ARTESIA, N.M. (KRQE) – A long-time educator in New Mexico is being investigated for disturbing allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a student that dates back 20 years. However, this is not the first time someone raised a red flag. In fact, the state and the school he was teaching at decades ago could have fired him and taken away his license to teach, but they didn’t.
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Jake Lee is done staying silent. “It took 20 years to get to this point where you can accept your abuse and come forward,” he explained.
His story starts at Artesia Intermediate School. Lee said he was in 6th grade and about 11 or 12 years old when he met Rodney Wright. “It is shocking to me now because that’s how old my oldest son is,” he remarked.
Lee said Wright took a special interest in him over the years. At Artesia Park Junior High School, he said, Wright was his 9th-grade history teacher. Then in high school, Lee made the varsity football team. Wright was a coach. “When I entered Artesia High School, which you enter in sophomore year in Artesia, is when the abuse began and then continued through my junior and senior year at Artesia High school.”
He said it occurred roughly between 1999 and 2001. Lee was a teenager. Now, he is 38 years old. Last year, he wrote a blog post, identifying himself publicly for the first time as a sexual abuse survivor.
“It’s stolen a lot of moments from me,” Lee said. “It’s prevented me from finding true happiness in parts of my life when I should have, and it’s just not okay that he did that to me.”
Wright did not respond to KRQE News 13 interview requests. Currently, the 52-year-old is not charged with any crimes, but the Artesia Police Department is investigating. In addition, because Wright is still a licensed educator in New Mexico, the Public Education Department (PED) also launched an investigation.
However, it turns out this is not the first time PED has investigated Wright. While Lee did not report Wright 20 years ago, another student did.
KRQE News 13 obtained the investigation case file from the PED. It shows the inappropriate behavior Wright admitted to back in 2000 was grounds for getting fired and losing his license to teach in New Mexico, but that never happened.
The investigation found Wright sent an email with descriptions of sexual activities to a female Artesia High School student. And the student said it was not just through email, reporting that Wright had also verbally “made conversation that contained sexual content or made her feel uneasy.”
A letter from the superintendent at the time, James Phipps, stated he was going to fire Wright but when Wright asked if he could resign instead, the superintendent agreed. Phipps explained in the letter that he believed once PED got the case, they would revoke Wright’s teaching license anyway. However, that did not turn out to be the case. “It’s troubling to know that something like that can happen and someone can stay in education,” Lee said.
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A letter from the Education Department described Wright’s behavior as quote “substantial grounds for disciplinary action… up to and including revocation of licenses.” Yet, with no explanation as to why, it goes on to state that the Director of Professional Licensure, which was Marilyn Scargall at the time, offered Wright a deal. To continue his teaching career in New Mexico, Wright only had to see a psychotherapist for at least five counseling sessions and have the therapist write a letter stating Wright was unlikely to repeat the behavior that forced him to leave his job in Artesia. “And he has just been able to keep teaching and, not only teaching, advancing his career,” Lee said.
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Most recently, Wright worked for Belen Consolidated Schools, getting promotions from Belen High School principal to assistant superintendent of academics. His employment there came to an end last summer. “When the Belen Consolidated Schools were made aware by the Public Education Department of concerns about Mr. Wright’s licensure, immediate action was taken by the district,” explained Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez.
He said he could not specify if Wright was fired or if he resigned. Meanwhile, PED told KRQE this week that it notified Wright that the agency is considering revoking his license. In addition, the criminal investigation is still pending. “The District Attorney and the detectives are still in a conference about the next steps,” Artesia Police Cmdr. Lindell Smith said.
While Artesia Police have not publicly named Wright as the suspect, KRQE has learned they are looking into Lee’s case. The statute of limitations to prosecute this type of alleged child sex crime makes the decades-old case challenging. “If that person was caused great mental anguish, then the statute of limitations is adjusted,” Cmdr. Smith said. “Basically that’s what we’re working with right now is a complicated set of statutes.”
“The waiting game has been really, really hard,” Lee said. He is waiting for the outcome in Portland, Oregon. He lives there with his family and teaches the second grade.
The Education Department said it will not comment on Wright’s investigation from 20 years ago in order to avoid jeopardizing the current, open investigation. Former Artesia Public Schools Superintendent Phipps and the current superintendent, John Null, also declined interview requests, saying the district “cannot discuss personnel matters.” Scargall, the former director of PED’s licensure unit, told KRQE News 13 that she has no recollection of Wright’s case from 2000.