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An NBC 7 investigation found a special education aide busted for smuggling a large amount of drugs from Mexico into the United States continued to work inside the classroom with children unbeknownst to the school district. NBC 7 investigative reporter Wendy Fry made the discovery and notified the school district. She has the exclusive story.
A San Diego Unified special education aide continued working in the classroom, after he was arrested at the border with more than $500,000 worth of cocaine and methamphetamine.
Federal court records show Garrett Anthony Clifton was pulled over at the San Ysidro Port of Entry last April trying to enter the United States with 9.9 kilos of methamphetamine and 8 kilograms of cocaine.
Over the next several months, Clifton attended nearly a dozen federal court appearances including pleading guilty to importation of meth and coke on July 25. For the majority of this time, he kept his job teaching special education students at San Diego Unified.
The special ed substitute was on his way to work at Mann Middle on Friday morning when NBC7 Investigates asked the district why he was still working with children. He is set to be sentenced to federal prison on Feb. 28 for importation of cocaine and methamphetamine - a charge that carries a minimum 10 years imprisonment and maximum of life in federal prison.
Clifton did not respond to multiple requests for interviews made through his criminal defense attorney and his stepmom. Messages left at Clifton's home were not returned.
"I think parents and their guardians have a right to know that there has been illegal behavior on the part of an adult who is supposed to be a role model -- who is supposed to be protecting their children and educating them," said parent Susan Hopps-Tatum, the mother of a special needs child. She says she's concerned with a system that allows convicted criminals to work with some of the communities most vulnerable children.
So, why wasn't the school district notified about Clifton's arrest and conviction?
State law requires law enforcement agencies to provide official information about an arrest to schools and other entities classified under the law as "care-providing."
The state education code requires an employee to be placed on paid administrative leave when they are arrested for a crime that would disqualify them from working with children, such as a drug bust.
But, there's no similar federal law or mechanism for notifying schools of federal arrests.
Because of our investigation, school board president Kevin Beiser is asking the federal government to take a closer look at its policies.
"What I do know is that when we have employees working with children and they're arrested with $500,000 worth of narcotics, we need to know about that, so that we can make sure that we're doing everything we can to keep our kids safe," Beiser said.
NBC7 Investigates received the following statement from Homeland Security Investigations, the agency responsible for investigating the arrest:
“In criminal cases where a defendant is found to have regular contact with children, a variety of factors impact Homeland Security Investigations’ (HSI) decision as to whether notification of the subject’s employer or other associated parties is warranted or appropriate. Factors include: is there evidence the defendant has previously harmed children; are there indications the defendant is engaged in ongoing abuse of children; and finally, does the subject appear to pose an imminent threat to the safety of the children with whom he or she interacts. HSI is reviewing the matter to determine if appropriate procedures were followed."
However, the feds not notifying San Diego Unified is not the only reason Clifton remained in the classroom. Our investigation also reveals gaps in San Diego Unified's own employee tracking system as well.
In reviewing this case based on our questions, district officials say somehow they did receive unofficial word of Clifton's legal troubles in late August. He was terminated as a monthly employee on Sept. 1, 2013 during his 12-month probationary period for "not meeting the standards and needs of the district."
But Clifton was rehired on October 10, 2013 as an hourly substitute at another school without any questions being raised about the reason for his termination a little more than a month prior.
District officials stressed that they never received an official notification from the federal investigative agency. Had they, they would have not allowed him to continue working in the class with kids, they say.
"If we had the official notification from the other agencies, in this case the federal agency, we would have been able to better track that process. As it is, this particular instance is going to lead us to review our internal procedures and policies because we want to ensure that all of our students are safe. So, we will be reviewing how we handle these moving forward," said Moises Aguirre, the executive director of District Relations for San Diego Unified.
School district officials say Clifton worked at the following schools: Mann Middle, McGill Charter, Holly Drive Leadership and Iftin High School.