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A day after he deleted his Facebook account last month, Terry Braye — exiled public school teacher — called SF Weekly in a panic. "I'm in trouble," he said. "They may arrest me."
It wouldn't be the first time. More than a year earlier, the 61-year-old music instructor had been arrested for accusations that he'd had improper contact with female students who played in the guitar band program he built at Visitacion Valley Middle School. Braye denied the accusations, but finally pleaded no contest in May to two nonsexual misdemeanor charges. He's banned from contacting anyone from the district, especially his former students. For Braye, that's no easy feat.
"The doorbell's ringing. That could be the police," Braye said. Still talking into the phone, he walked over to the door of his Richmond District apartment.
According to a source at the school, adults had shown police a private message on Facebook that appeared to be written by Braye this summer, telling a student he missed her and didn't do the things he was accused of doing. Told that by the SF Weekly, and reprimanded by his attorney for talking to a reporter in the first place, he was starting to get paranoid.
Braye checked the door. "It's the handyman," he announced with relief. "But this is what it's like."
Braye insists he doesn't remember sending any such message to a student. "I don't want to contact the kids. I don't need to contact the kids.... They may come and get my computer, which is fine," he continued. "There's nothing on my computer that would turn me in."
Terry Braye's fall from teaching grace could perhaps only happen today. He's the eager teacher who counsels kids as if he were a father. He might let them go too far, and on occasion pushed the boundaries of acceptable teacher-student relations himself. But in an era of increased sensitivity about adult contact with minors, Braye's brand of close-up teaching is riskier than ever, especially when social media make casual contact easy, instant, and admissible in court.
Braye has lost his job and teaching credential, is banned from stepping foot in any San Francisco district school, and has been prohibited from seeking work with kids until the end of a five-year probation. Still, nine former students interviewed by SF Weekly defend Braye as a caring teacher who didn't deserve the boot. "In the end, the people who lose the most are the school," says former student Chioma Amaechi, who is named on a stay-away order served on Braye, despite sounding like his biggest fan. "Those kids [at the school now] should have had a teacher of Mr. Braye's caliber." One girl who was listed as a victim in the original felony charges — and says Braye once kissed her on the top of the head — calls him "harmless."
"My reputation has been destroyed," Braye tells with SF Weekly. "I've been brutally misused by people I believe didn't really do their job and by a district that threw me to the sharks to protect itself and is still covering its ass."
Braye claims the mess could have been cleaned up without him getting thrown in jail. "If I'd been able to sit down with the district's lawyers, the principal of the school, a couple of teachers ... the girls and their parents — an hour and a half, and I [would be] taking the girls for pizza. It wouldn't have gone any further."
Now, as he continues to read some students' blogs and stands accused of contacting other students on Facebook, Braye risks looking guilty of one more charge: the banished teacher who can't let go.
Jennifer Nguyen, as we'll call her in this story, remembers sitting in sophomore health class at Lowell High School the spring 2010 day when the teacher sent her to the front office. Nguyen — a calm and goofy girl who stands 5-foot-2 and doesn't tip 100 pounds — shuffled off to discover the principal sitting with an investigator.
He had come to interview her about Braye, whom Nguyen had already heard was being investigated for contact with female students. As a tape recorder rolled, so did the questions: How many times did he drive her home from school? How many times had she been to his house? Did he ever touch her?
Braye had been Nguyen's favorite teacher in middle school. She learned to strum Beatles and Eric Clapton songs in his band room full of student guitarists, drummers, and singers. "I felt cool being there," she says. "Band was really fun." Nguyen would stay to practice with other students in Braye's room until 6 p.m. — better than going home to an empty house, with mom still at the nail salon and dad driving a cab. She would visit Braye's apartment on the weekends to practice or watch a movie — always with her parents' consent, she says — often while Braye's partner, Carol Seibert, was around.
Sitting in that same living room full of books and vintage family photographs one Friday evening this summer, Braye recently reflected on his downfall. "Maybe I was too generous, but that's how I was raised." Braye is a white-haired, soft-around-the-middle native Nebraskan from what he calls a "Beaver Cleaver-land" upbringing in which people wouldn't bat an eye at men calling women "hon" (as he does to this reporter). He's a bit pompous ("Am I an arrogant fucker? Yes! Am I overstating my importance to these kids? No!"), but undoubtedly charismatic. Braye turned to teaching after years of odd jobs that didn't have much to do with his music education degree from the University of Nebraska. He ran a warehouse; he drove a Super Shuttle. Finally, at age 50 and in need of a paycheck, he took a gig teaching social studies at juvenile hall. He found he was a natural.
"The kids love him," says Deborah Barsotti, a music teacher who taught with him at juvenile jall. She recalls that some of the teen girls arrested for prostitution tried to throw Braye off with sexual comments. "He would say, 'I understand maybe not a lot of men in your life would treat you with the respect you deserve, but you deserve that respect, and we all deserve that respect here.'"