Corona Contradiction

Student, professor claim possible exposure to coronavirus. Mt. SAC president’s account differs from vice president’s, student media blocked from speaking to sources, no report filed

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Photo Illustration by Natalie Lu/SAC.Media.

With coronavirus cases being reported in record numbers throughout Los Angeles County, and the college closing down due to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shelter-in-place order, SAC.Media has been investigating a report that came from a student about a faculty member and her spouse who were allegedly exposed to COVID-19.

The student, who had asked to remain anonymous, said that Chinese language professor Andrew Chang announced to a class full of students that a fellow faculty member had allegedly been exposed to COVID-19. The student’s friend commented directly on Mt. SAC’s official Instagram account, under a post from March 12.

The comment read, “I hope you know that one of the linguistics professors at Mt. SAC has a husband that tested positive for COVID-19 and you’re just going to ignore the fact that she can be a carrier and spread the virus to the students in your school.”

The student shortly after corrected their comment with an asterisk, explaining that a “criminal justice professor*” was allegedly the one exposed through the spouse.

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A student commented on a post from Mt. SAC’s official Instagram account, claiming that a professor’s husband tested positive for COVID-19.

SAC.Media spoke with Chang, who said he reported the case to Public Safety and instructed SAC.Media’s editors to call them.

SAC.Media made multiple attempts to contact Mt. SAC Public Safety, leaving voicemails and emails for Mt. SAC Police Chief Mike Williams about the report. Williams has not returned any calls or emails. SAC.Media also asked student media adviser Toni Albertson to try and intervene to get Williams to be interviewed. Albertson texted him and told him she had concerns about this claim, and she asked that he agree to be interviewed. Williams did not respond.

SAC.Media sent a formal written request to Public Safety to receive a copy of the incident report.

Mt. SAC President and CEO William Scroggins was interviewed by SAC.Media on March 17 about the incident. Scroggins said he was aware of the report and first said that it took place “some time ago,” and later said it took place “about three weeks ago.” Scroggins said that “both individuals were told to go home and self quarantine, and the gentleman went to see his physician.”

Scroggins said, “So the concern was that something like an acupuncturist was the point of contact who contacted somebody who was in, I don’t know, South Korea.”

Scroggins added, “The LA County Public Health Department keeps a matrix of contacts with those who have tested positive for the COVID-19, and none of these said these concerns by the adjunct faculty member or the spouse had any connection to the individuals they cited as testing positive.”

Scroggins also said that the case was reported to the LA County Department of Public Health.

SAC.Media contacted the LA County Department of Public Health on March 19 and were told that there is nothing in place to report possible exposure to COVID-19.

As for the class that the professor was teaching, which the student told SAC.Media was a criminal justice course, Scroggins said, “Immediately, the class was canceled, the room was cleaned, and individuals were immediately sent home. They were assessed and given referrals for testing.”

It is still unclear to SAC.Media whether or not the professor and/or spouse were diagnosed with COVID-19, if they were exposed to COVID-19 or if they were tested. It is also unclear if any of the students were given referrals for testing.

SAC.Media asked Scroggins why the campus wasn’t notified and asked about the possibility that the students were already exposed. He said that there was no reason to, and that the college did what they needed to do.

“Our responsibility is to follow up on any potential contact, and to anyone exhibiting any of the three symptoms to immediately be assessed, and if the assessment shows that they should be tested, our Student Health office refers them to the county for testing,” Scroggins said.

Scroggins said that the college has not had any cases like that as of yet.

SAC.Media also asked Scroggins about the COVID-19 case in Walnut in which a person contracted the disease, stayed at a home in the city, and later died, which resulted in a campus-wide notification. Scroggins’ response was that the notification went out because that person had tested positive for COVID-19.

As for the students in the class, Scroggins said, “All the students who were in the room at the time were notified and dismissed from the class.”

Criminal Justice courses fall under Public Safety’s Administration of Justice Program, and Lance Heard is listed as the Public Safety Department Chair on the Mt. SAC website. SAC.Media emailed Heard, who responded with an email telling SAC.Media to contact Uyen Mai, Director of Marketing and Communications for Mt. SAC.

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SAC.Media has faced years of being directed to the Marketing and Communications Department instead of being able to interview sources directly. SAC.Media has written about being blocked from all communication with public safety and other departments, going as far back as 2015.

Most recently, SAC.Media struggled for months to receive public records from Public Safety who were in violation of the California Public Records Act.

Heard wrote in a separate email response that Chief Raymond Mosack is the director of the department. Mosack’s title on the Mt. SAC page lists him as Public Safety Programs Director. The faculty page also lists Paul Jefferson as Department Chair. Both Jefferson and Mosack were messaged by SAC.Media, with Heard copied on the email. The individuals were directly asked about a class under the Administration of Justice Department being cancelled due to a faculty member possibly being exposed to COVID-19.

Heard responded that “ADJU classes cancelled before the semester began were cancelled due to low enrollment, which is a regular practice at Mt. SAC. No story here. Best to you in your reporting. As you know being a reporter, rumor, panic and misinformation is harmful and dangerous.”

Jill Dolan, director of public affairs in the Mt. SAC Marketing Department, was copied on the email.

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SAC.Media explained to Heard that Scroggins had already confirmed in an interview with SAC.Media a cancellation of a class due to a possible exposure to the coronavirus, and that students were sent home, the classroom was cleaned and that this would not apply to a course that was cancelled before the semester began. Scroggins had also confirmed in the interview that the professor was teaching a criminal justice class.

In a follow-up interview with Scroggins on March 19 to clarify the course and the professor teaching it, Scroggins was asked how he was notified about the possible exposure to COVID-19. He said he was verbally notified by Vice President of Instruction Dr. Richard Mahon. Scroggins was also asked the name of the cancelled course and the professor who taught it.

“Within the investigation, the name of the professor and the specifics to the course were not part of the report that I got, which was a verbal report from the instruction office,” Scroggins said. He added that he was only given the circumstances.

Scroggins was also asked why the students were sent home without testing, as they may have been exposed to the coronavirus and could expose members of their family and/or roommates. He responded that there was a chance that someone within the room was exposed, and that was why precaution was taken.

“That’s correct. There was no certainty whether the fourth-hand contact had stemmed from someone who was known to be infected with the COVID-19 virus. It was fourth-hand contact reported by the instructor,” Scroggins said.

When asked for further clarification, Scroggins said that the spouse of the instructor was the person who was exposed to the potential threat, and the spouse was not employed by the college.

In a prior interview with Scroggins on March 17, Scroggins told SAC.Media that “the two individuals were sent home, and the gentleman was sent to a physician.”

In a follow-up interview on March 19, Scroggins said that the husband was on campus to pick up his wife, the faculty member, and take her home. Scroggins reiterated that he had no firsthand knowledge and that this was all he knew about the situation.

Scroggins was asked again about the report that Chang made to Public Safety. He said that it was not conveyed to him that there was a police report, but rather that this was handled by the instruction management personnel and was reported to him by the Mt. SAC Community Affairs officer and Mt. SAC’s Marketing and Communications Department.

Scroggins added that the proof the college received of the instructor testing negative for COVID-19 was that she was asked to report this to her supervisor, again reminding SAC.Media that the verbal summary was brief without any instructors’ names, nor the class where the allegedly exposed professor was teaching.

SAC Media asked Scroggins, as president and CEO of the college, if he had any concerns about specificity over where this occurred and who the exposed parties were on campus.

“If it had still been a potential contact, there would have been follow up. At that point, there was reasonable assurance that there was no potential contact as reported to me,” Scroggins said.

Scroggins did not make a notation in his calendar of when that verbal report was communicated to him, but stood by his approximation of three weeks ago. He said that Mt. SAC Vice President of Instruction Richard Mahon would have more information. SAC.Media asked if he would allow Mahon to speak to the student editors, as all sources contacted had been intercepted by Dolan. He said he would.

SAC.Media then spoke with Mahon on March 19.

Mahon was asked specifically about the incident reported by Professor Chang. Mahon responded in an email that he had been bombarded with emails of general requests, questions and even notifications from faculty of symptoms like those of the flu.

He explained, “One of the earliest cases…I am remembering… involved the language lab in building 66, in which a person was reported to have been exposed and the lab was closed for that day. I believe it was the same day or close. There was an email indicating that a student in the nursing program had been exposed at a remote site. Both of those were followed up on early and quickly and found to have not been exposed to somebody who had tested positive for Coronavirus.”

SAC.Media again asked Mahon about the class that Chang reported was taught by a professor in the Administration of Justice Department, specifically a criminal justice class.

“Again, when classes have been canceled out of precaution, in every case that I know of, there has been a determination that there was not a risk to students before any class or instructional activity was resumed,” Mahon said.

SAC.Media also attempted to contact the deans of the Technology and Health Division, in which Criminal Justice falls under. Dean Sam Agdasi and Associate Dean Sarah Plesetz did not respond. However, shortly after contacting the deans, SAC.Media received a message from the Mt. SAC Marketing Department’s Jill Dolan, director of public affairs. In the email, Dolan wrote,I was forwarded your email about a breaking story involving the Tech and Health department. The dean and associate dean are occupied with assisting faculty. Am I able to assist you with your story?”

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Mahon contacted SAC.Media on March 19 and said he spoke with Heard, as well as deans Agdasi and Plesetz.

“None of them have any awareness of an incident that actually happened,” Mahon said.

He added that Heard said the only class that was cancelled was one in spring semester that did not have to do with an illness. He said that Heard told him that if there was an incident such as a COVID-19 exposure and cancellation, Heard would have been informed.

Mahon added that he asked Heard, “Are you aware of any faculty who themselves or through a spouse or family member have reported any kind of possible exposure that would require heightened vigilance?” Accordong to Mahon, Heard responded “No.”

SAC.Media stressed that accuracy in reporting and information is critical, and since Chang had referred SAC.Media to public safety, it was important to interview Chief Williams. SAC.Media also said that after multiple attempts, there had been no response.

Mahon said he would attempt to contact Williams directly to clarify. Mahon later contacted SAC.Media and said he spoke with Williams.

“Chief Williams is unaware of any incident involving faculty, students, or anything in an Administration of Justice class,” Mahon said.

Mahon said that Williams told him the only incident he was aware of involved Chang. He also asked Williams about the earlier incident in building 66, where a student was in a lab setting.

Mahon told SAC.Media that Williams said that the details were fuzzy, but there was a report that there was a faculty member who, through their spouse, had contact with COVID-19. The college followed up, and what it was able to determine was that the faculty member’s spouse had contact with an acupuncturist. The acupuncturist thought they had contact with someone who had been in China and might have been exposed. He said that there was no indication of symptoms or testing, and there was no need to follow up.

Mahon reiterated that he is seeing regular reports of questions of concern from various individuals on campus via email. He said that the campus is following up and doing everything to determine if there is risk or fear and if it affects students.

Mahon also said that he found another case in his emails of an individual who tested positive for a different virus, but it was not COVID-19.

He explained, “As near as I can tell, the Administration of Justice story that you’re working on… there’s no basis, including anything that Chief Williams is aware of. He was aware of an incident involving somebody named Chang. We have a faculty member in that area but it’s not in administration of justice. There’s a potential connection there to the language lab and in an earlier conversation I told you I was aware of that incident and shared the details.”

Mahon added that he trusts the chair and the two deans that there’s “nothing in their area that they were informed of and that holds for Chief Williams as well.”

This does not explain why a student reported the incident to SAC.Media, or why Scroggins confirmed that there was a criminal justice professor whose spouse was potentially exposed to the coronavirus, nor proof that the professor or her spouse were tested. It also does not explain why a class and the professor were sent home, why a class was cancelled and why the room was cleaned and disinfected. All of this was confirmed in an interview with Scroggins.

SAC.Media also spoke with attorney Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center SPLC, who said that we are in a newsworthy space and that SAC.Media has a right to not only report this story because there is sufficient evidence of a classroom incident, but to also file a request for the incident report.

The president of the college said a class cancellation took place, that students and the professor were sent home and that the class was cleaned and disinfected. He confirmed that it was a criminal justice professor and her spouse, yet the vice president of instruction said there were no cancellations of a criminal justice course, no professor that he knew of who was sent home and no actual incident report filed. Public safety has not responded, nor have the deans of the division. Heard responded that there is no story here.

Hiestand was clear in saying, “Contradiction can be part of coverage.”

Hiestand added that the student media should “err on the side of more information rather than less.”

SAC.Media is currently interviewing students and continuing to attempt to contact Public Safety and the deans for interviews. Public Safety has not responded to our incident report request.

This is an ongoing story.