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Families file suit over Medford teacher's conduct

The families of three Howard Elementary students have sued the Medford School District in U.S. District Court for allegedly failing to protect the young girls from a teacher who had a history of inappropriately touching students.

The three pupils in a fourth/fifth-grade class at Howard accused teacher Chris Gilman in February of repeatedly touching their bottoms, legs and abdomens and having them sit in his lap during school hours, the lawsuit states.

Jackson County District Attorney Mark Huddleston concluded there were no grounds to criminally prosecute Gilman, who continues to serve on the Jacksonville City Council, but criminal standards and the standards for teachers can vary widely.

The lawsuit, filed in mid-October, claims the district and Howard Principal Sallie Johnson were negligent in allowing Gilman to return to the classroom after he was disciplined by the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission for inappropriately touching students in 2003.

The lawsuit was filed five months after the families sent tort claim letters to the school district to indicate they were considering making a personal injury claim against the district. A trial date for the case has not yet been set but will likely occur in October or November of 2011, according to court records.

The families' attorney, Thomas Petersen of Black, Chapman, Webber & Stevens Attorneys at Law, said he couldn't comment on the case, as did the district's attorney, Tim Gerking.

Although Gilman was immediately removed from the classroom Feb. 3 after the students complained about the touching, the parents claim that the district knew about previous occasions in 2003 when Gilman inappropriately touched students and did nothing to prevent him from doing it again.

The Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission placed Gilman on probation for two years for "failing to maintain an appropriate professional student-teacher relationship" with girls in his fourth-grade class in 2003, state records show.

In a document Gilman signed in July 2004, he admitted that in December 2003 he "engaged in inappropriate physical conduct," which included letting students sit in his lap during class, tickling girls and touching them on the legs, as well as patting them on the buttocks area during athletic activities and free-play time.

The document concluded that "this misconduct constitutes gross neglect of duty," and that Gilman should be publicly reprimanded.

The commission also imposed a two-year probation. Under the conditions of the probation, Gilman was required to seek evaluation by a psychotherapist, therapist or other commission-approved medical professional who would submit a written report to the commission "attesting that Mr. Gilman is fit to work with children and that there is a high probability Mr. Gilman won't repeat inappropriate physical contact with students."

He also was to comply with a treatment plan and submit updates on his progress to the commission's executive director every six months during his probationary period.

The commission approved the agreement in January 2005. He completed all the probation requirements and was allowed to continue teaching at Howard, where the incidents had occurred.

Meanwhile, the school district continues a separate legal battle with Gilman over his employment status.

Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long recommended terminating Gilman earlier this year based on the plaintiffs' allegations, but before the date the Medford School Board was to vote on Gilman's dismissal, the teacher submitted a letter of resignation. The board voted to reject the resignation and instead voted to fire Gilman, arguing that the superintendent's recommendation occurred before Gilman chose to resign.

Gilman appealed the termination to the Oregon Fair Dismissal Appeals Board, which ruled that Gilman's resignation trumped the termination.

The school district has appealed that decision to the Oregon Court of Appeals.

A hearing date for the appeal has not been scheduled.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.