Burbank Tries to Move Past School Scandals

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Not a word was said about sex, football scandals or Salle Dumm when junior Meagan Pendergest, her hair still damp from a varsity swim meet, stood before the board of education recently to talk about recent goings-on at Burbank High School.

The 16-year-old student chirped excitedly about the "really great" karaoke concert that raised $4,000 for after-school activities. She boosted the new boy's volleyball team for doing "a real great job" in its season opener. "March Madness," a week of themed dress-up days, was about to begin and "we think," Meagan said, "it's going to be great."

Her upbeat report was just one measure of how resiliently this city has faced the embarrassing events that have rocked the Burbank Unified School District lately, events that have made the 14,000-student school system look like it belongs more in a scene from "Harper Valley PTA" than in the shadow of the family-friendly Walt Disney Studios.

First came the revelation that Dumm, a middle-aged schools fund-raiser, had sex with a Burbank High football player. Then the school board president resigned amid charges of a cover-up. Finally, two coaches were ensnared in the tawdry affair after police charged them with failing to report the incident as possible child abuse. One was even accused of making death threats against the other.

As if that weren't enough to send public school parents in search of private school tuitions, Burbank High had its second principal in two years removed amid a threatened teacher rebellion--two days before word surfaced that the science department chairman at John Burroughs High School had been arrested for allegedly molesting a 15-year-old girl.

"I don't have to watch TV soap operas anymore," quipped Jordan Middle School Principal Mary Margaret Klujnak. "I just pick up the newspapers and read about Burbank."

To be sure, the barrage of bizarre incidents has taken a toll on student and teacher morale. For starters, smirks and unwelcome stabs at black humor sometimes greet Burbank High sports teams at their away games now, according to several coaches.

"It's really affected the perception of what we're doing here," griped Clyde Richards, a veteran math teacher who coaches Burbank High's varsity tennis team. "There are jokes going around that most football teams get scholarships--but we get probation."

School officials also fear the negative publicity will doom a campaign to pass a bond issue they say is badly needed to repair aging school buildings and will diminish donations to the Burbank Educational Foundation, the private, school fund-raising organization Dumm headed. Since its founding 14 years ago, the nonprofit foundation, which had an annual budget of $104,000 in fiscal 1994, has helped pay for library books, band equipment and classroom computers.

But while many closely knit communities would be up in arms over similar events, most Burbank parents, teachers and students have been quick to label their local scandals as aberrations in an otherwise strong school system. The consensus seems to be that the controversies will soon blow over, leaving the lives of most students--if not the tattered reputations of a few sports-obsessed adults--unscathed.

"My kids are kind of fascinated by all of it, but it doesn't affect their education at all," said Suzie Wilson, a former PTA president who has four children attending Burbank schools. "They are still going to class. Their teachers are still giving them homework. They are getting the message that whatever else goes on, nothing touches the classroom."

To understand the forgiving attitude many citizens have adopted, it is important to know how much has gone right in the Burbank district over the years.

Burbank, like other stable, middle-class communities, is a place where the schools help sell homes. Real estate agents greet clients seeking a haven from Los Angeles campuses with a state-issued report that shows both Burbank and John Burroughs highs performing well compared with schools of similar size and socioeconomic makeup.

Student test scores at either school are not off the charts. On last year's SATs, for instance, Burbank High students scored slightly above the state average, while their counterparts at Burroughs scored just below. But there have been enough accomplishments to keep parents satisfied, like the third-place finish of Burbank High's team in the Los Angeles County academic decathlon competition.

The district sends about 80% of its high school graduates on to college each year. And half of its schools, including Burbank and Burroughs, have been named "distinguished schools" by the California Department of Education, an honor shared by just 2% of all the schools in the state.

"Even though we are surrounded by 'big cityness,' there is still a small-town feeling here," said PTA Council President Linda Rosen. "Everyone feels they have a vested interest. They want it to be the same kind of place they grew up in for their children as much as that is possible."

Of course, some people think it was an overarching concern with Burbank's days of gridiron glory that started the spate of recent troubles. For while the city's schools maintained a respectable academic record, there were lingering concerns in some powerful quarters over its high school football program--the epicenter of the Dumm scandal.

Neither Burroughs nor Burbank has had a winning football season since 1987. Some athletic boosters attribute the string of defeats to the fact that young Latinos, who presumably grew up playing soccer, made up a growing share of the school-age population during the 1980s.

That explanation ignores the championship titles other Burbank sports teams, including basketball, water polo and tennis, amassed during the same period. But it was repeated often enough to fuel resentment toward whiter and more successful teams in the Santa Clarita Valley, especially those peppered with players who used to live in Burbank.

"We have always had great recreation programs and our fair share of good athletic teams," said Jeff Jonas, a Burbank native whose son played quarterback for Burbank in 1994. "But you go to places like Valencia or Canyon High . . . and that is where you have the family-oriented communities today where you can build a winning tradition year after year."

Joe Hooven, 52, a local curtains-and-blinds dealer and parks board member, was perhaps the leading proponent of the theory that the future of Burbank's public schools rested with its failing football teams. He was elected to the Burbank Board of Education in 1993, pledging to improve high school athletics through aggressive recruitment of first-class coaches.

Before his first year in office was out, Hooven had the chance to fulfill his campaign promise when the head coaching job at Burbank High became vacant. A search committee voted 10-3 to appoint John Hazelton, Hooven's first choice, but not before allegations surfaced that Hooven had pressured committee members into overlooking Hazelton's history of recruiting violations from his days at Montclair Prep in Van Nuys.

The allegations came back to haunt Hooven last fall, when the head coach at Burroughs, Robert dos Remedios, accused Hooven of trying to pressure one of his players to transfer to Burbank. Dos Remedios, who had applied for the Burbank High job that Hazelton got, filed a complaint with the Southern Section of the California Interscholastic Federation, which polices high school athletics.

After a wide-ranging investigation of Hooven and Hazelton's attempts to lure fresh talent to Burbank High, an investigator hired jointly by the district and the CIF concluded that the pair "may have" used "undue influence" to recruit players.

Among the questionable tactics the investigator's report cited was the establishment of a special tutoring program for Burbank players. The program was run by Hazelton's former fiance, Maureen Burke, who lacked a teaching credential but had performed the same service for Hazelton's team at Montclair Prep.

Burke's tutoring was presented to the team "kind of like a package deal: You play for Hazelton, and if you are good, we will make sure your grades and your SAT scores meet the standards and make you more attractive to universities," said Willard Williams, Burbank High's recently ousted principal. "It sounded like a con job to me."

Dogged by the investigation, the Burbank Bulldogs had an awful season, winning only one game when the opposing team forfeited. And that was before a batch of new troubles arose with Salle Dumm's arrest.

On Nov. 20, Burbank police charged the 51-year-old president of the Burbank Educational Foundation with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and having unlawful sex with a minor for allegedly seducing a 17-year-old Burbank lineman with cocktails and the promise of a $10,000 donation for his team. Besides the player himself, her chief accusers were coach Hazelton and Burke, the team tutor.

The tale, as recounted by the key players and through court documents, showed parents an exceptionally unsavory, if peripheral, side of their school system.

Tutor Burke would later testify that it was she who accompanied the football player to Dumm's home, she who placed a panicked call to Hazelton when she realized the player and Dumm were locked in Dumm's bedroom, she whom the player first told of the "pay-for-play" nature of the sexual liaison. It was also Burke who stored the player's underwear in her freezer, as "evidence," she said.

But it was Hazelton who led to board president Hooven's downfall. The coach told police and other school board members that he informed Hooven about the encounter within days of its occurrence last July, and that Hooven asked him to keep it quiet. Hooven denied orchestrating a cover-up but admitted knowing about the affair. When his colleagues decided to investigate his actions, he resigned, describing himself as the victim of a "witch hunt."

Randy Pearson, president of the Burbank Teachers Assn., said Hooven's resignation came as a relief. He said it bothered most teachers that as an elected official Hooven was exempt from the law that requires school system employees to report suspicions of child abuse. On the basis of Hazelton's account, the county district attorney's office investigated Hooven for obstruction of justice and aiding a felon in avoiding prosecution but decided there was insufficient evidence to warrant charges.

"If any employee in the district, from the superintendent down to a custodian, would have done the same thing, they would have ended up in jail," Pearson said. "Yet this man was continuing to sit on the board and preside as president. It did not sit well with a lot of people."

In fact, police capped their investigation the week before last by charging both Hazelton and his assistant coach, John Greaves, with failing to report the alleged seduction as child abuse. Greaves also was charged with making death threats against Hazelton and Burke for exposing the incident.

For the most part, parents, teachers and students support the way police and the school board have handled the scandal. A few have suggested that with stronger leadership in the superintendent's office and on the board, the whole unseemly affair would have been deftly defused before it reached the public's ears. Those voices are in the minority, though.

"When there were concerns, they were addressed immediately," said PTA President Rosen.

Judy Attalah, Muir Middle School PTA president, similarly said she has no worries about sending her three children, all middle-schoolers, to Burbank High in the next few years. She dismissed the "hullabaloo" involving "a few sex mongers" as "ridiculous and far removed from us." Dumm, she noted, "is not even a teacher at the school. . . . The teachers are for the most part good and upstanding citizens."

Even the Feb. 26 removal of Burbank High Principal Williams, though ill-timed, has not sparked an outcry. Superintendent David Aponik said teacher dissatisfaction with Williams' leadership caused more problems for Burbank High than the football mess, but that Williams' decision to step aside was unrelated to the football scandal.

With the police investigation largely wrapped up, school officials have taken the first steps toward putting the scandal to rest--and avoiding similar public-relations disasters in the future.

Although a new football coach is already in place at Burbank High, Aponik has set up an advisory group to issue guidelines for the hiring of future coaches.

The school board is expected to name Hooven's successor by mid-month but has already made recommendations to "clarify the proper role of future boards." Among them, a terse reminder: "Board members may be aggressive and talkative on all educational issues, but the appearance of ethical and lawful behavior must always be maintained."

Board member Denise Wilcox said that as hurtful as the scandal has been, she remains hopeful that some good can come of it. If nothing else, it may remind people of the district's strengths and help put its athletics program in perspective, Wilcox said.

"The reality is that sports programs are up and down," she said. "There are a variety of reasons why people are leaving Burbank and moving out to Hart and Canyon Country."

One sign of the healing that has already taken place came during a light moment at a recent school board meeting. After Meagan finished her enthusiastic report, her counterpart from Burroughs High, Amy Gross, took the microphone and greeted Mike McDonald, who became board president when Hooven resigned.

"Good evening, Vice President McDonald," she began before someone in the crowd interrupted to correct the innocent faux pas. Embarrassed, Amy admitted she had forgotten about the titular transition. "Oh, I'm sorry," she said.

"Yeah," McDonald smiled. "I may be, too, in a few months."

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