Culture of silence grips La Cañada Unified

Concerned about teacher retaliation, local property values and their own standing in the community, numerous La Cañada Flintridge parents say they are reluctant to openly criticize practices in the La Cañada Unified School District.

The issue — below the surface for years, and perhaps decades, parents and community members say — came to a head last month. It did so after a complaint against La Cañada High math teacher Gabrielle Leko, filed by La Cañada Unified School Board Member Cindy Wilcox, became public.

Wilcox filed the complaint in June, alleging that Leko addressed a ninth-grade geometry student as “Jew boy” during the 2010-11 school year. Wilcox said she based her allegations on complaints from numerous students, all of whom claimed that Leko regularly made derogatory remarks. Wilcox had to make the complaint personally, she said, because many victims and witnesses were afraid to do so.

Leko did not respond to email and telephone requests for comment. 

Two former school board members said they are not aware of any retribution against vocal parents or their children, and that the community feels comfortable airing concerns. But several parents disagree.

Fear of being labeled ‘difficult’

In the course of interviews with more than 20 people, members of several La Cañada Unified families said speaking up often led to school administrators labeling students as “difficult,” or to teachers dishing out bad grades to them.

In an email sent to district officials last month, parent Amy Bernhard noted the unwillingness of families to come forward about Leko. She also acknowledged holding back from contacting her children’s teachers about classroom concerns for fear of marring the “pleasant relationship.”

“What a sad, sad state of affairs, and what a sad statement it makes about our schools and our families,” Bernhard said. “Why bother teaching ’To Kill a Mockingbird’ in our ninth-grade English classes if our adults are so unlike the principled Atticus Finch [a central character in the novel]?”

Debra Archuleta, the sole parent to add her name to Wilcox’s complaint, said fear stops parents from “doing the right thing.”

“There were at least 50 to 60 students in those classes and I am the only person who has been willing to come forward and address this issue with my child,” Archuleta said. “What is everybody afraid of? I don’t get it.”

She said she believes that concern about retribution is tainting the Leko investigation.

“I know firsthand that kids are not coming forward because they are afraid of reprisal,” Archuleta said.

Others said that they are disappointed that the Leko complaint hasn’t jolted people into action.

“The thing I was absolutely shocked about was that our community, particularly the Jewish community — of which there are hundreds of households in La Cañada — did not raise their voices and say, ‘This is not OK,’” said former La Cañada Unified parent Tammy Kaitz.

Kathy Hernandez said she only now feels comfortable speaking about dealing with the district because her two children have graduated.

“I would say parents are definitely afraid to speak out, and it's not just parents, it's the kids, too,” she said. “They don't want to face that teacher after you say something.”

As an example, Hernandez, a former PTA president, said one teacher lost her daughter’s assignment and reduced her grade, then found it but refused to correct the grade. After Hernandez confronted her, the teacher began to pick on her daughter. Afterwards, Hernandez’ children begged her to simply keep quiet.

“It's really frustrating when you feel like they don't have the kids’ best interest at heart,” said Hernandez.

Roger Dobkowitz, whose youngest daughter graduated from La Cañada High three years ago, said that he had encountered the same problem.

“I have spoken up against some very bad teachers, and you sit down with the teacher, you have to also sit down with the principal … and you feel like the teacher's going to get back at your student anyway,” said Dobkowitz.

He said he believes the school district’s sterling reputation — it has the fifth-highest test scores of any district in the state — and its positive impact on property values gives teachers and officials the ability to act however they want.

“The community doesn't say anything, because it's 'Oh my God, we can keep our prices up 20% higher than anywhere else because of our great schools,'“ said Dobkowitz.

‘A lot of sharing going on’

Robert Frank, executive director of La Cañada's nonprofit Hillside School and Learning Center, said his experience leads him to believe local parents would speak out.

“I can't imagine La Cañada people not speaking out, to some extent,” said Frank. “But complaining or filing something against the teacher might be another story.”

Meredith Reynolds, who served on the La Cañada school board for a dozen years, said parents are very willing to speak up.

“Many parents would share with me what they had shared with their teachers,” said Reynolds. “I think there's a lot of sharing going on, and most of the time it worked out.”

Jinny Dalbeck, whose term on the board ended in 2004, said she understood parents’ fear of a backlash. But that fear, she said, does not match up with reality.

“I've not been aware of anybody being actually able to demonstrate that there has been any kind of retribution exacted toward a student [due to a complaint],” she said.

The Leko controversy is a rare case of a formal complaint being filed.

Wilcox said the three-step formal complaint process is arduous. She said she has seen less than a dozen filed over the last eight years.

First, a parent or other concerned citizen registers a complaint by talking directly to the school employee.

If the matter is not resolved within 10 working days, the person puts the complaint into writing and presents it to the employee’s immediate supervisor. The employee has 15 days to respond in writing. The supervisor then has five days to formulate a response and send it to the complainant.

If a resolution still has not been reached, the complaint moves to the superintendent. The district has 15 days to schedule a meeting between the parties, then renders a final decision.

In the Leko case, that meeting took place on Oct. 26. Supt. Wendy Sinnette said the district will give notice when its investigation is complete. But the outcome may not become public. Sinnette said the results would remain private due to employee confidentiality concerns.

Mandy Redfern, president of the La Cañada Teachers Assn., said the union and the district work together to design a fair complaint process for everyone involved. In the end, however, the administration makes the final call.

“The administration is solely responsible for determining what actually happened and [it] is their purview to determine appropriate consequences for the employee,” she said in an email.  “The association does not play a role in this part of the process.”

Copyright © 2019, La Cañada Valley Sun
EDITION: California | U.S. & World