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San Diego Charter Teachers: Bullying Contributed to Death of Colleague

At a San Diego school board meeting on Tuesday, March 11, dramatic testimony from teachers and parents uncovered serious questions about the way their charter school has been run. Harriet Tubman Village Charter School is known for high test scores, but the death of a first year teacher has contributed to a sense of deep concern. Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Grey Panthers, once said: "Dare to stand before those you fear and speak your mind, even if your voice shakes." The testimony at this meeting is riveting. And the discussion that follows is disturbing. 

I transcribed some of the testimony, which begins roughly at the 1:54:00 mark in this video.

Amy Nimps (?), President of Parent Teacher Council, active on student site council, charter renewal committee, parent of daughters in grade 3 and 6.

We have experienced high turnover of teaching staff, particularly in the 6th grade classroom, which affects me directly as I have a daughter (in 6th grade). The most recent turnover was just just two weeks ago, with only 65 days left before the end of the school year. This turnover affects my daughter's ability to realize her true potential. She has lost a role model and a teacher she was very connected with. This turnover is affecting the integrity of the charter, the morale of the staff in general and the effectiveness of the teachers who teach our students. Such pressure and stress cannot be a benefit to the remaining teaching staff, or to their ability to give their best to our students. I attempted to contact our Board of Governance to express my concerns, and I was met with resistance, lack of concern, and unapologetic apathy.

I am of the opinion that our Board of Governance has lost its ability to be objective and to act in the best interests of our school. The teaching staff at Harriet Tubman is our greatest resource and they must be supported and encouraged to thrive without fear of retribution. When we first came to Harriet Tubman we were an extended family of students, teachers, parents, community members whose priority was strong instructional programs, a safe and caring environment, and a continual push for academic excellence. Somewhere this year that was lost. Upon approval of our charter I am requesting an immediate investigation of the concerns brought forth so we can again be the village that it takes to raise and educate our children.

Whitney Carpenter, 7th grade teacher:

I represent the teachers at Harriet Tubman Village Charter. On behalf of all the teachers at Tubman, we love our students and our school. We want nothing more than for Tubman to be the best learning environment possible for students and educators. We are here today to ask the Board to approve the renewal of  Tubman's charter, but with the added condition of completing an investigation into what we believe are serious violations of the Education Code, the Brown Act, and the school's charter.tubman.jpg

We apologize that we have not spoken earlier, as we are a staff that exists in fear of bullying, retaliation and losing our jobs.

We have concerns regarding the protection of our students, the success of our school and the integrity of the charter. Our charter requires us to follow the credentialing requirements of the Education Code. Several teachers this year and last year taught without proper credentials in the subjects they were teaching. In fact, this is the case for two teachers at the moment. One teacher, when initially stating she was not qualified to teach a subject, and felt uncomfortable teaching the subject, was told she could do it, she was capable, and to do it "until we get caught, and then we have a year to fix it." We also have questions regarding whether one of our administrators actually holds an admin credential, as there is no record of it with the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

Our administrator has violated the Brown Act by coercing several of my colleagues and me to not attend public governance board meetings. Board meetings, such as this month's, have been canceled by administration without notice or approval by the governance board.

Our charter has been violated as our administration has prevented Board members from monitoring and approving the compensation of staff, by both hiring and firing staff without proper board approval. When learning of a recent teacher's firing, a Board member actually had thought the teacher had quit, and was surprised to learn she had actually been fired. We urge you to please approve our charter but under the condition of a full investigation into these claims and more.

Clarisa Mondejar, 8th grade teacher.

In reviewing our charter we noticed a major change from the 2009 version to the current version. In 2009, a clause stating that the principal must hold the trait of compassion was included. This clause is no longer included, and I wish I could say why. But as far as we know, no teacher was involved in creating the charter. We wonder if the removal was in response to the 2011 continuing remedy period that was placed on our charter for a large number of violations. Three specific clauses were directly tied to the mistreatment of staff and teachers, but this bullying has not stopped since 2011.

I want to tell you the story of Sarah Jenkins. Sarah was a young, bright, dedicated, caring first year teacher at Tubman. When administration had concerns about Sarah's abilities and performance they did not provide support for her or guidance. Instead they piled more and more work on, called her names, and criticized her at every single turn. On October 24th, Sarah wrote an email to the administration informing them that she had a medical condition that made it difficult to meet their excessive demands. She ended the email by begging for positive support, writing "being kind, helpful and specific helps me better myself. But calling me incompetent is not helpful but rude and unprofessional." The next day, Sarah was terminated, which I believe is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Sarah passed away three weeks ago from complications of stress-related seizures. When administrators found out we did not receive support or compassion. Instead we were told to not share this information with students, not with parents, that Sarah was only at our school for two months, and at the end of the day she didn't make an impact.

In 2011, our administrator had to prove that formalized systems were in place for teachers to complain about retaliation and bullying. Also a formalized system needed to be established where employee complaints could be processed. And lastly, an internalized commitment showing that teachers have an effective process to address concerns with mismanagement needed to be installed. Our union grievance procedures give us the opportunity to address issues that arise from violations of our contract, but do not cover unprofessional and unethical behaviors by administrators outside the framework of the contract. Given the mismanagement of the governance board and the continued unilateral decision-making, no such systems exist. In order to complain about the bully we have to speak to the bully.

In 2011 accusations were strong enough so that a clause was created that stated there needed to be evidence that successful resolution of complaints involving retaliation and general mismanagement were documented. This evidence, including a formalized complaint system, and an effective internalized process addressing these internal mismanagement issues are still missing from our school. I'd like to think that had they been in place, and effective, Sarah would still be here with us. Please, for the sake of all of our teachers, and more importantly, our students, approve Tubman's charter with the condition of investigating these claims and more.

Rachel Varga, 4th grade teacher.

I am one of just three teachers who remain as teachers at Tubman since the last time the charter was up for renewal. The teacher turnover rate has consistently been around 50% since our principal arrived. This year, for example, just eight of our 18 teachers were here at the end of last school year. Some of our 6th grade students have experienced four separate teachers this year. This is obviously a detriment to our students given the number of lost instructional days, and a lack of consistency for the kids. In total, we have lost nine teachers out of 18 positions since last June, and we still have three months to go in the school year. The ability to hire and retain high quality teachers is a core function at a charter school, and unfortunately, for many reasons, it has been lacking at Tubman.

After the teachers spoke, several parents addressed the board as well, including two who voiced support for the principal. The principal spoke defiantly, reciting their test scores and attendance statistics. "I cannot apologize for putting children first because that is what I signed up to do. Today is not for talk about one confidential personnel matter involving a Teach For America teacher. This is not the time or place for it." [Note: Chris Bertelli, TFA's Communications Director for California, stated via Twitter this afternoon: "just wanted to clarify that Sarah Jenkins was not a TFA teacher." (Mar. 14, 2014)]

Janelle Ruley, the attorney representing the charter school, took the mic and stated, "As a reminder, the District must consider, must consider, increases in pupil academic achievement as the most important factor for renewal."

The response from the school board begins at about 2:20 on the video. Board members have been told they have very limited options. After some heated discussion, they vote to approve the charter's renewal, with some assurance from staff that a serious investigation has been initiated.

The teachers at this charter school are represented by the San Diego Education Association. The local president, Bill Freeman, also addressed the school board and encouraged them to investigate. In spite of their concerns, the teachers and parents were united in asking the board to renew the charter. But the level and persistence of these issues raises questions about whether there is any effective oversight in place.

What do you think about this situation? How can teachers, parents and students best respond when they feel their administration is not treating them in a humane manner? 

Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.

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