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Investigation continues into CHS teacher’s comments to students

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

A Claremont High School teacher is off the job following alleged inflammatory comments to students regarding the COVID vaccine resulted in the school district opening an investigation into the incident.

Witnesses — who are minors and are therefore not named in this story — say Rosalinda Castillo told her students in a tearful October 14 speech Claremont Unified School District was “pushing” the vaccine on her, and she “cannot stand down,” claiming it was her “God given right” under the United States Constitution to refuse it, and “the Lord told her not to get vaccinated.”

The students also said Castillo claimed the vaccine could damage her reproductive health (this apparently in reference to a host of debunked conspiracy theories), “my body, my choice,” and she “would not back down to this manipulation, this mind control.” She is also said to have claimed that forcing teachers and students to wear masks while indoors on campus, and California’s August 11 mandate that public school teachers must either be vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID testing, were both unconstitutional.

Castillo, a 17-year CHS physical education teacher opposed to COVID vaccines and testing, also allegedly told her students she would have to be escorted off campus on October 15, but that didn’t happen. She was not on campus, and CUSD began investigating the incident that Friday, gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses. The investigation is ongoing.

The COURIER reached out to Castillo 10 times over the past two weeks via phone, text, email and Facebook Messenger, but did not receive a response.

Friday, October 15 — the day after Castillo’s alleged outburst — was the deadline for CUSD employees to comply with California’s heath order mandate. Though CUSD Assistant Superintendent, Human Services, Kevin Ward declined to comment, it’s reasonable to assume the teacher’s alleged outburst was likely tied to the impending deadline for her to advise the district of her plans in that regard.

The investigation could take days or weeks to complete, Ward said, and, if the facts dictate, may result in a variety of actions, from nothing, to a written reprimand, all the way up to dismissal.

In an October 14 email to a parent, Claremont High School Principal Brett O’Connor wrote: “I was made aware of Ms. Castillo’s comments to her students today. We take these matters very seriously and have initiated an investigation. Your child is safe coming to school tomorrow and will not be subject to any comments from this teacher.”

Reached by phone October 15, O’Connor refused comment and referred the COURIER to Ward. Ward told the COURIER: “Yesterday, several students and parents reported comments made by a CHS teacher during class. The teacher is not at school today [October 15] and CUSD has launched an investigation into the reports. I cannot comment on an active investigation.”

Ward did share his comments on the ongoing investigation, but repeatedly declined to confirm the name of the staff member in question, citing privacy concerns and the desire to maintain the integrity of the investigative process.

If the district’s probe determines Castillo indeed said to students what witnesses reported, does her speech violate district policy, California Educational Code or the terms of her employment contract? Ward declined to comment on that as well.

“I’m not going to hypothesize,” he said. “I need to be an impartial investigator. So I think at this point I need to collect the facts and make a determination about it. Free speech law and what people have the right to say and not say, and what teachers have the right to say and not say, is very complicated. So we’ll be working with our legal counsel to make sure we pursue with the full effect of the law what we can do.

“The focus at this point is the collection of the facts. When you have an incident that occurs, the primary focus right away is to collect the facts before the data gets tainted, or the information gets tainted.”

Typically, under CUSD protocol staff members are placed on administrative leave while under investigation for “a complaint that rises to a high level of concern,” Ward said. He would not say whether or not Castillo had been placed on paid leave.

“And you do that to maintain the fidelity of the investigation,” Ward said. “You start with witness statements, they’re collected, and any other facts, data, video. You’re basically collecting all the evidence around that. And what happens is after you do the collection of all that information is the staff member is interviewed … and presents any evidentiary fact or hard evidence. You spend that time during the investigative period really trying to get out all of the information and data.”

After gathering evidence, Ward will make a finding of fact.

“Based on the facts, was there a law violated? Was there a rule violated? Was there an [educational] code [violated]? Or, was it a contractual violation? And then, what happens from there will depend on that finding. It works kind of like a trial. Basically the board of education could hear those matters, so it’s a matter of presenting all of that. I could also go before an administrative hearing officer. There’s kind of a number of different options depending on the severity of the matter.”

Staff members have the right to representation during any disciplinary proceeding, Ward added.

Castillo began working as a coach for CUSD in 1998. She was hired as a physical education teacher in 2004. Her yearly base salary is $99,319, plus a benefits package worth $5,400, for a total value of $104,719 per year.

In related news, two of the three CUSD employees who asked for religious exemptions from the state’s mandate that public school employees must either vaccinate or submit to weekly testing by October 15 have accepted the district’s offer of a year off without pay as an accommodation for the request. The two employees will first expend their accrued paid vacation and sick time, and after that time will be on unpaid leave for up to one year, Ward explained. Under the agreement they could return to work at any time inside of that one-year unpaid leave period.

“If the mandate changes, or if their vaccination status changes, or there’s a new test that comes out that they’re willing to take, whatever the conditions are, as long as they can become compliant with the state health order, they can come back at any time,” Ward said.

If the staff members’ leave stretches beyond a year, they will then be offered the option to return to work and comply with the state order, or resign.

“There’s really no other leave options after that,” Ward said.

The third staff member who had been seeking a religious exemption agreed to begin weekly testing and is back on the job.

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