Teachers Too Want to Be Absent of Fear

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teacherby Blair Howard, Frank Thomsen, Cathy Haskell, Gail Mitchell, Tim Paulson, Ruthie Bowers and Connie Alexich

The Davis Teachers Association finds Nancy Peterson’s resignation statement quite interesting. According to The Enterprise report, Peterson said, “Over the years, countless families have expressed fear about the perils of challenging staff when wrongdoing is perceived. Most do not speak up and I can understand their choices to remain silent …. My sincere hope is that one day, this district can create and sustain a culture of advocacy and responsibility absent of fear.”

DTA unequivocally agrees that retaliation for a complaint should never be tolerated. That has always been the district policy and, as teaching professionals, we expect nothing less from ourselves and from our colleagues. However, DJUSD teachers and other certificated staff, and probably classified and administrative staff, can affirm clearly that Peterson’s words do not match our experience, at least not in the way she seemed to have intended them.

We have represented many members who have had both formal and informal complaints brought against them, far too often for light and trivial reasons. There are certainly other times when our members have had complaints filed against them and did not seek our representation — the community is not reluctant to make their wishes known nor to seek redress for their grievances.

These are not charges of illegal activity, physical harm to children, or any other serious matter — which are quite rare and must and should be fully investigated. The complaints we see often involve grades, make-up work, disciplinary actions or other decisions made in the course of duty.

While we are not at liberty to discuss specifics of any particular case, we can say that teachers and other members have had to undergo investigations and interrogations for actions that were taken while they were following school or district policies, and even Education Code.

When a member receives notice that a complaint has been filed, there is a perception among employees that some misstep will be sought and found so that a part of the complaint can be upheld and the parents or other complainants appeased. And even when the employee is fully exonerated, it is only after weeks of stress, worry and wondering.

The school district has even investigated anonymous and third-party complaints, interviewing employees who were tangentially involved in the matter being investigated — though they had no known party to whom they could make a response. In short, members by and large do not feel supported by district administration; we do not believe that anyone has our backs.

The Peterson case shows only one part of the problem. The district is obligated to investigate complaints, but it is not obligated to spend more than $22,000 of district (taxpayer) money, not to mention countless hours of employee time, to come up with a report that was then, apparently, left idle for months.

The district has the discretion to decide the extent and focus of its investigations, and it should consider not only the financial costs of its decisions, but also the personal and professional toll taken on educators when they are investigated.

Perhaps we do need to “create and sustain a culture of advocacy and responsibility absent of fear.” But we need this for the employees and all members of our community, and until the district changes its investigative policies and principles, we will not have one.

The authors the are members of the Davis Teachers Association Executive Board

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7 thoughts on “Teachers Too Want to Be Absent of Fear”

  1. PhilColeman

    “The district is obligated to investigate complaints, . . .”

    By my count, this statement or something identical has been publicly declared four times. One more time and it becomes the 11th Commandment by repetition alone. The statement is FALSE.

    The legally binding correct phrase is that a public agency is required to ACCEPT complaints, a huge distinction. I could give probably a half-dozen examples where a public agency would not investigate a received complaint.

    1. Tia Will

      “The district has the discretion to decide the extent and focus of its investigations,”

      A question about this from someone who has never held elected office. Within what constraints does the district
      have “the discretion to decide the extent and focus of its investigations” ?

      Phil, maybe you could shed some light on this for me ?

  2. Frankly

    So, I am the chief executive manager and also the HR director (small company). I have a board that I report to. My board would NEVER be involved in any personnel matters unless those matters included me.

    Boards – especially elected boards – are a terrible choice for handling administrative matters like personnel complaints. Good governance practice requires a separation between the administrative and operational decision-making and actions, and strategic oversight. When you intermingle those responsibilities, trouble general happens.

    But, with respect to employee complaints, best practice is to treat almost all of them as important and do some investigation and report. But also have a robust hiring process to help minimize the risk that you end up with an employee with a propensity to issue complaints.

  3. TrueBlueDevil

    It would be interesting to see how DJUSD compares to other wealthy areas as far as legitimate complaints vs trivial complaints (grades, makeup work, cutting a team member). Does this happen in Palo Alto and Saratoga?

  4. fyi.davis

    Phil Coleman–
    First, there are other than legal obligations. Second, the trustees have board policy stating that complaints will be investigated (Board Policy and Administrative Regulations 1312.1). And as to the scope of the investigation, the district decides whom they will interview, in what depth, with what questions, at what cost, etc. They control their investigative practices.

  5. Robin W

    I would still like to know how much time and money were spent investigating the former coach’s complaint against Nancy Peterson. That should give us some idea as to whether the district always over-investigates complaints or only uses its discretion to do so when the complaining party is in a power position. It is not possible to write regulations that will ensure that discretion is used wisely. You need to have intelligent people exercising that discretion and a clear message from the Board to those people as to expectations.

    1. TrueBlueDevil

      Supposedly this will come down as part of a larger document dump on complaints, investigations, etc.

      I find it convenient that they couldn’t give us the simple details on this complaint earlier: cost and length, that’s pretty simple.

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