West Virginia Schools Superintendent Steve Paine told lawmakers there were “missteps” in handling the situation surrounding former University High assistant principal Pete Cheesebrough.
“And not by us, necessarily,” he said Tuesday, before placing blame on others.
In 2017, Cheesebrough, 57, resigned from the Monongalia County school after admitting he and an 18-year-old student kissed. This was after a superior in the county school system told him not to meet her alone anymore.
He then began teaching in Arizona using a West Virginia teaching certification that Paine later declined to revoke.
In his written order deciding not to revoke the certification, Paine cited not wanting to affect Cheesebrough’s Arizona job as a reason. Not revoking Cheesebrough’s certification could also have allowed him to return to teaching in West Virginia, if a county here agreed to hire him.
Since news about the situation broke, the state superintendent and his Department of Education have, however, criticized Monongalia County Schools leaders, including Associate Superintendent Robert DeSantis. The department provided a letter of recommendation DeSantis wrote for Cheesebrough after DeSantis investigated him over the reported relationship with the student.
“I recommend Mr. Peter Cheesebrough for a professional position with your school system,” the letter states. “Mr. Cheesebrough has always demonstrated leadership throughout his career.”
Before the Gazette-Mail got a copy from the department, DeSantis wrote in an email that “the letter was for Mr. Cheesebrough so please contact him for a copy. He had requested a general letter summarizing his work history in Monongalia County. He was technically still employed in Monongalia County and was not applying in any other county or state to our knowledge.”
Paine, who has declined several requests for interviews over the situation, also this week revealed that his department told the Arizona Department of Education about the allegations against Cheesebrough back in 2017. It provided an email dated Oct. 31, 2017.
Stefan Swiat, the Arizona department’s public information officer, confirmed this. While Swiat said he couldn’t provide the supporting documents because of Arizona law, he said the Arizona department’s chief investigator at the time informed the Scottsdale Unified School District, where Cheesebrough had begun working on Nov. 2, 2017, of the fact West Virginia was investigating and what the allegations included.
Amy Bolton, a spokeswoman for that district, wrote in an email that the superintendent at the time is no longer there, “so I would have no way of verifying that information.”
The Arizona State Board of Education last week revoked Cheesebrough’s certifications over the allegation in West Virginia. Cheesebrough had been teaching high school students in the Scottsdale district since August 2017.
Swiat said he didn’t know whether Scottsdale could have fired or put Cheesebrough on leave back in 2017 due merely to the existence of an investigation in West Virginia. But he defended the Arizona department’s handling of the situation.
“Since this case stems from an incident in another state, [the Arizona Department of Education’s Investigative Unit] was completely dependent on the investigation occurring and concluding in West Virginia,” Swiat wrote. “ADE’s Investigative Unit built its case on the information that was presented from the previous investigation.”
It wasn’t until January of this year that Paine issued an order not revoking Cheesebrough’s teaching certification.
“There were some missteps,” Paine told West Virginia lawmakers Tuesday, when the Senate president questioned him. “And not by us, necessarily. They were from Monongalia County Schools.”
In February 2017, Cheesebrough’s superiors in Monongalia, including DeSantis, began investigating him over rumors of the relationship, according to Paine’s order. Another of those superiors, Deputy Superintendent Donna Talerico, told Cheesebrough not to meet with the student alone.
In March 2017, the student’s mother told DeSantis 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.
The order says Cheesebrough said the student kissed him; she said he kissed her.
The teacher discipline panel wrote that DeSantis and Cheesebrough agreed that, in lieu of being put on leave, Cheesebrough could use his paid leave. DeSantis, however, denies this claim. Cheesebrough did use his leave, though, and then resigned without being disciplined by the Monongalia school system, according to the panel.
It was during this leave period that DeSantis provided his letter of recommendation. It’s unclear whether Cheesebrough used it to get his job in Arizona.
In the wake of news reports following Arizona’s revocation of Cheesebrough’s certifications last Friday, no legislators on West Virginia’s Legislative Oversight Commission on Educational Accountability asked Paine about the situation when he appeared before them Monday during legislative interim meetings.
But Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, brought it up Tuesday when Paine spoke on various issues before a panel of the most powerful lawmakers. Carmichael said what he read made it seem like the state’s school system looked the other way to preserve Cheesebrough’s Arizona job.
“Can you elaborate or comment on that?” Carmichael asked. “Because that is just offensive at its very core.”
“I think it’s very offensive, too, and it’s totally unacceptable,” Paine replied. He said lawmakers did bring up the issue Monday — at receptions the education department and the governor held for them.
Paine then recounted some of the same facts he’d noted in his order.
“In fact, the assistant principal, at 10 o’clock at night, had the student in the truck and there was a kiss. Totally inappropriate,” Paine said Tuesday. “At that point, as a superintendent of schools, I would have immediately suspended the employee without pay, done an investigation, and that rises, in my mind as a superintendent, to termination.”
“In this case, that did not happen,” he added. “The administration allowed this particular vice principal to take medical leave. They did that, OK. At this point, we still had not learned of the situation; in fact, we didn’t find out until June it wasn’t reported to us. So they allowed this guy to go ahead and go on leave, medical leave, paid leave, with the understanding that he would resign from the system.”
A West Virginia State Police report of its investigation into Cheesebrough, which did not lead to criminal charges, says West Virginia Department of Education investigator James Agee was actually told of the allegations in March 2017.
“Monongalia County did not provide correspondence regarding Mr. Cheesebrough until June 2017,” Kristin Anderson, communications executive director for the West Virginia Department of Education, wrote in an email.
The email the West Virginia department provided showing notification to Arizona is dated Oct. 31, 2017.
“Monongalia County really didn’t want the publicity, but this whole thing was rumor all over the school anyway, so I don’t get why they’re still afraid of firing some people,” Agee wrote. “Besides, they had the gift of his blatant insubordination as good cover to fire the guy.”
It wasn’t until November 2018 — almost two years after Cheesebrough submitted his resignation from West Virginia and about a year after he started teaching in Arizona — that the teacher discipline panel recommended to Paine what to do with his certifications.
The panel didn’t recommend revoking them. And Paine didn’t revoke the teaching certification and only temporarily pulled the administrator certification.
Paine said that action is “actually what flagged him a second time in the system, where Arizona notified somebody and finally followed up.”
Carmichael didn’t question him further, and Paine — as he has done several times before — declined to talk to a reporter about Cheesebrough after the meeting.