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Tuesday, May 20 2014 07:55 AM

TUSD cat-killing investigation ends

A Tehachapi Unified School District internal investigation about whether one of its maintenance workers committed acts of animal cruelty has been concluded with no evident wrongdoing, the board president has reported.

Robert Hutton, a maintenance worker who was arrested on March 31, was returned to work on May 16.

District statement

Graham's statement is printed in its entirety here:

"After a thorough and careful consideration of the facts, the Tehachapi Unified School District's investigation into allegations of animal cruelty on District property is concluded. While certainly a troubling circumstance, the District investigation did not show that District employees were directed by supervisors to engage in cruel or inhumane treatment of animals or that those employees did engage cruel or necessarily inhumane treatment of animals. The investigation did show that the District has had problems with wild, undomesticated, and/or feral animals coming onto the properties for at least the last 20years. District employees have attempted to work with various outside agencies in order to safely remove such animals since wild animals pose a significant risk to the health, safety, and security of District staff, students, and community members. Unfortunately, efforts to work with these agencies have by and large been unsuccessful in establishing a consistent and workable practice.

"Nevertheless the Governing Board is committed to ensuring the humane handling of any and all animals which may be present on District properties. Euthanasia of wild animals on District property will not be tolerated. Any such practice has been immediately discontinued. A new Board Policy is currently under review which will address these issue and will strike the appropriate balance between the important interests of maintaining the health, safety, and security of District students, staff and community members and the humane handling of animals. District employees have been made aware of the Governing Board's expectations in this regard and the District looks forward to working with the appropriate agencies in addressing any future issues with wild animals."

Unanswered questions

The Tehachapi News asked Graham the following questions after receiving her statement:

* Can you please tell us when board action was taken regarding this matter?

* Also, which outside agencies were contacted for assistance and when?

* What has the board/district done to make district employees "aware of the Governing Board's expectations in this regard?" If this has been done in writing, please provide a copy of the document and date it was sent to district employees.

* Your statement here speaks to "wild animals" but does not address domesticated animals. Can you please clarify if cats on district property would be considered wild animals?

* And finally, did the district's investigation show that animals were killed by one or more district employees on school grounds?

Graham told the Tehachapi News Monday morning that she had referred the questions to the district's legal team.

DA still investigating

The Kern County District Attorney's office is still conducting its own investigation, Graham said.

Ron Taylor, the deputy district attorney handling the case, could not be reached for comment on May 19.

Hutton remains off the court system since posting $15,000 bail the same day he was arrested.

On May 12, Taylor commented that the Hutton case was still under investigation.

"There are some complexities in this case and things take time to investigate so the right decision can be made," Taylor said.

Hutton was arrested at 11:40 a.m. March 31 at Monroe High School in Tehachapi after he told a Kern County Animal Services officer that he had killed three cats.

Animal Control officials and the Kern County District Attorney's Office have refused to provide further information. But repeated requests for information from The Bakersfield Californian prompted the Kern County Counsel's office to release a brief statement on April 11 about the circumstances of the arrest.

On Friday, April 11, the County Counsel provided a statement: "Mr. Hutton was placed under arrest after informing an Animal Control officer that he had captured three cats in a trap, placed them each in a constructed chamber, and euthanized them using a carbon dioxide gas canister," wrote Deputy County Counsel Devin Brown.

According to Sgt. Doug Wilson of the Kern County Sheriff's Office, Hutton was being held on $15,000 bail and was released the same day he was arrested.

Whistleblower concerned

TUSD custodian Kris Harding, who first notified Animal Services to Hutton's alleged actions, said she found out from a co-worker.

"One of the maintenance workers came to me and told me he was killing the cats," Harding told the Tehachapi News by phone on May 13. "I called Animal Control."

Harding said Animal Services asked her to procure photos of the devices used to kill the trapped cats, which then prompted Hutton's arrest in the case.

"After the pictures were taken, they came and arrested him that Monday morning," Harding said.

Hutton posted the $15,000 bail the day he was arrested. He was due to be arraigned on April 14 for charges but did not make the circuit, despite his name being on the court calendar for the day.

TUSD took steps to hire an outside independent investigator from Bakersfield to assist the Tehachapi Police Department, KCSO and Kern County Animal Services.

Gary Bray, the outside investigator hired by the Kern County Office of Superintendent of Schools, said in an email on May 12 that he could not discuss the matter.

"Our internal investigation results will be presented to the Tehachapi USD Board of trustees Tuesday (May 13) evening in closed session," Bray said in an email on May 12.

Bray declined to offer more information on the case. No information related to the case was discussed in open session at the May 13 board of education meeting. However, an agenda item read: "Public Employment Government Code 54957, Discipline, Dismissal, Release." No action was reported in the public session of the meeting.

Harding expressed concern that no action has been taken.

"Right now, it doesn't look like much has been done and I don't understand why it's taking so long," Harding said. "We never wanted anyone to get arrested, we just wanted it to stop."

When asked about allegations that Hutton had conducted other acts, Harding said she had not seen it herself. But she has heard for years that other methods have been used to kill wildlife, like drowning skunks in large bins of water.

Harding, who has worked for TUSD for 14 years, said that the investigator has spoken with other employees, including herself, about the case, but as of May 13 she had yet to hear anything back about the status.

Other maintenance employees have known about this, she added, "but were afraid to come forth because of losing their job." She had specifically asked the investigator if she would lose her job, but was told no because of the Whistleblower Act.

"I hope they do something," Harding said. "I just want it to be over at this point."

On May 14, Bray, the independent investigator for TUSD, said that the board of education did discuss the matter.

"However, any action that the Board may wish to take with respect to the investigation will take place in an open session of their choosing," Bray said by email. The board had no open session discussion or action relating to the matter at its meeting on May 14.

Hutton declined to comment about the charges against him when contacted on May 14.

JACK BARNWELL and CLAUDIA ELLIOTT of the Tehachapi News contributed to this report along with JAMES BURGER of The Bakersfield Californian.

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