Joel Tapia has worked as an elementary school principal at three school districts in San Diego County.
In all three districts, complaints or concerns about his leadership and behavior have surfaced — first in Chula Vista, then in Solana Beach and most recently in San Ysidro, where trustees decided earlier this year not to renew his contract.
In each stint during his seven-year career as principal, Tapia ended up reassigned or placed on administrative leave.
District records obtained by The San Diego Union-Tribune reveal new details about the complaints, which included allegations from staff in Chula Vista and Solana Beach that he regularly missed meetings, failed to effectively address discipline cases, skipped out on opportunities to interact with students during recess and lunch, and inappropriately touched employees.
In Solana Beach, the complaints against Tapia — which included an allegation of repeated harassment — were referred to the state board that handles the credentialing of teachers and administrators. In the end, the board did not take action against him. A spokesman for the board declined to discuss the investigation.
In San Ysidro, it appears the school district did not conduct a reference check with Tapia’s former employer before hiring him.
The 37-year-old educator denies the accusations. He acknowledges he could have handled some situations better, but he faults the districts for not giving him more opportunities to address the allegations.
Tapia’s career as principal began in 2011 — at the age of 29 — when he was hired to lead Burton C. Tiffany Elementary School in Chula Vista.
His departure there came after a majority of teachers took a vote of no confidence — a symbolic move — and outlined complaints about him in a two-page letter to the Chula Vista Elementary School District in December 2014, according to a settlement and release agreement between the district and Tapia.
In the letter, teachers said Tapia failed to support staff with student discipline issues, regularly missed meetings and created a hostile and uncomfortable work environment by raising his voice, making inappropriate remarks about staff and touching employees inappropriately, among other concerns.
In response, Tapia was reassigned to other duties at the district’s office and the district launched an investigation into the accusations against him.
Records show Tapia responded with more than 100 pages that include copies of documents and emails in an attempt to disprove the claims from staff who had complained about him.
Tapia was never reinstated; his reassignment continued until he resigned. In a notice of resignation dated June 6, 2015, he said he had found a new job.
In an interview with the Union-Tribune, Tapia said he would “do things differently” as principal in Chula Vista if he had the chance.
“I do feel that for any school receiving a new principal, there’s a learning curve for the principal that the school has to deal with,” he said. “I think I did my best.” Among his regrets is not taking time to build stronger relationships with his school’s veteran staff, he said.
“Looking back, I think there’s times that I’ve pushed a little too hard on people and maybe they weren’t ready,” he said.
Tapia said he left the district with the support of some school leaders, including Douglas E. Luffborough, the president of the school board at the time.
Luffborough wrote Tapia a letter of recommendation in which he said Tiffany Elementary improved its academic performance under Tapia’s leadership, becoming tied for second in performance among the district’s 46 schools.
“These academic results truly attest to Mr. Tapia’s solid leadership,” Luffborough wrote. “I truly believe Mr. Tapia will be a strong, passionate leader and is an asset to any school community.”
Tapia moved on to the Solana Beach School District — where concerns about him, similar to those in Chula Vista, would arise not long after he became principal of Solana Vista Elementary School.
He held the job for one school year.
His troubles began about a month into the 2015-16 academic year, after a district employee complained Tapia gave her unwanted attention. She said Tapia would comment on her looks and touch her — patting her on the back, putting his arm around her shoulder and grasping her elbow, according to investigative records from the school district.
Two days after the complaint, Sal Gumina, director of human resources, spoke to Tapia, who was “directed to not touch any staff member other than regular work interactions (i.e. handshake)”, according to a follow-up letter sent to Tapia.
Five months later, staff complained in a seven-page document dated March 18, 2016, that Tapia failed to effectively handle sensitive discipline cases and missed staff meetings.
"We have mentored and coached him continually to guide him toward the expectations we uphold in Solana Beach,” staff wrote in the letter. “However, as time passes, and we field more concerns (which are growing larger in nature), and sit in more meetings between he and teachers, we find it difficult to continue supporting him."
Among the list of concerns, staff also said Tapia had continued to touch the employee who had complained about him and had repeatedly asked for her cellphone.
Tapia was placed on paid administrative leave on April 11, 2016, while the district investigated the accusations. Eight days later, Gumina interviewed Tapia about a range of topics related to the allegations, from student discipline to his work ethic.
Tapia denied ever touching the employee, according to notes of the interview.
In a letter dated April 29, 2016, Gumina told him the district would recommend he be released at the end of the school year.
Tapia told the Union-Tribune he wasn’t informed of any substantiated claims or given a specific reason for the decision to release him following the district’s investigation.
On May 1, 2016, Tapia sent Gumina a resignation letter. His last day would be June 20, 2016.
As required by state law, the school district reported Tapia’s case to the Commission on Teacher Credentialing on May 27, 2016. That was unbeknownst to Tapia until later — once he had moved onto the San Ysidro School District.
Under state law, superintendents are required to notify the state board about changes in a teacher or administrator's employment status "as a result of an allegation of misconduct or while an allegation of misconduct is pending."
In a letter to the state board, Solana Beach Superintendent Terry Decker said Tapia had continued to “harass and/or annoy” the employee after receiving written direction to not touch employees. Decker also said Gumina found “many” of the accusations to be substantiated, including the “continued harassment and/or annoyance” of the employee.
Tapia said he believes the district should have laid out more details about the allegations against him and given him a better chance to defend himself.
“If they really believed they had facts and evidence to support their decision, then they shouldn't have been scared to say, ‘Joel, We've substantiated X, Y, Z, specifically. We're going to take this action.’ I think that would have been the honest thing to do," he said. “That shows integrity and confidence in their process.
“It felt like a very cloaked process,” he added.
Before he moved on to San Ysidro, Tapia said, he had interviews lined up for three principal jobs within another school district, which he declined to name. The interviews, however, were called off at the last minute. Tapia said he was told the decision was the result of a reference check with the Solana Beach School District.
Instead, Tapia would go on to work for the San Ysidro School District.
Gumina said administrators in San Ysidro did not reach out to the Solana Beach School District for a reference check. District officials in San Ysidro declined to say if they did.
Gumina said his district did conduct reference checks before hiring Tapia but had no documents about the checks. “Reference checks are normally phone conversations,” Gumina said in an email.
About four months into his time as principal of San Ysidro’s Smythe Elementary School, the allegations made against Tapia in Solana Beach resurfaced. Tapia received a letter from the state credentialing board — a notice it was investigating the claims the Solana Beach School District reported to the board.
The Dec. 23, 2016, letter said substantiated claims “may be sufficient to cause your credential(s) to be suspended, revoked or denied, or to cause you to be privately admonished or publicly reproved.”
Two months later, a board committee recommended “no adverse action” and closed the investigation, according to a Feb. 22, 2017, letter sent to Tapia. The letter did not offer an explanation for the reason behind the decison.
A spokesman for the state commission said details about investigations resulting in no adverse action are confidential under state law.
Both letters were also sent to the superintendents in Solana Beach and San Ysidro. Tapia told the Union-Tribune that San Ysidro’s superintendent at the time, Julio Fonseca, told him he had notified the school board of the state board’s investigation and outcome.
Then, in January of this year, Tapia was reassigned to other duties at the district’s office. District officials said they were investigating a “personnel matter” and declined to share details. The district has not released documents requested under the state Public Records Act.
Tapia said he was never given an explanation for his reassignment.
He believes the decision was based on the past allegations against him, which re-emerged once again in January when the Solana Beach School District notified Tapia it planned to release records about the claims to the Voice of San Diego news organization as part of a records request.
Fonseca had resigned. Tapia said he went to former interim Superintendent Mary Willis to inform her of the planned release of documents. Although Willis did not work for the district when Tapia was hired or when the state board notified the district of its investigation, the school board had been aware of his work history, Tapia said. In February, the school board voted 3-2 to release Tapia at the end of the current school year. Willis had recommended the action to the board.
The decision was made despite a strong show of support for Tapia from dozens of parents, teachers and students who attended school board meetings and even staged a protest to demand he be reinstated.
Other parents had criticized Tapia, saying he had failed to properly handle instances in which their children were bullied.
Tapia said he wants to keep working as an educator.
“People have already told me, ‘Just give up. Do something else.’ But for me, I spent my whole life working towards being an education,” he said. “I really believe I was called to be an educator.”
--David Hernandez is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune