Board breaks from closed session without Leko decision

La Cañada Unified school board members Wednesday again broke from closed session without taking additional action on a complaint filed against high school math teacher Gabrielle Leko.

Board President Scott Tracy said that they would meet for a third time on the issue 8 a.m. Dec. 26 at district headquarters.

About 75 people were present to address board members before they went into the closed-door deliberations. Among them were those who continued to call for Leko to be disciplined.

“The issue that is being addressed here is this teacher’s persistent, repetitive and habitual remarks to students in front of the classroom that have been characterized as a sense of humor,” said La Cañada Unified parent Mark Bernhard. “This is not a sense of humor. This is insulting and it is bullying.”

But there also were several dozen current high school students, and at least two teachers, in attendance as a show of support for the embattled math teacher. Several described her as a dedicated and caring individual who always made herself available outside of classroom hours.

“I never felt uncomfortable in Mrs. Leko’s class. She has always conducted herself in a respectful manner and it has always been an open and sensitive classroom,” said senior Sam Reynolds, who identified himself as Jewish. “During the Jewish high holidays Mrs. Leko made it a point to consider what days the tests were on and make sure they did not interfere with those holidays.”

Others said that it would be a major loss to the district if Leko were to be dismissed.

“I think it would be a shame to lose a teacher like Mrs. Leko, who is clearly vivacious and cares about her students,” said Amanda Gartside, a 2008 graduate currently majoring in math at Bowdoin College in Maine.

Some criticized what they described as a public stoning of a talented teacher, an effect that they say will impact other staff.

“It has gotten to the point where teachers that I have talked to are scared that the board will come after them, or the community will go after them, or certain parents will go after them because they have made one remark,” said senior Coleman Monroe.

In June, then-school board member Cindy Wilcox filed a formal complaint with the district alleging that Leko had addressed a ninth-grade geometry student as “Jew boy,” and made other offensive statements.

Following an investigation, district officials last month found that Leko had made “inappropriate comments containing gender and ethnic bias” and directed her to undergo sensitivity. They also said they would consider additional disciplinary action, the details of which would remain confidential.

Wilcox and other members of the community have called for Leko to be fired.

Earlier this month, the district posted on its website a job opening for La Cañada High School math teacher with a start date of Jan. 9. Assistant Supt. of Human Resources Patricia Hager decline to say whether the listing had any connection to Leko.

“We are getting an idea of the current available applicant pool, which is common practice,” Hager said.

She did confirm that a substitute teacher has been placed in Leko’s classroom.

“Mrs. Leko agreed with the idea that having another adult present in the room is in everyone’s best interest until this situation is completely resolved,” Hager said. “Mrs. Leko continues to be the teacher of record for five class periods of math.”

Wilcox requested that Leko be removed from the classroom entirely, or that an administrator be present at all times.

“It is a start,” Wilcox said Wednesday of the presence of the substitute teacher. “I wouldn’t say I am exactly satisfied, but it is a good holding position while they decide what to do.”

A settlement between the district and Leko wherein the teacher takes early retirement and agrees not to sue could be in the best interest of La Cañada Unified, Wilcox said.

“I would find it acceptable if the district negotiated a package with Mrs. Leko in order to avoid tens of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees,” Wilcox said.

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