A music teacher left two jobs following allegations of sexual harassment. Kent School District hired him anyway
arents in Kent, Washington, heard whispers that the music teacher at Lake Youngs Elementary School, a jazz saxophonist lauded by the district as a brilliant hire with an impressive resume, had made students and colleagues uncomfortable.
Kenney Polson, then 68, was in his second year of teaching with the Kent School District during the 2021-22 school year. That's when he poked a 12-year-old student in the stomach and called her “gorgeous,” according to Polson’s own admission. Female colleagues said he’d made them feel uneasy by asking to exchange snacks, buying them gifts, giving unwanted compliments, and asking them out.
What followed was a frustrating journey for scores of parents that exposed deep flaws in background checks for teachers moving from state to state, which rely heavily on disjointed systems, applicant disclosures, and a district’s discretion — and sometimes allow teachers with a history of alleged predatory behavior to remain in the classroom.
“We have a very Balkanized system with multiple school districts in a state, multiple states — and the record sharing is not the best,” said Chris Williams, a Seattle-based education attorney. “It's an investigative task to find out someone's history if they don't self-disclose, and how many resources are [districts] going to dedicate to that?”
Gaps in the system
When word of Polson touching the 12-year-old student began to circulate, unsettled, parents and staff at Lake Youngs probed his past. They found news articles published by California newspaper The Merced Sun-Star in 2000, reporting that Polson had been arrested and charged with molesting a 16-year-old girl who took music classes at the community college where he’d taught.
The girl told police that Polson had groped her buttocks and breasts on multiple occasions, at his home and at the college, over the course of nearly five months, according to the Merced Sun-Star. Polson ultimately took a plea deal, the paper reported, and was sentenced to 30 days in jail after being convicted of misdemeanor simple battery. He resigned from his position at Merced College, according to the Merced Sun-Star.
Physical records of Polson’s criminal prosecution and conviction in Merced were destroyed in 2011, nearly a decade after his conviction was expunged, according to the Merced County District Attorney’s Office.
The parents in Kent shared their findings with the district. They wondered why Polson’s conviction in Merced, California, didn’t preclude him from being hired by Kent School District.
Records show Polson didn’t disclose the California conviction on his Washington state teaching certification — it was expunged in 2002, so he didn’t have to.
Kent School District conducts background checks through the Washington State Patrol and FBI, which maintain separate databases where some criminal history like Polson’s may be sealed or missing altogether.
“You may have 25 arrests in your history, but none of them resulted in a conviction that may cause some red flags for working with children,” Williams said about the Washington State Patrol’s fingerprint-based background check system.
The FBI’s background check system, which school districts use, is also flawed, he said.
“I've heard FBI agents say things like, ‘A background check is like dipping a sample vial into a river: You're gonna get something different every time you do it,’” Williams said.
But background checks don’t fall to school districts alone. In issuing teaching licenses, Washington's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction uses a national database, the NASDTEC Educator Identification Clearinghouse, to screen candidates. But if other states fail to report a disciplinary action taken against a teacher, the system won't flag it.
When Polson applied for a Washington state teaching certification, he disclosed that he had been disciplined while teaching in Portland, Oregon, for sexual harassment, documents from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction show. Portland Public Schools fired Polson in 2016, records obtained by KUOW show, after he failed to heed a final warning in response to a finding that he’d sexually harassed a female colleague. Multiple other colleagues in Portland also accused Polson of sexual harassment, records from the same investigation reveal.
Kent School District officials hired Polson anyway, in part because the Portland incidents had been “adult to adult,” according to an internal email obtained by KUOW.
KUOW presented the findings in this story to Kent School District. In response, Associate Superintendent of Human Resources Daman Hunter wrote in an email that the allegations against Polson “are either untrue or unverified,” despite emails and documents that show Polson admitted to inappropriate conduct in both Kent and Portland.
Polson didn’t respond to KUOW’s requests for comment.
Dozens of parents and staff have petitioned the Kent School District to fire Polson, to no avail.
Hunter told KUOW in an email that the district is a unionized workplace and “may not lawfully terminate teachers based solely on the demands of protesters, media pressure, nor the publication of a story based on unsubstantiated facts.”
Kent School District’s teaching application asks applicants if they’ve ever been convicted of a crime, or if they’ve ever been found by a court “to have sexually assaulted or exploited any minor or to have physically abused any minor”— questions to which Polson could legally answer “no.”
Additionally, the state’s teacher certification application asks applicants to disclose criminal convictions from the past 10 years only.
Kent School District declined to say whether it knew about Polson’s reported misdemeanor conviction in Merced before hiring him.
‘I got too comfortable’
Since Polson started teaching in Kent Schools, records show school and district officials have received numerous complaints about his alleged misconduct toward students and staff.
Polson received a written warning from Kent School District’s human resources department in November 2021. A parent had written to Lake Youngs’ principal at the time, Brian Hutchison, alleging that Polson had inappropriately touched their sixth-grade daughter and called her “gorgeous," records show. The parent reported having concerns about “grooming” behavior on Polson’s part.
“She told us she was chosen as a volunteer by Mr. Polson and was getting band stuff behind the folded lunchroom tables, and Mr. Polson walked by her and touched her… belly button and made a clicking sound,” the student's father wrote to school officials. “She said it made her feel scared, embarrassed, and uncomfortable.”
During an investigation into the complaint, Polson admitted to poking the child and said that he regularly called female and male students — “as well as inanimate objects” — “gorgeous,” according to the warning letter.
Polson was ordered to complete two employee trainings, including one on “professional boundaries with students.”
The student’s father escalated the complaint to the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Office of Professional Practices in February 2022.
In an interview with an investigator from the Office of Professional Practices, Polson explained the belly-poking incident as being reminiscent of his interactions with his grandchildren.
“We spend a lot of time enjoying one another, and they like to be tickled,” Polson said. “I unfortunately brought that same kind of spirit into the classroom.”
Polson, one of few Black male educators on staff at Lake Youngs Elementary, also called the fairness of the investigation into question, saying that other teachers also used terms of endearment with students — without reprimand.
“To me personally, it has a racial overtone,” Polson said in the interview.
“Even though I got too comfortable, that doesn't mean that I'm grooming kids,” he said.
The complaint was dismissed “without prejudice,” meaning if new information or a pattern of behavior was established, the Office of Professional Practices could reconsider its decision.
In the dismissal report, the investigator wrote that Polson’s actions “did not rise to the level of a flagrant disregard for professionalism,” and that even though Polson was “older than most beginning educators” his behavior appeared to be “of an inexperienced educator and an educator in an arts program rather than [an] educator who knows and understands the delicacies of interactions with students and knowingly violates those student-teacher boundaries.”
But Polson’s resume shows he isn’t new to the field — he has been a music educator for several decades.
He taught elementary and middle school band and other music classes at California’s Fresno Unified Schools from 1982 to 1986; he spent eight years teaching abroad in Colombia and Brazil; he was a jazz music instructor at several colleges between 1995 and 2005; and since 2004, he’s taught band courses in several public school districts.
A history of making colleagues uneasy
“Google me,” Polson told a former female colleague at Lake Youngs at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year. As she typed his name into her phone, she was actively planning her exit, she told KUOW, wishing she had never agreed to meet with him alone in his portable classroom.
The former colleague spoke with KUOW on the condition that she wouldn’t be named, citing privacy concerns.
Her interactions with Polson started out friendly, she said. But after Polson invited the former Lake Youngs colleague to meet on the weekend or during the evening after school, she said she felt unsettled.
The day Polson told the teacher to Google him, she had been with him inside of his portable classroom, isolated on the far side of the playground, and was trying to maintain some distance, she said.
“During this exchange, [Polson] invaded my personal space in a way that did not seem malicious, but made me uncomfortable, nonetheless,” she wrote in an email to school administrators later that school year.
Another former Lake Youngs staffer filed a sexual harassment complaint against Polson with the school after a year of behavior that she said made her uncomfortable. She said Polson had asked her to be his valentine, given her one of his jazz CDs, and a business card, and told her “to call him or look him up.”
The woman, whom KUOW has agreed not to name, said she is appealing the district’s decision that her allegations were “unfounded.”
The two Lake Youngs teachers aren’t the only colleagues to report being on the receiving end of Polson’s unwanted behavior.
After almost a decade of employment with Portland Public Schools, Polson was fired after failing to heed a final warning that he’d directed “unwelcome physical contact towards a coworker” that had been “reasonably interpreted as overly personal and/or sexual [in] nature,” according to district records.
Polson had been investigated by the district and Oregon’s Teacher Standards and Practices Commission after at least five female colleagues accused him of sexual harassment during the 2013-14 school year.
A school secretary said Polson had kissed her on the neck without her consent.
“He leaned over top of me to hug me and when he embraced me, he kissed my neck,” the secretary wrote in an email to school administrators that same day. “He said into my ear, ‘Ooh that was sweet, I need more of that,’ and kissed my neck again. He continued to hug me…and kissed my neck a third time.”
Polson admitted to kissing the secretary on the cheek once as a greeting — something he explained as being a Colombian cultural norm, according to an investigator’s notes.
Another teacher reported that Polson had tried to kiss her as she leaned back to avoid him. She also said that Polson had given her gifts in the form of a CD and a cellphone case. That same teacher described Polson’s “behavior with female students in grades 6,7, and 8 as ‘flirtatious,’” the school administrators wrote.
Polson admitted to also kissing that teacher on the cheek, again referencing Colombian cultural norms, according to the investigator’s notes. He said he’d given her the gifts all year, as a friend.
Another colleague alleged that following a school concert that year, Polson had whispered in her ear, reached around her waist, and pressed his groin area against her behind. Polson denied whispering in the teacher’s ear and rubbing up against her.
Polson received a five-day suspension without pay over the incident in which he’d admitted to kissing the school secretary and received a final warning. In a letter notifying Polson about the suspension, school administrators also outlined concerns about Polson’s conduct during the sexual harassment investigation.
“While the investigation was pending, you came to talk with one of the HR managers conducting the investigation...you explained to him the various women you identified in the school who were good-looking from your perspective implying that none of these women had complained about your behavior toward them," the administrators wrote.
He was fired 13 months later in January 2016, after the district found he had failed to properly supervise three students with special needs and pressured a parent volunteer to be untruthful during the resulting investigation, according to Portland Public Schools records.
Polson had asked the parent volunteer to supervise the students from the outside of his office door, which Polson had locked before going to the bathroom, the documents state. Two colleagues reported seeing two of the students attempting to climb out of a second-story window while Polson was away.
During the district’s investigation into that incident, the parent volunteer reported that Polson had given him a “typed, prepared statement and [he] was emphatically told by Polson to ‘recall’ the events ‘exactly’ as written out,” an investigator wrote.
Polson denied the parent volunteer’s account.
Red flags go ignored in Kent
Records show that when Polson was an applicant for Kent Schools in June 2020, the district’s human resources director Joyce Wilson expressed concern over Polson’s disciplinary history in Portland, which he had disclosed.
In an email, she advised against offering Polson an interview.
But curriculum coordinator Chris White wrote back that he had already extended an interview to Polson, stating that “his incident was adult to adult and somewhat questionable in depth.”
Eight days later, White indicated that the job was all but Polson’s: The hiring committee was “impressed and hopeful that we could hire a multilingual, African American male with training in restorative justice and trauma practice to work with our elementary students,” he wrote.
That was despite guidance from Wilson, in human resources, saying a day prior that “this will not be a quick or easy hire based on what was disclosed and the discipline that was taken.”
Though not speaking specifically about Kent School District, Williams, the education lawyer, said factors like teacher shortages and staff burnout can lead to districts disregarding red flags when making hiring decisions.
“[Maybe] you've got a principal screaming down your neck, ‘I need to fill this position. My current teachers have burned out, we've got too many kids — I need to get somebody in here who is skilled, don't make it hard to hire,’” he said.
Polson’s resume boasts of an illustrious career. He’s described as an acclaimed smooth jazz saxophonist, who has performed with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Rick James, and Gil Scott-Heron. He describes having been on tours abroad in Japan, Korea, Brazil, Colombia, “and over a dozen Caribbean Islands.”
White, in his email exchange with the district’s human resources staff, said he’d contacted three of Polson’s former supervisors, who “gave him excellent rankings.”
“I believe Mr. Polson is worthy of our fullest consideration and due diligence in hiring,” White said.
“People make mistakes — people learn and grow.”
At Kent School District, hiring managers submit a hiring recommendation, but it’s the district’s human resources department that makes the final call.
The district hired Polson in 2020 as an itinerant music instructor, a teacher who travels from school to school. According to an email signature in 2020, Polson was assigned to teach music at four elementary schools that year: Lake Youngs, Kent Elementary, Glenridge, and Covington Elementary.
Parents and staff sound the alarm
More than 100 people digitally signed a parent’s December 2022 petition to fire Polson.
Numerous Lake Youngs parents had also contacted then-principal Brian Hutchison to ask that their children be taken out of Polson’s music classes, parents and staff who spoke with KUOW said. Some first-grade teachers had also stopped taking their students out to Polson’s portable classroom, in protest of his continued employment.
In response, Hutchison notified parents in December 2022 that students would have a new band and music teacher by the time they returned from winter break. But Polson remained employed by the district.
The parents didn’t relent, however. Last summer, Lake Youngs Elementary parents protested outside of Kent School District headquarters, twice, demanding that Polson be fired.
Teachers, too, got involved.
“He was allowed to teach in a portable with no windows AFTER the incident with the sixth grader and AFTER administration had been told,” wrote Gretchen Henry, first-grade teacher, and union representative, in an email to Kent School Board directors on Aug. 18, 2023.
“Those of us who shared those issues were brushed [off and] not listened to and nothing changed until parents became aware and vocal,” Henry wrote, referencing Polson’s eventual removal from Lake Youngs in 2022.
School Board Director Joseph Bento replied that afternoon.
“Every email I get about this topic has been forwarded to HR and to be honest, it's a lot of emails,” he said. “I am hoping that the district and HR are working on this.”
This isn’t the first time the Kent School District has come under fire over a teacher accused of misconduct.
A 2020 investigation by KUOW found the district had cited a first-grade elementary school teacher for racist tweets, but allowed her to remain employed. That teacher was later reassigned to administrative duties.
Williams, who once worked as general counsel for Seattle Public Schools, said that if a district makes a bad hiring call, they still have an opportunity to “get it right in the supervision phase of things.”
“Maybe mistakes will be made, but you can mitigate those damages [in] a variety of ways, and you can't just close your eyes to red flags now that you've let this person in your house,” he said.
But it’s not uncommon for school officials to avoid disciplining problem teachers, he said.
“Human nature is that for all the people in a supervisory position, very few people are good at confronting someone and telling them they're bad at their job,” Williams said.
This story was edited by Liz Brazile, KUOW's Deputy Online Managing Editor.