PHOENIX — A state education committee heard almost eight hours of testimony to determine whether a former Sequoia Pathway Academy principal will face disciplinary action against his certification over allegations of misconduct while at the Maricopa school.
The Arizona Board of Education’s Professional Practices Advisory Committee convened Wednesday to decide whether Alfonso Alva, currently an administrator at Pathway’s parent company Edkey, should have his certification revoked, suspended or renewed based on the testimony. The committee’s recommendation is then sent to the Board of Education for a final decision.
The testimony was expansive, covering much of what was included in an investigation by PinalCentral published in November of complaints filed with Edkey and then with the state board that governs charter schools. Following that article, the case was brought to the state board. The hearing was supposed to be over in a day but had to be cut off due to time constraints until a later date.
Kim Anderson, an assistant attorney general representing the state, and members of the committee repeatedly questioned the integrity of the investigation conducted by Edkey’s human resources department. Alva’s attorneys, Debora Verdier and Ian King, in turn questioned the relationships between the complainants to paint a picture of “us versus them” between them and Edkey that created a “cesspool of adult convenience” that Alva needed to clean up.
Meanwhile, two former teachers and a former student all shared their experiences with Alva allegedly making inappropriate and at times harassing comments about their personal lives as the state made its case for much of the day. The defense was only able to call one witness before the hearing was adjourned, and he argued it was the complainants, and not Alva, who were dangers to the school.
Testimonies of misconduct
Former Pathway English teacher and soccer coach Juan Garavito testified about an end-of-the-year party — one that was of much interest during the hearing — held at his house in May 2018 in which attendees were invited to swim in the pool. Garavito said Alva had multiple conversations with him about fellow English teacher Trecia Koozer’s swimsuit. In separate conversations, Garavito said Alva had talked about Koozer’s shorts.
“I’ve gone through numerous amounts of sexual harassment training in my career, and to me it’s common sense that you don’t have those kinds of conversations, especially in the workplace,” Garavito said.
In her testimony, Koozer later said Alva had also mentioned the swimsuit to her, asking if she would be wearing a “Mormon” one that goes down to the knees, or a bikini. Just before the party, she said Alva texted her to say he got a new swimsuit and asked her if she wanted a picture of him wearing it, and whether she would send him a picture of hers. She said she deleted those text messages because she didn’t want her children seeing them.
In an attempt to label Garavito’s statement that Alva was “always” making inappropriate comments as an “exaggeration,” Verdier argued that Garavito only cited four occasions of inappropriate comments. Garavito said he does not feel that is an exaggeration.
In another situation, Garavito said a student had approached him about something that had happened at home. Realizing where the conversation was going, Garavito decided to take the student to administration, which included Alva. He said he was later stopped and brought to Alva’s office and, without asking, told “a lot more than I needed to know” about the student’s parents’ sex lives. He said there was no educational purpose to sharing that information.
Koozer testified that one day at school, Alva was sitting with a group of male students during lunch. She walked by the group and recalled Alva calling out that she looked good in her jeans and that she looked like a teenager.
“Uncomfortable doesn’t come close to describing it. Sick to my stomach, maybe,” she said when asked how she felt after that. “These are boys I have in my class. These are young boys, and this does not hit my radar as something grown men should be saying to young boys. I remember thinking, ‘Really, we’re going to teach these boys how to catcall their teachers?’”
A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Koozer talked about belief in the church that drinks such as coffee should not be consumed. She said Alva would see her drinking coffee on occasion and “continuously” bring this up during the fall of 2018 just before he was removed from campus, and it made her uncomfortable.
“It was almost as if embarrassing me on a daily basis was what he woke up to do,” Koozer said. “There was a never-ending line of questions over what I was drinking and whether I should drink it, and whether he should contact my religious leaders.”
Verdier later tied Koozer drinking coffee to Koozer’s claim that she is a “rule follower,” asking if that label only applies to her time at work, and not with her religion.
So when multiple students came forward with stories of misconduct by Alva, Koozer said she believed them because she had been treated the same way. That’s when she said the complaints started being made toward Edkey, then to the State Board for Charter Schools. Hearing all those stories together, she said, opened a “Pandora’s box” that gave them the courage to move forward.
“(The students are) already at the point in their lives where they’re trying to figure things out. Here you’ve got a campus full of staff trying to build these students up, and then you have the campus director causing problems,” she said. “I felt no matter how hard I worked helping those girls feel strong in themselves, it would be undone and undermined.”
One of those students, Class of 2019 graduate Paris Jones, testified in front of the committee about her experience that she previously detailed to PinalCentral. She talked about the many occasions Alva would comment on her relationship with a baseball player and how he had seen the boyfriend hanging out with prettier girls than her.
“I didn’t understand why he said those things. I listened to him because he was our leader and I thought he might be giving me advice in a fatherly way,” Jones said. Later in her testimony, she said, “Principals have no place to talk to children about the clothes they are wearing, unless they are breaking the dress code, or about their relationships.”
Then there were issues she heard from people she knew. Jones said she was present when Alva asked one of her friends, “Why are you wearing such tight clothes? Who are you trying to impress?”
After more people started coming forward with their own stories about Alva’s conduct, Jones said she realized she wasn’t overthinking the situation, that his behavior was inappropriate, and that she needed to use her voice to make sure it stopped. So she reached out to Edkey Human Resources Director Laurie Ainge about her experience.
In his cross-examination, King asked Jones whether she was labeled a “drama queen” in high school and whether she had violated the dress code. When asked by the board about this line of questioning, King said he was addressing her “credibility.” An objection was made to that point.
Edkey leader testifies
Edkey CEO Mark Plitzuweit, the defense’s first witness, said Alva was hired as Sequoia Pathway’s campus director to turn things around at the campus, particularly with the athletic department. He said in the first year, the benchmarks immediately started going up, and the school went from a low C to a high C, then to a B.
Plitzuweit said he coined the term “cesspool of adult convenience” for Pathway before Alva came to campus. He said there was a “buddy system” where everyone would just protect each other and not consider themselves Edkey employees, but Sequoia Pathway employees. He said items would go missing on campus and there was improper use of funds, and any involvement from Edkey would be resisted.
“There was a lot of doing things and then later asking for forgiveness,” he said. “Or they wouldn’t tell us at all until we found out.”
Alva was promoted to assistant superintendent of operations at Edkey in the summer of 2018 but remained at the Pathway campus because he had moved to Maricopa. Since being removed from the campus following the complaint after fall break in 2018, he has been stationed at Edkey headquarters in Mesa on the Horne campus.
“The group that brought these complaints forward would stop at nothing to undermine Edkey,” Plitzuweit said. “They have gone after my predecessor, they have gone against every single assistant superintendent that would come to that campus. They’ve tried to smear their names, tried to get them fired. It was the right thing to do to get him off that campus.”
However, later in the testimony, Plitzuweit said Alva’s successor as assistant superintendent did not receive such treatment.
Plitzuweit said as assistant superintendent, Alva has worked to develop principals and other administrators, and the proof of his abilities is in how much improvement can be seen at those schools. He said he had never heard Alva make an inappropriate comment, including in after-hour social settings. He said if Alva had committed the acts alleged by the complaints, Alva would no longer be working at Edkey.
When pressed by Anderson, Plitzuweit said comments about religion, weight, clothing and students’ relationships would all be inappropriate if they occurred, but he said he did not believe any inappropriate conduct took place.
After it became clear the hearing would not be able to be completed that day, the committee adjourned, with Ainge and Alva set to testify at a later date that still needs to be set.