Then-University High assistant principal Pete Cheesebrough admitted to his superiors in March 2017 that he had texted a student, despite earlier telling them he hadn’t. He admitted that he had met with her, despite his superiors forbidding it. And he admitted that they had been in his truck together, despite previously denying that, too.
He said the student kissed him after she turned 18; she said he kissed her.
This is all according to an order, signed by West Virginia state Schools Superintendent Steve Paine, in which Paine nevertheless chose not to suspend or revoke Cheesebrough’s teaching certification.
Instead, Paine opted only to temporarily nix his administrator certification.
Cheesebrough left West Virginia and began teaching Arizona high schoolers using his West Virginia certification, said Stefan Swiat, the Arizona Department of Education’s public information officer.
On Friday, the Arizona State Board of Education did what Paine didn’t.
In a voice vote with no nays heard, it revoked all of Cheesebrough’s certifications over the West Virginia allegations that happened back in 2017.
“He kissed a female student while in a position of authority as an administrator, defying the direction of his supervisors to stop all communication,” Arizona board member Christine Burton said. “This is, in my mind, unprofessional and immoral conduct.”
Alicia Williams, executive director for the Arizona board, said revocation lasts at least five years.
Since leaving West Virginia, Cheesebrough had been teaching students in the Scottsdale Unified School District for about two-and-a-half school years, district Communications Specialist Nancy Norman said. She said the district only recently learned of the allegations, although the district and state haven’t yet publicly said how they learned.
“There was no indication on his application of any past or pending investigation in West Virginia,” Norman wrote in an email.
When Paine chose not to revoke the teaching certification, he cited not wanting to affect Cheesebrough’s Arizona job as a reason.
This week, Paine said he couldn’t speak about his decision because “it’s a personnel matter.” He referred a reporter to his order, which the West Virginia Department of Education provided.
Cheesebrough, who didn’t appeal Paine’s sanction, declined comment. While the order shows State Police investigated, he was never charged, and he and the student both said they never had sex.
Monongalia County Prosecuting Attorney Perri DeChristopher said “the evidence gathered by the State Police did not support a criminal charge.”
The allegations against Cheesebrough, the fact that West Virginia never revoked his teaching certification and the fact that he had begun teaching in Arizona were finally revealed this month by The Arizona Republic as part of an investigation, alongside Phoenix public radio station KJZZ, into how accused educators can jump from state to state.
Cheesebrough’s superiors had already been investigating him when the student’s mother told them she had read her daughter’s diary, Paine’s order says.
The diary said the student and Cheesebrough kissed in a parking lot at night.
Then came the March 2017 meetings between Cheesebrough and his superiors.
Paine’s order says the Monongalia County school system placed Cheesebrough on leave. But a teacher discipline panel said Monongalia Associate Superintendent Robert DeSantis and Cheesebrough agreed he could instead use his paid vacation time, and the county school system never punished him.
Cheesebrough submitted his resignation that month. But the county school system continued to pay him through June 30, 2017, for unused leave and vacation days.
Two Monongalia school system leaders who investigated Cheesebrough — DeSantis and University High Principal Kim Greene — didn’t return requests for comment in the last two weeks. Deputy Superintendent Donna Talerico asked for written questions but didn’t grant an interview request.
The allegations against Cheesebrough remained private, and he headed out West. Just as he was being paid his last bit of leave in West Virginia, the Scottsdale district hired him as a teacher.
Norman said Cheesebrough started teaching there in August 2017.
A West Virginia teacher discipline panel called the Professional Practice Panel finally had a hearing about the allegations in June 2018.
And it wasn’t until November 2018 — almost two years after Cheesebrough submitted his resignation from West Virginia — that the panel recommended to Paine what to do with his certifications.
But the panel didn’t recommend revoking them. And Paine — who can punish more harshly than the recommendation — didn’t revoke the teaching certification and only temporarily pulled the administrator certification.
In explaining why they didn’t take that action, the panel and Paine specifically said they didn’t want to interfere with Cheesebrough’s new job in Arizona.
Despite corroborating evidence from Cheesebrough’s girlfriend (a University High teacher while Cheesebrough was assistant principal), the student, the student’s diary, and messages between Cheesebrough and the student, the Professional Practice Panel recommended essentially no punishment, the order shows.
The panel found the student’s testimony “that Mr. Cheesebrough had a special relationship with her and that he provided her with marijuana when they met in his truck — to not be credible because she admitted to not being truthful or straightforward during meetings with Principal Greene and the State Police.”
“Nor did the Panel find [the student]’s journal entries credible because there were contradictions and she falsely told the State Police that she had burned her journal,” the order says. “The Panel concluded that Mr. Cheesebrough’s testimony — that he did not engage in any sexual conduct or contact and that if there was a kiss, [the student] initiated the kiss and he stopped the advance — was more credible.”
The panel recommended suspending Cheesebrough’s teaching and administrator certifications for a year, but retroactively starting June 30, 2017. Thus, the punishment would’ve already been served by the time it was even recommended to Paine, in late 2018.
The panel said it recommended this “so as to have no impact on his current job teaching disadvantaged students in Arizona,” the order states.
The West Virginia Department of Education said the recommendation was a unanimous decision among the following panel members: Norwood Elementary teacher Tonya Blackburn; Sherman Junior High teacher Paula Meadows; John Marshall High teacher Molly Taylor; and Karen Petitto, director of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s School of Education.
On Friday, Meadows and Petitto declined comment, and the other two didn’t return calls.
In his order, Paine sharply criticized the panel’s reasoning. Yet he didn’t punish much further.
“The Panel did not consider the context and circumstances surrounding the February 24, 2017 meeting between Mr. Cheesebrough and [the student],” Paine wrote. The state superintendent noted that meeting was around 10 p.m. in a parking lot in Cheesebrough’s truck.
“If the relationship between the two had been completely professional up to that point, Mr. Cheesebrough would not have so readily agreed to meet [the student] in such compromising circumstances after having been warned by his supervisors not to meet with [the student] alone at school and not to discuss the investigation with her,” Paine continued. “Moreover, Mr. Cheesebrough would not have stressed in his emails to [the student] how ‘imperative’ it was that she not post anything on social media or talk to anyone and that his career and perhaps his freedom would be on the line.”
Paine went on to note that Cheesebrough changed what he said to supervisors over time, and Paine called it lying. Paine noted 86 text messages between Cheesebrough and the student in late 2016, despite him originally saying they hadn’t texted.
The state superintendent also wrote the panel didn’t sufficiently take into account its own experience with “licensure hearings involving teacher-student boundary violations.” Paine said the student fit the typical profile of a victim of “boundary violations,” noting her personal issues.
“The undersigned also notes that at the hearing, Mr. Cheesebrough attacked [the student]’s credibility by listing her vulnerabilities, another common feature in these boundary cases,” Paine wrote. “Another consistent feature in boundary cases is that the student initially denies that the relationship with the educator is anything but professional. However, the Panel viewed [the student]’s initial denial as true and her subsequent testimony as false.”
The student had said Cheesebrough began showing her “extreme favoritism” when she was a freshman.
Though Paine didn’t mention it in his criticism of the panel’s reasoning, his order notes that the student said Cheesebrough asked if she thought they would ever have sex. Also, the student said she asked him if he had touched a student before, and, according to her, “he said he didn’t need to because if he thought a student was hot, he could go home and think about them when he masturbates.”
Cheesebrough denied these things.
Nevertheless, Paine concluded that he wished “to balance the Panel’s desire not to affect Mr. Cheesebrough’s current teaching position in Arizona with his responsibility to sanction a West Virginia educator for conduct occurring in West Virginia.”
So he suspended Cheesebrough’s administrator certification, not his teacher certification, for a year, effective Jan. 28, 2019.
Paine said that, after that year, Cheesebrough could get his administrator certification back if he completed West Virginia Department of Education-approved “boundary training.”