District promises stricter policies

La Cañada Unified officials admitted during a meeting Tuesday that mistakes were made last year in the handling of complaints against a local math teacher, and promised to sharpen district policies to better address future concerns.

The comments came during a presentation on the district’s public complaint procedure, requested by members of the community rankled by what they described as a failure by administrators to take past issues seriously.

Supt. Wendy Sinnette and outgoing school board President Susan Boyd told audience members that they were legally barred from commenting on the specifics of the complaint against Gabrielle Leko, who was accused of addressing a ninth-grade geometry student as “Jew boy,” among other offenses. Boyd, who is remaining on the board, handed the gavel to current President Scott Tracy at a later part of the meeting.

But the conversation turned repeatedly to the La Cañada High School math teacher, with some parents criticizing the district for trivializing the matter.

“This wasn’t just one error,” said Debra Archuleta, whose daughter approached high school officials about Leko’s behavior months before then-school board member Cindy Wilcox filed a formal complaint in June. “I expect professional conduct and courtesy every single day that my child goes to that school.”

Boyd acknowledged a breakdown in district procedure.

“You can say it was a gigantic mistake, you can call it a felony if you want to,” Boyd said. “The point is that it happened, and now we are dealing with the fact that it happened and we are trying to go forward from there. Nobody is saying it was minor. Nobody is trying to say there weren’t major consequences to it. We are not trying to do that.”

Schools are in the “people business” and people make mistakes, Boyd said.

“We need to make sure that the communication is out to all the parents so they know if you don’t hear back from your counselor, you go to your principal,” Boyd said. “If you don’t hear back from your principal, you go to the superintendent. And if you don’t hear back from the superintendent, you go to a board member.”

Staff members are looking at ways to sharpen the language in existing board policies regarding employee conduct and reporting procedures, district officials said.

“I think that 95% of the time the channels work,” Sinnette said. “In certain circumstances somebody makes a mistake and that is not acceptable, that is why heightening people’s awareness of the correct protocols and policies in addition to common sense is what we need to do.”

It is always best to resolve problems that arise at the lowest possible level, Sinnette said, adding that part of her job is to ensure that principals are trained to respond in a way that makes parents feel comfortable.

It was the first time that the superintendent and board members have publicly spoken about Leko controversy. Previous communication from district officials on the issue were largely contained to written statements.

Parent Kevin Brennan said that creating an environment where staff members are forced to tiptoe around for fear of making a mistake is unhealthy, adding that he appreciated the district’s effort to fix the problem moving forward.

“Mistakes will happen,” said Brennan. “What are we going to do about that and move forward? I think that is what you are addressing here.”

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