ANOTHER PARENT TRIGGER TWIST: Parents file federal complaint alleging teachers harassing kids

Activists fighting to turn McKinley Elementary into a charter school say teachers are intimidating their children in retaliation for their parents’ push for school reform

COMPTON—The plot has thickened yet again in the hotly contested Parent Trigger school reform debate rooted in the Hub City, with activists who support severing an elementary school’s ties to the local school district alleging that school employees are using intimidation tactics on their children.

Both The Associated Press by way of The Sacramento Bee and KABC Channel 7 News reported yesterday that two parents have filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights alleging that teachers are harassing and attempting to intimidate their children because the parents are active in efforts to turn McKinley Elementary School into a charter school.

Marlene Romero and Hebert Hidalgo filed the intimidation charges last Friday. They are among a group of parents who last year began organizing under the guidance of an area education reform group, Parent Revolution, to turn McKinley into a charter school using the new Parent Trigger law.

The Parent Trigger legislation is a recent byproduct of last year’s Race to the Top federal schools funding competition. It was added to spice up the state’s bland R2T application, though California still failed to secure any funding.

The law grants parents whose children attend some of California’s lowest performing schools decision-making power in turning those schools around. If parents at a school can obtain signatures from a majority of parents whose kids attend that particular school or its feeder schools, the school district operating the school site must heed to the decision of parents, in this case releasing the school into the control of a charter operator.

Going charter is one of four options parents have when using Parent Trigger.

A total of 62 percent of McKinley parents signed the petition, which aims to transfer control of the school beginning next fall to Celerity Educational Group, an L.A-area charter school operator.

If the Parent Trigger effort is carried out successfully, McKinley’s current teachers would lose their jobs.

While the parents’ claims of teachers harassing their children have thus far only been partially substantiated, it is reasonably conceivable that teachers distraught over the prospect of becoming unemployed might be resulting to such behavior.

In her complaint, Romero states that her third-grade son’s teacher has convinced him that charter schools are “a bad thing.” She writes:

“A CNN reporter came to my house in November 2010 to talk about the charter school. My son, Ivan Hernandez, heard us talking about charter schools and said we shouldn’t support them. After the reporter left, Ivan told me on the way to school that he hated me because I was changing his school to a charter which would be a bad thing according to Ivan’s teacher, Mr. Victor Tellez.

“In December 2010, Mr. Tellez asked to speak with me when I was at Ivan’s school. In his classroom, Mr. Tellez told me that he’d worked in two charter schools and did not like them. He said the head of one charter school spent $600 of school funds to buy shoes. On YouTube, Mr. Tellez said I would ‘regret having supported Celerity when your child is rejected by them.’”

Romero, who is among the parents interviewed in the YouTube video below (she’s wearing a CSULB hooded sweatshirt), said she had previously filed a formal complaint with Compton Unified School District, but the district had as of yesterday failed to respond.

Hidalgo’s son has allegedly been similarly treated. His father writes in his complaint:

“My son, Angel Sanchez, got to his classroom late one day in December 2010 because he was in the bathroom. His teacher, Dr. Miranda Pesa, sent him to the office. The office sent him back to class. Dr. Pesa then said to Angel that his parents are there complaining about education but can’t get him to class on time. She said to Angel that his parents have a big mouth and that they’re crazy. Since then my son has said he no longer wants to be in her classroom.”

Both teachers reportedly failed to return phone calls from the AP for comment.

Now that complaints have been filed at the federal level, CUSD appears to be taking action.

In a prepared statement, acting Superintendent Karen Frison said any harassment complaints would be fully investigated and, where warranted, appropriate action would be taken by the district’s Human Resources Department.

“We have zero tolerance for harassment,” Frison said in the statement. “We take all allegations of harassment seriously, particularly if those allegations involve a staff person or teacher employed by our district. We have district policies with respect to harassment, and we enforce those policies.”

Frison said the district has yet to be contacted by any outside agency that might be investigating the allegations.

The AP reported that DOE spokesman Jim Bradshaw said that the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights is evaluating the complaints to determine the exact nature of the allegations and if they’re appropriate for the office to investigate.

McKinley parents who are remaining steadfast in their determination to turn McKinley into a charter school have complained of harassment and intimidation by school employees since they first went public with their plans to execute Parent Trigger reforms.

It wasn’t long after the parent activists held a press conference late last year to produce the petition and announce that they would be the first to take advantage of the new legislation that the L.A. Times reported that some parents who had signed on began to back-peddle.

Opponents of the push to transform McKinley into a charter began to shout from the rooftops that some 100 parents who had previously supported the effort had asked for their names to be removed from the petition. The opponents have not, however, been able to back up such a claim with any proof. Regardless, the L.A. Times ran with the story.

Parent organizers said they re-contacted all 261 parents who signed the petition and only 12 said they wanted their names removed, some of whom have since re-signed. An additional nine new parents have come forward and signed, as well.

It was also these opponents, who include PTA President Cynthia Martinez, parent Pastor Lee Finnie and parent Karla Garcia, who, after parent organizers complained of being harassed, claimed that parents had been conned and coerced into signing the petition, which they said parents were led to believe was related to campus beautification efforts, and that Parent Revolution representatives lied to parents.

The L.A. Weekly, which had “unfettered access” to the signature-gathering activities of parent organizers and Parent Revolution, reported that the publication witnessed no incidence of parents being lied to, misled or coerced in any way, suggesting that the opponents’ allegations are baseless and unfounded.

Officials including former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa publicly denounced any attempts by anyone with ties to the school district or employed at the school to harass or intimidate parents into striking their names from the petition.

Another L.A. Times story soon created even more confusion when it reported on the state Board of Education’s investigation into allegations that school officials were harassing parent organizers in a manner that suggested the probe is actually into alleged wrongdoing by Parent Revolution.

This is not the case, said Board of Education President Ted Mitchell, who told the L.A. Weekly that “the Times got it backwards.”

An AP story based on the incorrect Times story further spread misinformation about the probe nationwide, stating falsely that the investigation was into petition-drive misconduct.

In the snarled aftermath that ensued, Schwarzenegger while he was still governor requested that the state Attorney General’s Office conduct a probe into parents’ claims of intimidation at the hands of school district personnel.

Ben Austin, president of Parent Revolution, said the harassment actually started when parents first began organizing.

“Instead of standing with the parents in their troubled school district, they are responding with harassment, intimidation and lies,” Austin told the AP. “It’s disappointing but not surprising. Defenders of the status quo are not used to being challenged.”

Austin told the AP that parents have been peppered with lies and intimidating misinformation by Parent Trigger opponents, including that special education students would not be allowed at a charter school, immigrant parents would be deported and parents would be charged tuition.

A vast majority of students who attend McKinley are Latino.

In one of several comments he posted on YouTube (his appear on the second page of comments) in reference to the above video, Tellez states that Celerity will discriminate against and reject special education students. This is simply not true, as the Parent Trigger legislation would require Celerity to enroll all students currently attending McKinley.

This and other pieces of misinformation Tellez has posted online are being documented by Parent Revolution, which has launched a webpage listing the teacher’s various threats and lies directed at parent organizers.

Tellez conveniently deleted one of his comments on the YouTube page, and according to the LA Weekly, that comment included the threat Tellez made to Romero regarding her son being rejected by Celerity. The alternative weekly publication reported that it obtained a computer printout of the YouTube comments page that had been printed prior to Tellez’s deleting his incriminating post.

CUSD has a financial interest in maintaining control of McKinley. Should the district be forced to relinquish the school, it would lose the funding it receives based on students’ average daily attendance for each student who would continue to attend McKinley once it becomes a charter school.

Teachers and Parent Trigger opponents allege that Parent Revolution stands to make a large profit from its work with McKinley parents and its selection of Celerity to serve as the charter operator, though exactly how the nonprofit, which is partially funded by Bill Gates, would turn a profit remains a mystery. These same detractors cite Parent Revolution’s alleged ties to millionaire right-wing politicos as proof and claim that the group is nothing more than a front for corporate charter companies.

While McKinley is among the state’s bottom 10 percent of schools in terms of performance, meaning McKinley students’ test scores rank among the lowest 10 percent in the state, CUSD points to the school’s 77-point gain on the Academic Performance Index over the past two years as proof that something is working at McKinley.

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5 responses to “ANOTHER PARENT TRIGGER TWIST: Parents file federal complaint alleging teachers harassing kids

  1. Jean Eaton, I’m one of the sharpest critics of Parent Revolution, and I’ve paid attention to what’s posted by other critics. No one has said that Parent Revolution stands to make a large profit. We do accuse Parent Revolution, which was founded by charter school operator Green Dot and has ample funding from an array of billionaires and corporate titans (and doesn’t NEED any more money, thanks to those billionaires and corporate titans), of masquerading as a grassroots parent organization and launching an attack on a vulnerable school community. A true grassroots parent movement does not need to send paid operatives all over town, knocking on strangers’ doors in search of parents at the school.

    The Los Angeles Weekly, an “advocacy journalism” newspaper whose coverage has been openly and fervently supportive of Parent Revolution and its attack on McKinley Elementary, live-blogged a Compton school board meeting at which 200 parent protested the move to charterize. The Weekly reported that the Parent Trigger had ignited “civil war” among the parents.

    Needless to say, “civil war” among the parents at their school is not beneficial to children.

    As to whether Celerity will accept limited-English and special-needs kids: charter schools nationwide currently accept far, far fewer limited-English and disabled students than public schools do, so it is a highly valid concern to raise. Reportedly, Celerity has promised not to “counsel out” special-education and limited-English students, as is the normal practice among charter schools nationwide. If it abides by that promise, that will be novel in the charter school world.

    As to the reports of harassment against parents and the press’ confusion about who was accusing whom, that’s inevitable and understandable. It is a given that a campaign to dismantle a school will divide a school community, leading to hostility and probably, yes, intimidation and threats. That would be true whether the campaign were a genuine grassroots effort, unlike the one at McKinley, or a predatory move against a vulnerable school community by powerful outside privatization interests, as is the case at McKinley.

    After the supposedly triumphant delivery of the petitions disintegrated into “civil war” among the McKinley parents (as, again, reported by a supporter of the Parent Trigger), Parent Revolution’s PR firm, the Rose Group of Culver City, flailed wildly in scrambling to do damage control. The initial reports of harassment, eagerly taken up by Ben Austin’s colleagues on the state Board of Ed and by Gov. Schwarzenegger, were part of that damage control effort, as is this latest move of filing charges with the USDOE. Understandably, the press initially got confused about who was accusing whom of harassment.

    This time we shall see, though the notion that the USDOE will take unspecified action against teachers for alleged blurts seems like a pretty mysterious and free-speech-threatening concept — incompetent press reports have failed to ask and to] report exactly how this would work. Will all teachers now have to work under a vow of silence lest Parent Revolution and the USDOE decide to target them too?

    • While we respect your opinions, we’re neither for or against Parent Revolution. Our main concern is the alleged mistreatment of parents and students, which thus far has been at least partially substantiated. Given our deeply rooted knowledge of how business is conducted at Compton Unified, we’re not so sure you should be giving teachers a pass by calling their behavior “blurts” and citing the First Amendment as an excuse. Using children as pawns in an effort to block school reform efforts is not anything we believe to be acceptable at any level, regardless of whether a group you happen to particularly dislike is involved or not, and to suggest that forbidding teachers from displaying such unacceptable behavior would be similar to enacting a vow of silence is, well, mind-boggling.

      We’re not sure why you believe the L.A. Weekly is less credible than two major news sources that got the story wrong, nor do we understand why you believe the Weekly is a Parent Revolution supporter. While it may practice advocacy journalism, it does not advocate for specific causes, but, rather, progressive ideas. We also do not believe it is ever “understandable” that a major newspaper or a major wire service would run stories that more or less get things backwards.

      The 200 parents at the school board meeting were not all McKinley parents.

      You should probably read the Parent Trigger legislation if you are still worried about special needs and ESL students being turned away. The legislation requires the charter school to accept all current McKinley students.

      We’re willing to bet that things are a bit different up in San Francisco, and while your input is appreciated, we’re not sure you are fully aware of how intricate some of the problems being faced by the education system in Compton actually are. Going charter may or may not be the best thing in McKinley’s case, but considering that the school district is likely going to shutter the school and consolidate its student body with another elementary school’s and a middle school’s, perhaps going charter isn’t such a bad idea at all.

      Thank you for your comment, and good luck to you in your cause.

  2. Sorry, got your first name wrong. My apologies.

  3. Pingback: Charter Angel » Blog Archive » ANOTHER PARENT TRIGGER TWIST: Parents file federal complaint …

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