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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Teacher feels excluded in Ferris threat fallout

Michelle Klein-Coles tutors Brandon Whittaker on Wednesday as they work on his college essay. Klein-Coles has subbed more than 25 times at Ferris this school year. 
 (Christopher Anderson/ / The Spokesman-Review)
Michelle Klein-Coles tutors Brandon Whittaker on Wednesday as they work on his college essay. Klein-Coles has subbed more than 25 times at Ferris this school year. (Christopher Anderson/ / The Spokesman-Review)

The push of a button changed her world.

High school teacher Michelle Klein-Coles’ life has not been the same since 14-year-old Jacob Carr clicked the “send” button on a threatening e-mail to her. That was just more than a year ago.

Carr’s note threatened to burn down Klein-Coles’ home in December 2004. Three months later, in March 2005, he showed up at Ferris High School with a gun, intending to shoot her – a plan Carr has said he would have carried out if Klein-Coles hadn’t been surrounded by so many other teachers. Carr is now 15 and serving 21/2 to 3 years in a Department of Corrections juvenile facility in Western Washington. In June, he entered a plea of “no contest” to first-degree attempted murder.

But life hasn’t returned to normal for Klein-Coles, a substitute teacher who tried to keep a low profile in the days following Carr’s arrest, even as her name appeared in front-page stories and television news accounts. The effects of the incident linger.

In October, a Lewis and Clark High School student who was friends with Carr was suspended for allegedly making threats to Klein-Coles in class, according to district records. She was the substitute teacher that day.

The student got up and left the room while saying something to the effect of “doing something” to Klein-Coles after school, according to the documents.

In a note submitted to a district resource officer, Klein-Coles wrote, “It brought back many difficult and painful memories from last winter/spring.”

Despite the emotional strain, other educators said Klein-Coles emerged last year as one of those special people whom students seem to crave.After doing her student teaching at Ferris, Klein-Coles was chosen for a long-term substitute position for the 2004-05 school year.

At the end of the year, she wasn’t hired back for a long-term position at Ferris, although she still works as a substitute teacher in Spokane Public Schools.

Klein-Coles, who has been a teacher about two years, has subbed more than 25 times at Ferris this school year. She’s also subbed at Lewis and Clark High, Chase Middle, Rogers High and Havermale High schools. She applied for a job at North Central High School and interviewed but did not get the job.

Klein-Coles, 35, said recently that she decided to talk to a reporter now because she wants people to know that she has not been hired back at the school she loved. Her older sister graduated from Ferris, and Klein-Coles attended her freshman year there before her family moved to Calgary, Alberta.

She said she’d been told by administrators that she would be a distraction at Ferris and should consider jobs at other schools in the district.

E-mail notes obtained through a public records request show she had to fight to return and finish her long-term substitute job at Ferris after spring break last year.

She argued that not returning would be an even bigger distraction.

When another long-term substitute job opened at Ferris this fall, Klein-Coles was not selected. She’s given up hope of ever getting hired at Ferris.

“I feel like a rape victim who was told her skirt was too short. I’m being re-victimized all over again,” Klein-Coles said.

Klein-Coles, a single mother of a 9-year-old son, has master’s degrees in English and secondary education. With more than a year’s teaching experience, she believed she had the inside track to be selected again for the long-term substitute job.

Barb Wright, district assistant superintendent of human resources, said that’s just not the case in the highly competitive environment of Spokane Public Schools, where hundreds of qualified teachers apply for jobs.

“If she hasn’t been hired, it’s simply because there was someone the team felt was more qualified for the job,” Wright said.

Maurine Ramos, president of the teacher’s union, the Spokane Education Association, said that while Klein-Coles may want a permanent job at Ferris, anyone who understands the depth of district competition would have applied at other schools.

“What I remember her saying is she wasn’t interested in being anywhere else then Ferris,” Ramos said. “You don’t get to come in and say, ‘Here I am and give me what I want.’ It doesn’t work that way.”

Klein-Coles accuses school administrators of sacrificing her to try to make the Carr incident go away.

“I guess the ostrich approach will work until a teacher is hurt or killed,” Klein-Coles said.

In June, Klein-Coles gave Superintendent Brian Benzel a note saying the incident was mishandled.

“It is difficult to nurture a safe learning community in your classroom when you do not feel cared for and protected as a dedicated, professional educator,” she wrote.

In a November online chat with the public, Benzel answered a question submitted by Klein-Coles: “Why is there not a page in the staff handbooks for dealing with a student who threatens you?”

Benzel gave a 120-word response, saying he’d refer her idea to his staff. A one-size-fits-all approach may not be best, he wrote.

“We strongly believe that communicating and sharing threats with the principal or supervisor is the best and most appropriate action to take,” Benzel wrote.

Klein-Coles said she believes she’s a gifted teacher but admits her teaching record is not perfect.

She resigned as adviser of the cheerleading squad after a group of parents complained that she had inappropriate conversations about personal matters like sex with the girls.

“I listened. All I did was tell them that whatever they do to be careful,” Klein-Coles said.

She was also dinged by a teacher for eating a taco in her classroom, violating a no-food rule.

And she accidentally let the students out 15 minutes early, Klein-Coles said.

Ferris Principal Erik Ohlund said Klein-Coles did a good job of transitioning back into Ferris after the threat to her life.

He said he couldn’t ignore the complaints raised about her, including the cheerleading situation.

“If we have issues or concerns about an employee because of a situation we’ve had to deal with, we may not pick them for that position,” Ohlund said.

Typically for a long-term substitute job, the teacher who is going on leave, along with a department chair and the vice principal of curriculum, will go through all the available substitutes and select one.

That’s how Klein-Coles landed her first long-term substitute job, and it’s a common way for teachers to get a chance at a permanent teaching job.

Some teachers believed Klein-Coles brought on her problems with the district with her casual manner with students, said attorney Ronnie Rae, who represented Carr in court and interviewed Ferris teachers.

“I’m not surprised she’s in that position (of not having a permanent teaching job),” Rae said.

Other teachers said that her rapport with students was impressive.

“Michelle has a way with kids that not all of us have. She bonds with them quickly,” said Emily Torres, a Ferris teacher. “You can tell by the reaction she gets as a sub.”

Klein-Coles said she’s racked her brain to understand why everything happened as it did.

“My style is different than older, more conservative teachers. I think a lot of it is jealousy, not that I’m a better teacher, but that I’m well-liked,” Klein-Coles said. “A lot of older teachers equate popularity with not being a good teacher. If you’re popular with the kids you must not be doing something right.”

Other teachers said she deserved better treatment.

Darel Maxfield, a Ferris social studies teacher and a lieutenant colonel and commander of the Army Reserves’ 3rd battalion of the 415th Regiment in the 104th Division, said teachers watch closely how their colleagues are treated. Klein-Coles remained loyal to the district by not raising a ruckus about what happened to her, Maxfield said.

“At face value it seems the reward for being loyal is being thrown away,” Maxfield said. “She stood and said all the right things for the district. As a result of that we didn’t even hire her for a full-time job.”

Carr’s actions seemed so random, which means it could happen to any teacher, Torres said. Torres said she was shocked a teacher as likable as Klein-Coles could be targeted.

District officials are meeting with Ferris staff on safety issues later this month.

Although she doesn’t expect to get a job at Ferris, Klein-Coles said she’s still looking district-wide. She’s not ruled out other districts, even Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene.

“I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” Klein-Coles said. “For everything that’s happened I’ve still got a very hopeful feeling about the future. I do.”

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