Analysis: District Complaint Process Lacks Oversight and Transparency

Board listens to public comment prior to appeal hearing on Thursday night
Board listens to public comment prior to appeal hearing on Thursday night

Late last week, the Davis Joint Unified School District finally released four years of data on internal and external investigations.  The data shed a limited amount of light on the process, but the entire process is fraught with problems.

We got a partial answer to some of our questions about external investigations.  The district wrote, “When the district office receives a complaint concerning an employee, either the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources and/or the Director of Student Services reviews the complaint. These administrators determine whether to investigate the matter internally or externally.”

We also now know that this determination is based on several criteria, including: the level of the complaint’s complexity; the availability and expertise of staff to conduct a timely and thorough investigation; the potential impact(s) on the employee and/or complainant; and potential litigation.

While we never got a clear answer from the district as to who decides who should investigate the complaint, from the public records request it appears that Eva Peek Fichtner’s firm has handled such matters over the last four years.

We also never got a clear answer in terms of whether there was a fail-safe in terms of the amount of time and money an investigation would cost, though it is believed that there is a level that would trigger review by superintendent.

Finally, we know from Board President Gina Daleiden that “the Board never sees most investigations.”  She added, “We get involved when they reach us for appeal.”

In a public statement from February 20, Ms. Daleiden explained, “We would like to be clear about the Board’s role in this matter and the appeal process. The Board is not involved in a complaint, nor investigation of a complaint, unless an appeal is requested.”

But all of this leads to more questions than answers.

We learned, for example, that when former Volleyball Coach Leigh Whitmire Choate filed a complaint that her daughter was being bullied and harassed by Nancy Peterson, the district spent 48.55 hours with a total expenditure of $10,679.

Ms. Choate told the Vanguard that Alexander Sperry had spoken to both her and her daughter at the same time for less than an hour and had failed to speak with any of the other witnesses that she provided.

Based on that, the number of hours reported by the district baffled Ms. Choate, who told the Vanguard, “I am slightly confused as to what could have led to so many hours and such a high charge for my investigation when Alex Sperry spent around one hour total with me and my daughter and to my knowledge he did not speak to any of the people whose names I gave him.”

She clarified, “The investigation had nothing to do with coaching and had everything to do with how Nancy (Peterson) was behaving toward my teenage daughter (in my opinion bullying, harassing, intimidating).”

“As I had witnessed and others had too I finally decided to speak up for my daughter and the others she was treating this way in hopes that someone at the district level would ask her to stop,” Ms. Choate continued.  “Sadly, that was not the case. I did however address how Nancy (Peterson) was treating Julie (Crawford), specifically, and that was disregarded by Mr. Sperry.”

This suggests that the district in the last four school years has spent more than a quarter million dollars on 11 investigations with almost no school board oversight over the expenditures, the hours billed, or even the outcomes.

The public has no way to question or scrutinize these reports which took a month to produce but, based on personnel laws, student privacy laws and attorney-client privilege, the public has no way to hold the district directly accountable.

As we noted on Sunday, the fact that “potential litigation” is one of the criteria for determining external investigation, the fact that the district is using the same law firm as their attorney, Eva Peek Fichtner, suggests that these external investigations are based less on the desire to seek the truth and more about litigation mitigation.

Finally, there is the due process concern.  The Julie Crawford investigation triggered a 100 hour, $22,000 investigation as of February 18.

As we know, because the Petersons leaked the summary from Matt Best to the Davis Enterprise, the findings came back, ”more likely than not, Coach Crawford’s decision to cut [Vanguard redaction] Peterson from the varsity volleyball team was influenced, at least in part, by Coach Crawford’s feelings about Nancy Peterson” but also added “at the same time (the investigator) does not find that coach Crawford acted with ‘willful mal-intent’ to harm (the Petersons’ daughter). … Rather, through no fault of her own, (the daughter) simply became a casualty of the ongoing ‘volleyball drama’ involving coach Crawford and Nancy Peterson.”

At the same time, we know that Julie Crawford never had access to the full report from investigator Alexander Sperry.  She went into the appeal hearing having never read the charges or findings against her.

As Board President Gina Daleiden explained on February 20 with an announcement out of closed session, “In an appeal, the Board acts in a quasi-judicial manner and must remain impartial.”

But the quasi-judicial process that Ms. Daleiden describes strangely does not include the right of the accused, in this case Julie Crawford, to see the charges against her so that she might mount a defense.

This demonstrates the lack of overall transparency in the process.  The school district, from the standpoint of fairness, transparency and accountability, needs to change the way this process works.

While matters of this nature are necessarily withheld from the public realm, the school board acts on the public’s behalf and in the most real way, through the electoral process, is held accountable by the public.

This is again is another reason why the board appointing Nancy Peterson’s replacement becomes problematic.  We again urge the board to appoint someone to fill the vacancy who agrees not to seek reelection.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Tia Will

    “This is again is another reason why the board appointing Nancy Peterson’s replacement becomes problematic. We again urge the board to appoint someone to fill the vacancy who agrees to not seek reelection.”

    I fail to see how this addresses the core issue at all. It seems to me that what matters is the ability of the individual whether selected or elected to make objective, fair decisions based on sound judgement. Just because you do not “trust” the current board to make a good decision, does not mean that this could not occur and that the person selected might indeed be the best candidate. I don’t see how any arbitrary limitation helps in this situation.

  2. Mr. Toad

    Did the school board know about the first investigation? Did they ever see the first report. This is important because the claim that the board knows nothing until it reaches them fails to account for the bizarre history of Nancy Peterson’s behavior around the volleyball scene. If they knew about the first report they had context when Peterson went off from the dais on Crawford and failed to act to stop her.

  3. Ryan Kelly

    I wonder if the District can get a full accounting of how the hours were specifically used during these investigations – a log of who was interviewed and how long and a brief description of what was discussed – 48 hours is a lot of time, especially when the person making the complaint was interviewed for less than an hour and no witnesses were interviewed. How long was Nancy Peterson interviewed? Or was the bulk of the time used in writing the report or doing legal analysis?

    I agree that we need to find an alternative to the current system – a new process or, minimally, a new contractor to do these external investigations.

  4. Mr. Toad

    I agree Ryan. Its a lot of money being taken away from education. It turns out that perhaps something good can come out of Rob Peterson leaking the report. Perhaps some financial controls will be put in place. I wonder what other high priced white collars have their hand in the educational cookie jar that could be cut or done more cheaply.

      1. Mr. Toad

        It comes from the budget. Its a line item reserved for legal costs. If it isn’t tapped it is carried over. If it isn’t used its money that doesn’t come out of discretionary accounts leaving more money for other purposes. Ultimately it comes from the taxpayers.

  5. TrueBlueDevil

    As expected, simple facts lead troubling questions.

    Former coach and teacher Ms. Leigh Whitmire Choate previously stepped out of the shadows and provided us with details and facts that have been corroborated – and ring true to most readers. She also expressed her viewpoint, weeks back, that her complaint was swept under the rug.

    Given that her complaint received half the time of the Nancy Peterson complaint, it raised a concern. Now that Ms. Choate has estimated that the time the “investigator” spent with her and her daughter was under an hour – what does that make it, 2% of the investigation / report time?

    Even worse – if true – is that Ms. Choate shares that the witness names that she provided, which corroborated her complaint, were never interviewed!

    This means that HALF the investigation took 2% of the time allotment? Flabbergasting!!

    I shared these highlights with an experienced civil litigation attorney with 20 years experience who graduated from a top-10 law school. Here was her take.

    1. It doesn’t sound like a very thorough investigation.

    2. File a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to see a breakdown of where the hours were spent. [Lawyers do track time in 6 minute increments.]

  6. TrueBlueDevil

    Given these new revelations, I wonder if Mr. Greenwald has a little time to do his own quick corroboration of what Ms. Choate has communicated? It could be a very quick review.

    Let’s say that Ms. Choate gave the names of Mary, Sue, and Bill to the DJUSD as having witnessed harassing behavior towards a student (her daughter). David (or The Enterprise) could call these three individuals and ask 3 basic questions.

    One, did you witness odd or harassing behavior towards the student in question? Second, did the DJUSD ever contact you? Third, did Attorney Alexander Sperry every contact you? (And if so, did the interview last long, did you feel like all of the pertinent questions were asked?)

    If this investigation was handled in a slipshod manner, what are the contents of that first “report”? Did Mr. Sperry just regurgitate what the DJUSD gave him? Was Mrs. Peterson already providing undue influence over school administrators?

    If this report was conducted in a sloppy manner, has that been the case in other investigations?

    Have we ever learned if the DJUSD broke California labor law by not allowing Coach Crawford to review the complaint, and her personnel file?

    I’d think we would all feel a lot better if an independent public servant reviewed the details and documents.

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