State agency reprimands former VHS teacher

The agency did not take action to suspend or revoke Sears’ teaching certificate, saying they could not meet the higher burden of proof such legal actions require.

The state agency charged with certifying teachers has reprimanded former Vashon High School teacher Kara Sears, closing its investigation stemming from allegations that she groomed a student and engaged in other unprofessional conduct.

But the state Office of Professional Practices (OPP), a department of the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) did not take action to suspend or revoke Sears’ teaching certificate, saying it could not meet the higher burden of proof such a legal action requires.

Sears and her attorney have agreed to OPP’s “agreed order of reprimand” and as a result cannot appeal it, according to Catherine Slagle, OPP’s director. The state action means Sears will still be certified to teach, but a record of the state’s disciplinary action will be included in her records and a national database used by education licensing and discipline agencies in the United States, U.S. territories, and Canada.

Sears, reached by phone, said she had no comment on OPP’s investigation of her or whether her plans for the future involved resuming her teaching career.

The parent of the student at the center of the investigation, however, expressed frustration at OPP’s decision.

“I am saddened and angry about the lasting impact that grooming a student, such as my son, can have,” the parent said. “She should never be allowed in a classroom again.”

Investigation timeline

OPP began its investigation in March 2023, after receiving a letter from Vashon superintendent Slade McSheehy, who reported that he had “sufficient reliable information to believe that certificated teacher Kara Sears is not of good moral character or personally fit, and/or has committed acts of inappropriate and unprofessional conduct.”

At the time of McSheehy’s letter, Sears had resigned from her job as a teacher at Vashon High School (VHS) following the conclusion of a separate investigation of her conduct by the school district.

The district launched its investigation in August 2022, after a parent alleged that Sears, now 42, had groomed their teenager during the school year for what the parent suspected was a sexual relationship that took place in the summer following the student’s graduation from VHS.

Both Sears and the student, during the district’s investigation, denied their relationship was sexual.

One of OPP’s first actions, upon launching its subsequent investigation, was to subpoena all materials related to the district’s prior investigation of Sears.

The district’s investigation, conducted by Celeste Monroe, an independent investigator affiliated with the law firm of Karr Tuttle Campbell, resulted in a 27-page report, dated Jan. 27, 2023. The report concluded that Sears had violated school district policy on boundary invasions in her conduct with the student as well as with other students in the district.

Monroe’s findings included that Sears had given special treatment to the student, communicated with him via Instagram messages, and, in the summer after his graduation, visited his home several times when no one else was there.

Additionally, Monroe found that Sears had “violated the district’s instruction to refrain from engaging in any conduct that could potentially interfere with the investigation” by communicating with a para-educator and another VHS student.

In her report, Monroe recounted interviews with VHS administrators, two VHS teachers, a para-educator who worked closely with Sears, and four students who had closely observed Sears’ interactions with the student who was the subject of the alleged grooming.

Evidence cited in the report included Instagram and text messages between Sears and the student, as well as home security footage provided by the student’s parent.

Monroe also interviewed Sears, the former student, and the parent of the former student.

According to Monroe’s report, Sears acknowledged she had become close to the student, particularly during the summer that followed the student’s graduation from high school. But when asked, she denied that their relationship became sexual, the report said.

The former student, too, denied a sexual relationship. However, he related that Sears had told him that she loved him and that he had said the same thing to her, and he regarded her as “more than a friend.”

A 16-year employee of the district, Sears had an annual salary of approximately $131,000 at the time of her resignation, making her one of the highest-paid teachers in the district.

Throughout the district’s investigation, Sears was on paid administrative leave from the district. According to the terms of a settlement agreement with the district, Sears continued to receive her salary and benefits through October 2023.

OPP authority

​According to its website, OPP is authorized “to investigate individual educators for allegations of unprofessional conduct and allegations of a lack of good moral character and/or personal fitness by certificated educators, and reviews applications for certification when there is any question concerning good moral character/personal fitness and/or criminal history record.”

OPP can take several actions as a result of its investigations — from dismissing the complaint to issuing a reprimand to suspending or revoking the teacher’s certificate.

Suspensions, revocations, and voluntary surrenders of certificates are reported on an OSPI webpage detailing those actions; reprimands are not.

The voluntary surrender of the teaching certificate of John Rees, another VHS teacher investigated by the district in 2022-2023 following allegations by two former students that he groomed them for emotionally abusive relationships that began almost immediately after their graduations, for instance, is noted on the OSPI webpage.

OPP decision

According to Slagle, OPP’s staff attorney reviewed the evidence and decided the office could meet the legal burden of proof — “a preponderance of the evidence” — to reprimand Sears for her behavior.

However, the attorney found that the investigation did not provide “clear and convincing” evidence — a higher burden of proof — necessary to suspend or revoke Sears’ certification.

As a result, Sears’ certification as a teacher in Washington state will remain intact. However, other conditions apply which could serve as barriers to her future employment as a teacher in Washington and/or to her certification as a teacher in another state.

The conditions, according to Slagle, include:

  • If Sears is asked by a school district if she has been investigated and/or disciplined by a professional licensing agency, she would be required to report the reprimand, and her failure to do so would be considered a code of conduct violation.
  • A notice of the reprimand will also be placed on OSPI’s e-certification screen and will be visible to any Washington school or school district that looks up Sears’ certification record. Any educational institution considering hiring Sears could, at that point, call OSPI to get more information about her investigation and/or reprimand.
  • The notice of discipline will remain on Sears’ record permanently. The investigation and all records of it will be destroyed after 60 years.
  • The reprimand will be reported by OPP to the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification Clearinghouse database. This database is used by educational licensing and disciplining agencies in all 50 U.S. States and territories, as well as Canada. If Sears applies to such agencies for certification in any other state, her reprimand would be visible to those agencies via the database.

OPP’s investigation took more than a year to complete — an indication of the agency’s small staff and heavy workload, according to Slagle.

“We have two investigators and over 120 open investigations, so it took time,” she said.

Both Superintendent McSheehy and School Board Vice Chair Juniper Rogneby provided written statements regarding the end of OPP’s investigation.

“VISD understands and shares our island community’s concern regarding the teacher investigations from the 2022-2023 school year,” McSheehy wrote. “We respect the thorough process conducted by OSPI’s Office of Professional Practices and continue to be committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of all students in our district.”

“I’m confident teachers, staff, and administrators take seriously our shared commitment to setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries while delivering an outstanding educational experience for all students,” said Rogneby. “The ‘order of reprimand’ concludes the OPPs investigation, but our work to restore trust and build durable systems of accountability continues.”