School board members disagree over complaint process

La Cañada Unified officials this week tabled a vote on possible changes to the district's formal complaint process after reaching a stalemate over the acceptability of third-party complaints.

After a nearly hour-long discussion during the regularly scheduled board meeting Tuesday night, school board members were split 2-2 on the issue. They opted to delay a decision until absent member Joel Peterson could be present.

The review of the district policy and administrative regulations regarding complaints against employees was born out of a community furor that erupted last year after accusations against a La Cañada High School math teacher became public. The formal complaint in that case was filed by a third party.

A draft of the proposed school board policy presented during a regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday states that the district will not “entertain complaints which surface allegations against employees where the complainant has neither directly witnessed the events related to the complaint” or is not the parent or guardian of a student witness.

The draft goes on to state that if a complaint from any source surfaces that affects a class and that can be “independently corroborated” will be investigated by the principal.

Board member Susan Boyd said that she doesn't condone the behavior alleged in the controversial complaint filed last year, but added that she can't support taking away an individual's right to due process.

“Our legal system does not allow anyone to be prosecuted based on hearsay, and I don't think we should,” Boyd said.

Allowing third-party complaints can give rise to situations in which a student's name is used without the family's knowledge or consent, something that occurred with the 2011 complaint, Boyd added.

“I don't believe that someone only having secondhand knowledge should be able to file a formal complaint against a staff member,” Boyd said.

Board member Andrew Blumenfeld said he would like to see the development of a formal process by which a third party could file a formal complaint.

“But because that doesn't exist yet, I think we have to preserve their right to use this complaint process because I don't think it is efficient just to acknowledge that they have the ability always to air whatever grievances they may have to anybody in the district,” Blumenfeld said.

The virtue of the formal complaint process entitles an individual to a response, Blumenfeld said, something not guaranteed otherwise. Further, allowing third parties to file complaints, and effectively responding to them, could help deter a complainant from making their issue public through the local media or otherwise, he said.

Parent Lauren Oakes told board members that they have made progress in the wake of the 2011 complaint, and that eliminating third-party complaints would be a major mistake.

“This is exactly the wrong thing to do at exactly the wrong time because it will be seen as circling away … and you don't want to send that message,” Oakes said. “You guys have done the right thing. Move forward.”

The proposed policy changes likely will return to the board at its March 27 meeting.

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