School board ponders changing complaint policy

Complaints about misconduct by La Cañada Unified School District employees would be accepted only from eyewitnesses under a new policy the school board is considering.

The board is revisiting the policy in the wake of the scandal involving a math teacher accused of making demeaning comments to her students.

In June, then-board member Cindy Wilcox filed a complaint against La Cañada High teacher Gabrielle Leko for making ethnic slurs and other derogatory comments in the classroom after interviewing several parents and students about her.

“I tried to reach out to people to make sure I was getting an accurate reading [before filing the complaint],” Wilcox said.

The school board this week unanimously voted to fire Leko unless a settlement agreement is reached by Feb. 27. But under the proposed change, allegations such as those filed by Wilcox would be ignored by school district officials.

The current draft of the policy, which will be presented to the school board on March 6, states that the board will not “entertain complaints which surface allegations against employees where the complainant has neither directly witnessed the events related to the complaint nor has the obligation as parent or guardian of a student directly witnessing the complaint allegations to register the complaint.”

But the proposed policy, as it currently is drafted, may not meet the requirements of state law.

David Sapp, an attorney with ACLU of Southern California, said the language of the proposed complaint policy would need to be changed.

“They are obligated to investigate all complaints that they receive, by state law,” Sapp said.

Wilcox said she believes it is important that the school board continues accepting third-party complaints. If individuals cannot go to the board with their complaints, they may be forced to seek over venues, such as civil rights groups, news organizations or social media outlets, she said.

The proposed policy also says the board will protect the students and parents who lodge complaints from retaliation. Wilcox contends that would be difficult to enforce.

Board president Scott Tracy said members might choose to adopt the policy as currently proposed, or they could amend it when the board considers it next month.

“The board was determined was to take a look at the complaint process, given our recent experience with the one filed by [Wilcox],” he said. “We learn from the experience and try to find the right balance.”

Wilcox’s complaint, however, was not the only reason the board decided to revamp the complaint process, he said.

“It’s become quite apparent that the process is cumbersome and a challenge,” he said. “There’s been a series of concerns by the public about the complaint process.”

Tracy declined to comment on the specific language of the proposed policy until the board meeting, when it will be discussed in public.

Debra Archuleta, the only parent to add her name to Wilcox’s complaint, said the proposed policy could prevent students and parents from coming forward. Her daughter, Alyssa Stolmack, a sophomore at La Cañada High, witnessed Leko’s behavior, but was not a direct victim.

Wilcox said she is not sure if someone else would have formally filed a complaint against Leko if she had not stepped up. In her eight years as a school board member, she said the board saw about five complaints.

“It’s very rare that someone actually does the paperwork as a complaint,” she said. “If someone comes forward, they should be prepared to accept the complaint. We can’t ignore that. I think community members at large have a right and an obligation to lodge a complaint.”

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