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Seattle teacher was fired for abusing kids. State says he can keep his teaching license

caption: Martin McGowan, left, a former teacher at West Woodland Elementary School in northwest Seattle, pictured here with first-grader Roman Harto in 2003.
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Martin McGowan, left, a former teacher at West Woodland Elementary School in northwest Seattle, pictured here with first-grader Roman Harto in 2003.
Courtesy Roman Harto

A former teacher found in a state investigation to have serially physically abused children at a North Seattle elementary school was allowed to keep his teaching license with a reprimand.

Martin McGowan, who taught for nearly three decades at West Woodland Elementary School in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, enjoyed a reputation as a star teacher. But a KUOW investigation in 2020 found that he had been formally and informally reprimanded at least five times between 2005 and 2019 for pulling first-graders by the ear, grabbing them by the neck hard enough to leave red marks, slapping them on the hand, and mocking them in front of the class.

Seattle Public Schools fired McGowan in December 2020 in the wake of new abuse findings. In one case, a current student complained of having his ear pulled. The child’s father said McGowan had also pulled him by the ear when he was a student in McGowan’s class 20 years earlier.

Despite this, McGowan retains his teaching license in Washington state. After conducting its own investigation, the state schools Office of Professional Practices proposed a 30-day suspension of McGowan’s teaching certificate.

After negotiations with an attorney for Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, which represented McGowan, the state agency lowered the discipline to an order of reprimand with McGowan’s admission of numerous acts of unprofessional conduct.

Neither McGowan, his attorney, nor union officials responded to interview requests.

“Our number one goal is to protect the students in the state of Washington, but also to hold educators accountable for their behaviors,” said Catherine Slagle, executive director of the Office of Professional Practices. “We feel that we did that in this case.”

But when parents of one child McGowan admitted hurting in 2019 learned of the state’s decision, “I was devastated,” said the mother, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their son’s privacy. McGowan had admitted to pulling her son’s ear, which the boy said happened “hundreds of times,” for things like getting a math problem wrong.

“It wasn’t just one kid or event. It was many kids, over many years, all these investigative reports,” the mother said. She had hoped McGowan would no longer be allowed to teach.

Revoking McGowan’s license was never on the table, Slagle said.

“Usually a revocation is issued when somebody has committed a felony crime,” or when they lack “good moral character and personal fitness,” she said. “We didn’t feel that Mr. McGowan’s behaviors rose to the level of revocation.”

Most of the three dozen teaching certificates the state has revoked in the past five years have involved child sexual abuse, according to disciplinary records on the state schools website.

The state would have had grounds for more serious discipline had Seattle Public Schools reported McGowan’s previous misconduct to the state, as required by law, Slagle said. Instead, her office was not notified by the district until 2019 that he hurt children in his care.

Following KUOW reporting on lax discipline for teachers found to have repeatedly abused students in Seattle Public Schools, and the district’s frequent failure to report the abuse to the state, district leaders said they were doing an audit of all past misconduct cases and reported many previously undisclosed to Slagle’s office for state investigation.

The father of the victim from 2019 said he has grown cynical of the school district's commitment to child safety.

“We were fighting an uphill battle against a system that didn’t really seem to think that this was a problem,” the father said.

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