Editorial: Hard school lessons

Paly sexual harassment case raises host of issues, concerns

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.

Read related stories:

Ex-Paly principal disciplined for harassment

Student streaking: Alarm over mixed messages

Feds investigating Paly response to sexual harassment

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Posted by iSez
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 11, 2014 at 6:01 pm

iSez is a registered user.

This is such a shame because Principal Winston was an excellent principal from our perspective as parents and students. His genuine concern for the students was evident in his attention to emails and timely follow-up emails. He was visible and approachable on campus. I'm so sorry to read he couldn't stay PC.

Not only is there media on this, Skelly emailed a letter to all parents, and policemen and Principal Diorio spoke in classrooms today about appropriate behavior. PAUSD is dragging Winston through the mud as if seeking revenge. Is there a lawsuit coming down the pipeline? I have to wonder why Skelly would bring this up now, when he has resigned already and everything has moved on.

Teacher's fear of retaliation? There are many parents and students who fear grade retaliation from teachers if they complain about some of the bad teachers. Many parents don't return the teacher feedback forms due to fear of retaliation. There are many teachers who are adversely affecting their students' quality of life due to unreasonable expectations. Principal Diorio should have counselors distribute and collect anonymous teacher feedback forms from students. Yes, there are also fabulous teachers at Paly and they should be commended. Principal Diorio, check to find the real scoop on your teachers if you really care about your students.

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Posted by Edmund Burke
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 11, 2014 at 7:00 pm

Edmund Burke is a registered user.

While the reporting on this subject was outstanding and truly marvelous (particularly the tenacity behind the reporting) his editorial lacks moral clarity.

The Weekly claims that "Lesson Number One" is: In California, the law makes it so expensive and onerous to terminate a credentialed teacher that most districts decide not to even try.


Lesson Number One is that PAUSD failed when it placed Phil Winston, who the district's own investigation had substantiated and serious allegations of sexual harassment about, back into the classroom. And not just any classroom, a special education classroom, with our most vulnerable children.

Lesson Number One is that PAUSD should have placed Winston in a position not in contact with students and attempted to dismiss him, as do other districts when they have teachers who have committed serious offenses. It is absolutely appalling that PAUSD did not do this, and appalling that the Weekly thinks that lesson number one is some kind of lesson about California law reform.

Lesson Number One is our school board sat by mutely while Kevin Skelly actively misled the public about Winston. Lesson Number One is that we need a board and superintendent that put students first. [Portion removed.] Rather than insisting that we try to dismiss this teacher, even if it was expensive, even if it took a long time, because it was the right thing to do, they allowed the public to be told that Winston was "good with kids."

Lesson Number One is that a school board that would do that has no moral compass. They are at sea, and land is no longer in sight at all.

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Posted by Perspectives
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 13, 2014 at 2:26 pm

Perspectives is a registered user.

I'm not criticizing the article- I appreciate the effort to boldly state opinions- but "How nice it would be to see, as one outcome of this case, our district, including its teachers, advocating for reform of this system.".... that's depressing. No one should just accept that the District might have failed to do the right thing in this situation and just hope for future betterment through a crusade.

Oh, yes, absolutely it's a shame the system in this state makes it so hard and expensive to "do the right thing". Let's hear it for protecting rights to the point of social stagnation! But no, I shouldn't have to stage a demonstration and beat down doors to get our school district to have placed Mr. Winston in a job that no longer interacts in a position of authority in the classroom.

If it really is that burdensome and expensive to remove him entirely (or perhaps removing him entirely wasn't even necessary), then for Pete's sake give him a good job doing something purely administrative and let that be the end of it. But District, stay responsible to your children, not worried about your checkbook!

If there is an issue, just reassigning and putting the problem on someone else's children to avoid blow-back (financial or otherwise) sounds like an institutional problem that is setting off down a dangerous path.

In this case, the school district has merely demoted him and put the offender in a different school building with the special education students. No way I'm writing off our District as a victim of the "system". It certainly appears they had a choice to have done differently.

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