The Madison Police Department is reviewing a case of reported physical abuse of an eighth-grade student by Madison teacher Hector Vazquez, who was suspended this week pending the outcome of a sexual harassment complaint filed by parents in the district.
Police spokesman Mike Hanson said the report of an incident April 1, 2004, at Sennett Middle School "slipped through the cracks," and was not reviewed by a detective or a representative of the Dane County district attorney's office to determine if charges should be filed.
"It's an unfortunate event," Hanson said. "We need to backtrack and go back and investigate."
Hanson said it is not known exactly how the mistake occurred, but the report had been mislabled in a way that could have erroneously indicated that it had already been referred to the district attorney.
The Sennett incident occurred less than three months after Vazquez was charged with two counts of battery and one count of disorderly conduct following a domestic violence incident involving his wife, who has since filed for a divorce.
District Attorney Brian Blanchard said that had his office filed charges against Vazquez in the Sennett incident, it is unlikely that it would have agreed to a plea arrangement in the domestic violence incident that allowed Vazquez to go into the Deferred Prosecution Unit, formerly known as the First Offenders Program.
Under that agreement, Blanchard said, battery charges were dismissed and Vazquez pleaded guilty to the disorderly conduct charge, which was dismissed in June after Vazquez completed the Deferred Prosecution program.
The program is designed to provide counseling and treatment to first-time offenders in the hope that they will not repeat criminal behavior, Blanchard said. In most domestic violence cases, offenders receive certified abuser treatment, he said.
Art Rainwater, superintendent of the Madison School District, who said he did not know about the domestic violence charges against Vazquez, said Vazquez was "appropriately disciplined" for the Sennett incident. Rainwater said he was legally prohibited from revealing what disciplinary action was taken.
John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., said Vazquez received a letter of reprimand for using what the district said was excessive force with the student. The teachers union maintains that the reprimand was unjustified and is awaiting arbitration on the district's action.
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Vazquez could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
According the Madison Police report, an officer was called to Sennett Middle School, 502 Pflaum Road, the morning after the incident, when the student's father brought him to school and asked to speak to police. The father indicated through a language interpreter that he was "very concerned for his son's safety" and did not want his 13-year-old son in Vazquez's class.
While the father expressed that he did not want to pursue a criminal complaint against Vazquez, Hanson said that request would not have prevented charges from being filed.
According to the police report, the student said Vazquez told him to stop clicking his pen, then grabbed and twisted the student's arm to remove the pen from his hand before he had a chance to stop clicking it. Vazquez told police he only grabbed the pen with two fingers after the boy moved the pen to within 6 inches of his face, and may have touched the boy's fingers.
The student reported that he experienced a burning feeling for approximately 40 minutes after the incident. The student met with a school social worker, who reported seeing a red mark on the student's forearm, and took him to the nurse's office.
According to the report, the officer then questioned Vazquez, who was accompanied by Heidi Tepp, a legal services representative for the school district, union representative Eve Degen, and personal attorney Traci L. Tadwalt, who told the officer, "I've advised my client not to say anything due to other legal things going on." After the officer told Tadwalt that she would have to arrest Vazquez for physical abuse of a child, Tadwalt spoke in private with Vazquez, who then denied grabbing the student by the wrist or arm when he took the pen from his hand.
Blanchard said it was "unfortunate" that his office did not receive the report of the Sennett incident from police. "I think it was a very rare mistake," he said.
Last week, 28 parents filed a Title IX sexual harassment complaint against Vazquez because they were dissatisfied with the district's investigation of their concerns that he created a hostile learning environment for their children.
In their complaint, parents said Vazquez showed students an R-rated movie, made repeated references "to his personal sexual exploits, including visits to topless bars, and including references to his personal experiences watching women in pornographic situations," stared at girls' breasts in class and touched students in a way that made them and observers uncomfortable.
Matthews said the district conducted a thorough investigation of the parents' allegations this past spring and found no reason for discipline.
District officials this week suspended Vazquez with pay, as required by state law, pending the outcome of an independent investigation.