The revelation that former Palo Alto High School Principal Phil Winston engaged in "unprofessional conduct and unsatisfactory performance" in his dealings with both students and colleagues is profoundly sad and disappointing.
Winston, considered a rising star in the district when he was appointed principal in 2010, was generally well-liked by students and parents, and initially, by the staff at Paly as well.
Coming on the heels of Jacqueline McEvoy, who was hired by Superintendent Kevin Skelly to assert more discipline and control over a school that had drifted toward students (and some parents) resisting rules and accountability for their behavior, Winston was supposed to be the young, ambitious administrator that could successfully bridge teacher and student needs and calm the animosity that had developed toward McEvoy's perceived overly hard edge and weak communication skills.
Paly staff did not want another short-lived and controversial administrator leading it, so they rallied around Winston. These sincere efforts to support him, in spite of his inexperience, make his betrayal of trust all the more difficult for staff, students and parents.
It is important to not allow the distasteful details of Winston's demise to distract from the important issues they raise, including the school culture, the adequacy of the district's response and the troublesome teacher discipline environment in California.
As Superintendent Skelly clearly stated and the investigation found, Phil Winston's behavior was totally unacceptable. Over an extended period of time, he engaged in behavior that would have had him fired for sexual harassment in most organizations.
To their credit, district administrators responded immediately when the initial staff complainant came forward, substantiated most of the claims through a brief investigation, and imposed what Skelly says were the most serious consequences possible given the rules and procedures of the California Education Code.
That is hard lesson number one: In California, the law makes it so expensive and onerous to terminate a credentialed teacher that most districts decide not to even try. There are countless examples of school boards, on the advice of their attorneys, opting to reassign problem teachers rather than go through the long and complex termination process.
In this case, the district gave Winston the mandated "45-90"-day notice, but under the law, it is unlikely that he will face further disciplinary action unless he repeats the behavior he has been warned about. How nice it would be to see, as one outcome of this case, our district, including its teachers, advocating for reform of this system.
While the district's own investigation went far enough to establish Winston's wrong-doing, it would have been better advised to have had a more thorough outside independent investigation done and a written report prepared that could then have been publicly released at the time. The secrecy surrounding this case created rumors and speculation, and the district limited its investigation to the personnel issues. The effects on students and the staff, what arguably should be the most important concern, went unaddressed.
Another important lesson is the fear of retaliation that exists among our teaching professionals. It is a serious problem when staff members at our schools do not feel safe coming forward with their concerns about what is happening on their campuses. That was the clear message from the staff members who put their fears aside to reveal what they had experienced, witnessed or heard about on the Paly campus.
If this case has shown anything, it is that there are real cultural consequences to selecting a school leader, and careful attention should be paid to whether a school culture is consistent with district and community values. At Paly, there were lots of troubling signs, yet almost no one chose to risk retaliation and raise concerns to district administrators.
By all signs, Paly's new principal, Kim Diorio, is tackling these issues head-on. She has established clear behavioral expectations, is holding students accountable and has put school climate issues at the top of her agenda. When tested on her first day in August by student streakers, she quickly suspended them and sent a strong message to the entire Paly community that this behavior creates a hostile and unsafe school environment that will not be tolerated. Her January appointment of teacher Eric Bloom as a teacher-on-special-assignment to work on improving the school culture at Paly was another positive move.
Under Diorio's leadership, Paly appears to be engaged in healthy self-reflection on these tough issues. We hope the district recognizes the value in doing the same, and in providing greater supports to the school staffs.
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