Op-Ed: The school district and shooting the messenger

When I filed the public complaint against La Cañada High School math teacher Gabrielle Leko, I was concerned about student safety — not physical safety, but social/emotional safety. Most of the allegations have been validated. The school board is now debating future third-party public complaints like mine. This proposed change looks like an attempt to shoot future messengers.

Here's a summary of the relevant proposed changes to Board Policy 1312.1:

Any first-hand witness is encouraged to file a public complaint.

If a student is a first-hand witness, the parent of the student is encouraged to file.

No public complaints will be accepted from anyone else.

Anyone is invited to communicate with staff, which is an informal complaint.

The purpose of the formal public complaint is to start an investigation on a timeline and receive meaningful feedback from the district. The LCUSD has no systematic accountability on informal complaints.

What are the implications of this proposed change?

If a community member is not satisfied with district follow-up (the informal process doesn't require a response), then the community member might go to the press to locate a first-hand witness to carry the complaint. That happened when I couldn't get a first-hand witness to go on record due to fear of retribution by an erratic teacher. The district would not start an investigation and I finally went to the press. This new language isn't preventing people from going to the press. If anything, since there will be no formal complaint process for third parties, the message is, go the press sooner. This new language doesn't eliminate possible publicity.

One comment is that third-party complaints may name students who don't want to participate in the investigation. If I'd had a student in a Leko class, we would have named every classmate as a witness. Both first- and third-party complaints may attempt to have all witnesses interviewed. It's not valid to reject third-party complaints to alleviate the discomfort of potential witnesses.

Another concern is that the legal system won't act on hearsay and our district shouldn't either. I don't claim to understand the ramifications, but some law enforcement organizations have anonymous tip lines. No one is condemned based on an anonymous tip, but it may start an investigation. A third-party public complaint is not anonymous, but it is similar — it's a formal, signed request asking the district to start an investigation.

The Federal Uniform Complaint process allows third-party complaints. By eliminating them, the board is rejecting this important norm.

What are the take-away messages if the proposed language is adopted?

Less than half of La Cañada property owners have children in the public schools. The message to the rest of us, the joint owners of the public schools, is unless you are a first-hand witness, don't bother the district with formal complaints. Send in your tax payments, sit down and, well, you know, stay quiet.

Equally important, this is a significant give-away to the teachers union. The board has concerns about contract language that places seniority rights over district control of teacher assignments. The board also needs a hard cap on benefits (replacing the current soft cap). Apparently, the board doesn't think it's worth negotiating for much-needed concessions in return for disenfranchising the community on the public complaint process. This pending give-away borders on a breach of public trust.

If someone goes to the trouble to submit a signed, formal complaint, it deserves an investigation. We owe it to our kids. Their safety depends on us all.

CINDY WILCOX retired from the La Cañada school board in December, and as a private individual, filed the third-party complaint against Gabrielle Leko in June 2011.

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