We write in reference to the article “Lawsuit Against Santa Barbara Unified” posted on May 31, to present the actual facts of a case in which the media has consistently demonized one side, without the benefit of thorough investigation.
We believe it is important to hold accountable perpetrators of sexual violence and to protect and support victims. And yet, not every allegation is the truth, especially when complicated dynamics of race and gender and powerful people shape public opinion and courtroom decisions.
The fact is that Matef Harmachis has never been convicted of any sexual assault, abuse, or harassment charges. He consistently denied all charges of a sexual nature. We outline here the sequence of events that has led to the actions taken against him.
First, the actions Mr. Harmachis is accused of doing occurred in a classroom full of students. Both sides agree that of the 30 students present in the classroom, not a single student corroborated the plaintiff’s allegations. Mr. Harmachis’s statement has been consistent from the start: He sought to comfort an upset student and gave her a hug and kiss on her head.
Second, based on the plaintiff’s allegations, the District Attorney brought criminal charges against Mr. Harmachis. The Santa Barbara Independent wrote on January 31, 2021: “The defendant pled no contest to a misdemeanor charge of battery in 2017.” The local media distorted the facts and repeatedly raised the specter of sexual abuse. Yet, a misdemeanor battery, also known as simple battery, is not the same as sexual assault. By law, simple battery — a misdemeanor charge — does not require any sort of injury; it is unwanted or offensive touching. Additionally, a “no contest” plea is not an admission of guilt, but rather one in which a defendant accepts the proceedings but does not plead or admit guilt. It is unlikely that the District Attorney would have offered or accepted the no contest plea to simple battery had there been credible evidence of sexual assault.
Third, this sequence of events led the school district to seek to remove Mr. Harmachis’ teaching credential. Before the Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC), Mr. Harmachis’s lawyer presented an extensive case in his defense, while the prosecutor did not even cross-examine Harmachis. Given the no contest plea to simple battery, it was expected that the CTC would recommend some punishment. Indeed, in 2019, the commission suspended Mr. Harmachis’s teaching credential for nine months. Then, the school district was able to make the next move. Without a license to teach, Mr. Harmachis could not fulfill his contractual obligations as a teacher and the district moved to terminate him.
Fourth, these events led to the civil case discussed in the Independent’s May 31 article.
Fifth, Mr. Harmachis’s silence on the case was often read by the press as an admission of guilt. Yet, in the midst of legal cases, lawyers strongly urged him to avoid the media. The press misrepresented the misdemeanor charge of simple battery as sexual abuse and repeated the allegations as if they were factual.
High-powered attorneys and institutions, and too often the press, are positioned to shape the way a story is seen. Thus it is imperative that strong investigative journalistic standards are practiced. Courtroom decisions do not always work by justice, but too often according to power. Historically and to this day, false allegations of sexual assault by Black men have been frequent, persistent, and often violent phenomena. We must all remember that the real harm suffered by those who have experienced harassment and assault will not be diminished by exaggerated and false narratives.
The post Sexual Allegations Require Strong Journalistic Standards appeared first on The Santa Barbara Independent.