Diane Douglas blames board for teen death

Posted at 5:04 PM, Feb 19, 2016

Could the 2009 murder of a Valley high school student involved in a love triangle with his teacher have been prevented? 

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas said as much in her opposition to a bill that would give Arizona's Board of Education authority to hire and fire its employees at a state senate meeting earlier this month. 

“We presented a report to the board on (teacher discipline) that showed their abject failure to report teachers whose certifications have been revoked or suspended to the national database,” she said. “And in one instance, because of that failure to report, it resulted in the death of a student.”

"...because of that failure to report, it resulted in the death of a student."

We put Douglas' statement through a PolitiFact truth-check. 

Truth check

Douglas' office says she was referring to former high school math teacher Tamara Hofmann. 

You may remember the case. Hofmann's former student returned home from the Navy and went to her apartment in April 2009. Instead of a homecoming, Sixto Balbuena found his former teacher with Samuel Valdivia, a student at El Dorado High School where Hofmann then taught.

Balbuena flew into a jealous rage and stabbed Valdivia to death. 

He chillingly told police, the knife went in like "going into butter." 

Missed red flags

More than two years earlier, Balbuena was the focus of Hofmann's attention. Hofmann taught at Marcos de Niza High School in Tempe, where Balbuena was a student. In November 2006, Chandler police found Hofmann and Balbuena together in her car, her bra was in his pocket, but both denied sexual relations. 

The incident spurred an internal school investigation. Hofmann was removed from the classroom, but her provisional teaching certificate remained valid until it expired on Jan. 5, 2007. 

Typically, a person needs to teach for three years on a provisional teaching certificate before the state issues them a standard one.  The Department of Education issues certifications. But only the Arizona State Board of Education can take action on an certificate; including the decision to revoke, suspend or deny a certificate. If the two groups are not communicating, things slip through the cracks.

Despite the investigation into her relations with Balbuena, the state board took no action on Hofmann's certificate. The board admitted that they made a clerical error in reporting the investigation

Those mistakes meant that the investigation was not visible to the education department, and on Jan. 29, 2007, the Department of Education updated Hofmann's teaching certificate from provisional to standard. 

A month later, Hofmann served out her discipline from Marcos de Niza H.S. - a 10-day unpaid suspension and a letter of reprimand. 

She resigned from Marcos de Niza H.S. in May 2007 with her new standard teaching certificate intact.

A few months later, she was hired to work at El Dorado High School in Chandler, the same school attended by Valdivia before his 2009 murder.

It was only after his murder that Hofmann surrendered her certificate instead of going through a board hearing. The board approved her surrender in January 2010. 

Our ruling

Let’s be clear: There is not a straight line between the actions of the Arizona State Board of Education and the death of a student.

But the actions -- or, really, lack of action -- by the board prevented a school district from seeing red flags that might have prevented Hoffman’s hiring.

Without those flags, Hoffman was rehired. And that’s how a student ended up in a position that ultimately resulted in his death.

Douglas’ claim is accurate but requires that fuller description of events. So we rate it Mostly True.


So where are they now? 

Valdivia's mother, Placida Maldonado, sued the school and the state claiming negligence in El Dorado hiring Hofmann, leading to the wrongful death of her son, in April 2010.

However, she lost the case, with a final state Appeals Court judgment in March 2013 noting that Valdivia's murder was "extreme." The court argued that the school wasn't liable for his death since they are only responsible for reasonable care "in light of foreseeable and unreasonable risks."  

Balbuena, meanwhile, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison in September 2010. However, he is scheduled for release in November 2018, according to state Department of Corrections records.

Meanwhile, Hofmann, who remains without a state teaching job, appears to still live in Phoenix. 

For the complete fact-check, visit our news partner, PolitiFact Arizona