Hilltop principal back at work after DUI arrest

Darin Adams

LONG BEACH — Though teachers in Ocean Beach School District have said his tenure as the new principal of Hilltop School was off to a promising start, Darin Adams, 53, was placed on administrative leave for about four days, starting on the second day of the new school year.

According to public police and court records, Adams was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence during a traffic stop in Long Beach on Friday, Sept. 2. No one was harmed in the alleged incident, and Adams, who has no criminal history, was released a few hours later.

Adams was at Hilltop on Tuesday, Sept. 6, the first day of school, but had been placed on leave by the following day.

“We’re currently conducting an investigation of reports of an incident that occurred away from school property, unrelated to the employee’s duties. We do not have any further information at this time and have just begun our first few days of school,” OBSD Superintendent Jenny Risner said in a Sept. 7 email. Adams returned to work on Monday, Sept. 12.

“He is back in the building, as of yesterday afternoon,” Risner said on Tuesday morning. “We determined through the investigation process that it didn’t have a direct impact on his job, and the job we need to do in the building.”

Because the alleged incident occurred over a holiday weekend, detailed information about the event has been slow in coming. Late last week, police, court officials, Risner, and Adams’ attorney Pamella Nogueira all said in separate conversations that they had only seen a brief initial citation notice, and wouldn’t know more about the circumstances of Adams’ arrest until they received the trooper’s detailed incident report.

According to the citation, the officer pulled him over on Highway 103, near Milepost One, at about 10:30 p.m. on Friday night, after he noticed that Adams was allegedly driving without his headlights on. During the stop, the officer believed that Adams showed signs of alcohol intoxication, and subsequently placed him under arrest. In an email, Pacific County Sheriff’s Office Chief Criminal Deputy Pat Matlock said Adams was “administratively booked” into Pacific County Jail early on Sept. 3, then released a short time later.

The principal pleaded “not guilty” to one count of DUI, a gross misdemeanor, during a very short Sept. 7 arraignment in South District Court. Visibly upset, Adams sat quietly in the back of the courtroom as he waited to be called before the judge, and did not speak during the hearing.

Adams is an experienced middle school administrator who has received recognition for his leadership. According to his LinkedIn profile, he earned a master’s degree in educational leadership from University of Washington in 1997, and subsequently earned his certification as an administrator. He taught for five years in the White River School District, then served as an assistant principal in Federal Way. He spent 10 years as principal at an Enumclaw middle school, which he helped to design and open, and then spent three years as principal of a large middle school in Auburn. Starting in July 2012, he served as principal of an academy within Todd Beamer High School in Federal Way. In 2011, he won an award for bringing about significant growth in student achievement.

Risner said the district conducts both state and federal background checks of all prospective hires. District officials also typically call references, host “meet-and-greet” events with campus personnel, and review serious candidates’ state and district records before making a job offer. Adams passed all parts of the hiring process with flying colors, and appeared to be well-liked by those who have worked with him since he was hired in late spring.

Last week, a teacher on another OBSD campus said her colleagues at Hilltop “had nothing but good things to say.” On Sept. 7, a Long Beach mother, who recently met with Adams to discuss her son’s learning needs, said he seemed receptive to her concerns, well-informed, and positive. She praised him for his high visibility on campus, and for quickly establishing good rapport with her son.

The news of his arrest likely came as a blow to his district colleagues, because many were optimistic that he could bring stability to a campus that has suffered more than its fair share of setbacks over the last three years. In September 2014, Hilltop became an independent middle school, and added sixth grade, after Ilwaco High School was relocated to the Black Lake Campus. Two months later, former Principal Marc Simmons suddenly resigned. He was replaced by Interim Principal Deb Turver in January 2015. For the 2015-16 school year, district leaders decided not to permanently hire Turver. They also decided to move fifth grade classes to Hilltop. Though many praised Chad Madsen, who took over as principal for the 2015-16 school year, he resigned in late spring, saying that he wanted to return to teaching in Astoria. So, Risner and the board found themselves searching for the school’s fourth principal in three years.

While last year’s fifth-grade transition went more smoothly than the previous sixth-grade transition, many parents, teachers and students felt that all of the changes made the middle school feel more chaotic than other district campuses, and ultimately took a toll on morale. In a previous interview, Risner said she was hopeful that, as someone who had successfully planned, designed and opened a new middle school, Adams would be able to provide the strong leadership that Hilltop needs.

District policy outlines specific situations in which the superintendent can terminate an employee, or not renew their contract when it expires. Policy No. 5281, “Disciplinary Action and Discharge,” says, in part, that staff can be subject to discipline if their conduct during their personal time affects their ability to be effective while on-the-job. The policy goes on to list a variety of behaviors that can lead to suspension or termination, including “immorality,” “nonprofessional conduct,” and “intemperance.” However, none of these specifically address allegations of drunk-driving, so Risner has a fair amount of discretion over what, if any disciplinary actions Adams will face.

On Sept. 12, Risner said she is still reviewing the incident, but she is confident that for now, Adams can safely and competently work with students and teachers. Risner said she read the initial citation report, spoke with attorneys, interviewed Adams, and reviewed his employment records and references. She also notified staff that Adams was on leave, and designated Amy Huntley, the school’s Director of Student Services, as a stand-in administrator while Adams was on leave.

“What I would say we were trying to determine is, ‘Does he have a significant problem with alcohol, and if so, how would that impact his job?’” Risner said. “Based on that information, it was, I believe, an error in judgement for sure. Not something we want to see, not something we like to see, but we’re willing to give him a second chance, because we don’t see a history of it. There’s been no prior charges. There’s been no issues at previous jobs.”

However, Risner was careful to point out that she is still waiting to read the detailed report that provides the officers’ perspectives. She cautioned that she will not make a final decision until she is confident that she has all the facts.

Risner said the recent high turnover of principals at Hilltop was not a factor in her decision to allow Adams to return to work while the investigation continues.

“We have a building that needs a principal,” Risner said. “... It’s really, truly about finding the very best person that we can. And I believe through the application process, we had some great candidates, and he came out on top.”

The OBSD policy manual requires teachers to adhere to the Office of the State Superintendent for Public Instruction Code of Professional Conduct, and state law. Both say that educators must demonstrate “good moral character and personal fitness” to get, or keep an educational certification. People who have been convicted of felony crimes involving children or sex are prohibited from working as educators. Additionally, educators cannot have any convictions in the last 10 years for any crimes “including motor vehicle violations”, that would clearly impair their “worthiness and ability” to work in public or private schools. However, district and state officials have more leeway to evaluate non-sex-or-child-related cases on an individual basis, taking into account various factors, including the person’s age, their degree of culpability, the real or potential harm associated with their offense, evidence of their character, and the likelihood that they will re-offend.

Even if he is eventually convicted, Adams’ alleged offense likely won’t trigger state-level action. According to Nathan Olson, an OSPI spokesman, the agency rarely gets involved in district hiring, firing and disciplinary decisions. Superintendents generally are only required to alert OSPI when there are clear signs that a teacher or principal is not fit to work in any educational setting. In those cases, OSPI conducts its own investigation.

“A DUI, to a large extent, is considered a minor enough offense that it’s probably not going to affect a principal’s certification,” Olson explained. “We don’t deal with employment. We deal with whether or not a teacher or principal should keep his or her certificate.”

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