SEATTLE – The case of Albert Virachismith, a former special education assistant in Seattle, is the kind that makes parents cringe. According to school district documents, at John Muir Elementary School the principal and teachers knew he often showed up reeking of alcohol and spent time coloring in the back of a classroom, instead of tending the special-needs child to whom he had been assigned.
But when the school district attempted to fire him in 2017, the teachers union pushed back, saying the 41-year-old had an addiction and deserved treatment – not termination. He was soon reinstated.
“This was a substance abuse case, and addiction is a disease that can be treated,” said Linda Mullen, a spokeswoman for the Washington Education Association. “The vast majority of people would say that’s reasonable.”
Her response hardly reassures parents like Daniela Hall, a former president of the Seattle Special Education PTSA, who questions having an alcoholic – even one undergoing treatment – supervise a special-needs child. On at least one occasion, the odor of alcohol on Virachismith was so strong that staffers asked him to leave the school building.
Yet, not until last January, when district documents show that a 9-year-old boy accused the four-year employee of sexual assault, was the instructional assistant – by now demoted to substitute – fired, and his case turned over to police. By then, Virachismith had had access to thousands of kids in nine Seattle schools.
“This was an egregious safety violation,” Hall said. “I think everyone would agree to due process, but if they’re endangering little kids, at what point does due process run out and you fire the person? I mean, we’re not talking about flipping hamburgers. You’re working with children! Isn’t there a zero-tolerance policy?”
The school district has declined to comment, except to say that they “continue to support the Seattle Police Department and Prosecutor’s Office on all criminal proceedings.” Virachismith was arrested and has been held in the King County Jail since Feb. 2. He pleaded not guilty.
Documents show that Virachismith failed urine tests and violated other rules of his “Last Chance” agreement. But for more than two months, the district took no disciplinary action.
Mullen says Seattle Public Schools failed in its most basic responsibility.
“When he failed the urine test, everyone should have expected his job to be over. It was up to the district to act,” she said.
All of the schools where Virachismith worked – nine total – serve a high population of low-income families. Parent advocates focused on equity say it’s no accident that an employee with such a problematic record would be assigned to the city’s south end.
“He was at schools where parents are working two or three jobs and can’t be there to volunteer,” said Sebrena Burr, former president of the Seattle PTA Council. “That’s how he was able to get access to vulnerable kids. This should never have happened. But too often in education, we think about the adults’ rights.”