ruined. The fact that his educational record is scrupulously clean, is immaterial.

Society has flip flopped completely in these sexual misconduct cases to always believing the "victim" even though in many cases the victim has recanted and/or proven to be lying.

As I said, I have no idea of what the truth is in this. If the teacher is indeed guilty he should be punished. If however he is innocent of all charges and proves to be so in the future, then it is too late for him. His life is already ruined. The victim will remain anonymous and her lies or mistaken memory - if that is indeed the case - will never ruin her future prospects.

I hope that everyone will keep an open mind until such time as irrevocable evidence proves that this crime did occur and justice can be served. Until then, he is innocent until proven guilty.

18 people like this
Posted by Gone
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 10, 2016 at 3:38 pm

"Life in tatters"? Really?

A) not really. He just needs to go get a job elsewhere. Should take a few weeks...

Unless he is found guilty. In which case:

B) how about the tattered life of his victim.

You see, getting fired for this is not really a problem for him. Plenty of jobs he can get. His RESL problem is whether the judge throws him in jail. Lot harder to get interviews then.

16 people like this
Posted by Gone
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 10, 2016 at 3:42 pm

...except that his future is not "permanently ruined"

He may need to leave town, or gasp choose a different line of work. Not ruin; slight setback at worst.

But for the victims, now that's different.

22 people like this
Posted by Colleen D.
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 10, 2016 at 6:58 pm

I think the school district has no choice but to err on the side of caution and the safety of students. I work in an elementary school in the district, and the classroom teacher, especially in the elementary grades, is a HUGE part of a child's life and has a tremendous amount of influence on that child. If you work with kids, you have to acknowledge this unique relationship and expect to be held to the highest possible standard. Good teachers know and accept this, and Palo Alto is very blessed to have many outstanding teachers who are devoted to their students. I feel badly for the principal in question here, who probably wanted to believe in the best in her staff and failed to react adequately when the police first questioned her. Going forward, it seems that the district should include some training about pedophiles and how they are quite expert at finding places to work and volunteer where they can have access to children. The kids have to come first.

21 people like this
Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 11, 2016 at 12:18 am

Colleen D.

It is not at all going forward to "include training" There is already mandatory training in all CA public schools for looking at abuses of all kinds and how to report it.

When abuse is reported, that is a pretty darn big clue to investigate in a professional manner. Every teacher in CA is a mandated reporter when there is any doubt or any doubt reported. Pausd should not have to be "trained" or get extra explanation of this very famous law the rest of the state seems to know about. Ignoring it is an example of strange elitism and thinking they are above state law and standards.

NOT reporting is a misdemeanor with a low fine and possibly 6 months jail time which seems better than being abused or having a reputation ruined.

21 people like this
Posted by Gone
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 11, 2016 at 7:00 am

Is the Principal being investigated for failure to report?

14 people like this
Posted by PAEA comedy routine
a resident of Gunn High School
on Feb 11, 2016 at 7:03 am

PAUSD holds a tenure celebration each spring and new teachers are granted permanent" status, often just after 18 months, but they can be fired/dismissed if administrators take the time to go through a process of fair documentation of failure to meet California Standards for the Teaching Profession, and that only takes several years and costs around $100,000 in lawyer fees just to start. Less than 10 teachers of the 300,000 California teachers are dismissed in a year. That's how good teachers are. The percentage is even better in PAUSD where 99 plus percent of PAEA tenured members are outstanding. Don't believe me? Ask PAEA president Teri Baldwin what percentage are excellent teachers.

35 people like this
Posted by The Victim?
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 11, 2016 at 8:06 am

This whole thing came about because the victim, several years after the assaults, was in therapy. She confessed the story of the rapes to her psychiatrist as part of that therapy. The psychiatrist reported the crime to the police, as required by law.

Why would this young lady lie to her psychiatrist? After all, she went to him for HELP!

It is also a known fact that chi.d mo.esters often start a relationship with the mother in order to get close to their intended target and victim. Haven't we all read about little children molested by their mother's "boyfriend"?

It is also a fact that most of these molesters are very affable, charming people-- popular among co-workers, neighbors, friends-- who are then in shock and denial about what really happened.

22 people like this
Posted by For pete's sake
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Feb 11, 2016 at 1:55 pm

The letters from the people defending Airo's right to stay in the classroom and potentially expose more students to the risk of harm are ASTOUNDING TO ME. Not only that they are written but that people are signing their names (and even their degree lists, la ti da).

Mike Airo is not being criminally tried and locked up by the School Board and Dr. McGee. Mike Airo is being terminated from his job as a public school teacher because there is enough evidence here that regardless of whether it meets the standard for criminal conviction (beyond a reasonable doubt) it is enough to fire him. The standard is not the same. In the one case, he would be deprived of his liberty. IN the other he would not be able to teach 4th grade at Ohlone school. You need less evidence for the latter than the former. Does that make sense to you? If not, I don't care at all and I'm super glad that he's gone.

It always surprises me when this board does the right thing and I'm glad they did here.

Now fire the principal too.

14 people like this
Posted by Ohlone parent
a resident of Southgate
on Feb 11, 2016 at 5:57 pm

Absolutely. It's insulting to the school that Nicki is still the principal.

9 people like this
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Feb 11, 2016 at 7:25 pm

Alphonso is a registered user.

If he is innocent a day of reckoning is approaching!

17 people like this
Posted by LelandManorMom
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Feb 11, 2016 at 7:55 pm

Kudos to the District for focusing on the safety of its students. Even if Mr. Airo is found not guilty by the court, the District cannot take the risk that Mr. Airo is a pedophile. Student physical safety should always be our number one priority.

11 people like this
Posted by Ann Demerit
a resident of Ohlone School
on Feb 12, 2016 at 5:21 am

I live near Ohlone and tutor/sit many of the children going there. Over the last few days, (suppose) I had an opportunity to share the contents of this article and the comments with the children. Surprise! Some of the children said they could recognize the names of some of the people in the comments and said that they were also abused by a few of the commenters on this article who complained against Mr Airo! How ironic! And how true that's is usually the guilty who want to cast the first stone!

Now be that as it may - perhaps the kids were wrong, and perhaps they will be proved as such in a court of law or perhaps this whole comment is just hypothetical and meant to provoke thought - But given that the safety of our students is of top priority, shouldn't we err on the side of caution and bring public proceedings and investigations against these accused right away? Nothing is lost by erring on the cautious side because if these people are truly innocent or there isn't sufficient evidence against them, they'd be exonerated anyway.


16 people like this
Posted by Huh?
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 12, 2016 at 8:54 am

@Ann Demerit, why are you taking to the kids about this? Do the parents know you are talking to them about it? Shouldn't you leave these discussions for them?

My child was in Mike's class and I would be mortified if any other adult had these discussions with her. She has happily moved on and is really enjoying the refreshing tone of the current classroom, thanks to the strong support of the current teacher and supporting staff.

The last thing I want is to have an outside adult bring up these conversations and make her to think about something that she doesn't want nor care to dwell on.

We still have the occasional chat (we "check in" with her from time to time), but these are becoming less and less frequent and of lighter tone. We as a family have moved on, and everyone should stop speculating and arguing and leave the professionals to do their jobs.

Our only hope is that there will actually be a verdict and that the guilty party (whomever that may be) is determined and brought to justice. This will be a long process that may never come to a definitive conclusion.

Such a sad situation for all involved.

10 people like this
Posted by CoachFromAnotherTown
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 12, 2016 at 11:58 am

CoachFromAnotherTown is a registered user.

Dear Kimberly Sweidy - of course we know that every person is innocent until proven guilty - but what does the info about your parents have to do with this case. Most of us over 40 years of age who have worked in the private, public sector or perhaps law enforcement have "seen about everything, perhaps too much".

Data proves that men and women who prey upon our children are otherwise viable, functional employees or human beings in society. They don't announce their intentions ahead of time nor do they prey on kids who are not vulnerable.

These types of perp"s are calculated and cunning and ALL of those that they are NOT harming - usually love being around them - thus - the shock and outrage when somebody like Airo is arrested. Each of these stories always have similarities. One side is relieved that the perp is no longer allowed to inflict harm and the other half is outraged about the charges, thinking the perp’s life is now ruined. Wrong, the Perp ruined his own life.

Ralston Middle Schools employee Andre Edwards was revered by 90% of Ralston's students and parents while he sexually molested the vulnerable others. When he was charged Belmont Patch had a comments section where moms (very few dads) laid out their reputation on his behalf AND signed their real names. Of course it turned out he was guilty and went to jail/prison.

Joel Kauffman who ran THE highest profile summer baseball team on the Peninsula, the California Smoke, as well as coaching at Bishop O'Dowd and Palo Alto HS, was molesting his own baseball players between the ages of 14 and 20 yrs. of age and is IN prison.

In the early 1990's Bill Giordano a then 25 year teacher at Jordan Middle school was arrested for seducing an eighth-grade student and having sex with her. He was 47 and she was 14.

Where there is smoke, there is fire.

14 people like this
Posted by CoachFromAnotherTown
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 12, 2016 at 12:10 pm

CoachFromAnotherTown is a registered user.

@ Ann Demerit

Either what you wrote is a joke or if true, it is disgusting. You as an Adult should not be talking to other children who are not your own. That is reprehensible, deplorable and the only reason for which you to do so is for you to somehow think you are important in the grand scheme of things. Furthermore, read what you wrote.

"Some of the children said they could recognize the names of some of the people in the comments and said that they were also ***abused*** by a few of the commentators on this article who complained against Mr Airo!"

Again, what you authored is criminal in its own right for thinking you had the authority to engage kids in common chatter about this heinous act by Airo.

12 people like this
Posted by Can you say "Reading comprehension"?
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 12, 2016 at 3:54 pm

Those of you who are hysterically commenting to @Ann Demerit should go back and read the post a little more carefully. You will notice the word "suppose", the use of the term "ironic", and, if your reading comprehension is good enough, eventually you will realize that this is satirical language used to make a point about assumptions and the sort of toxic vigilantism that happens on this forum.

12 people like this
Posted by teacher
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 12, 2016 at 5:14 pm

@Can you say "Reading Comprehension"

Hmm. The only sentence that struck me was "Some of the children said they could recognize the names of some of the people in the comments and said that they were also abused by a few of the commenters on this article who complained against Mr Airo!"

*If you open your mouth and use such provocative language with half a brain in your head you can interpret what she wrote as something literal. So I hope she uses her due diligence as required by law .......her intention of satire is irrelevant at that point.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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