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Again, Hart district parents deserve answers

Posted: October 4, 2008 9:05 p.m.
Updated: December 6, 2008 5:00 a.m.
 

What are your expectations when you send your teenagers to school?

You probably expect them to be safe.

You probably expect them to find opportunities for social interaction with their peers.

You probably even expect them to learn something, especially in Santa Clarita where excellent teachers, a fine-tuned curriculum, and above-average household incomes and literacy rates combine to place the William S. Hart Union High School District at the top of state rankings year after year — and this year, first among all California school districts with more than 10,000 students.

With banners all over the town, it looks as if the Hart district has taken a cue from the city of Santa Clarita, which made sure everyone knew we were the safest city in California with 150,000-plus residents.

Good schools and safe streets: A real-estate agent’s dream. Nirvana, move over. Santa Clarita rocks.
So full of ourselves, the reaction was predictable when a handful of Valencia High School students sued the Hart district three years ago, accusing school officials of failing to act when fellow students taunted them and called them names – hateful names, including the “N” word.

Denials from the school district. Disbelief and hostility from the community — hostility toward the accusers, not the accused. To think students could be exposed to bigotry in this day and age was absurd. It doesn’t happen in Santa Clarita.

Within weeks, cooler heads prevailed. Wearied by the school district’s inadequate response to the allegations, Supervisor Mike Antonovich organized a panel of civil rights leaders and law enforcement officials to listen to the community and help set the school board on the right path.

No longer would the validity of allegations be decided by a single teacher or on-site administrator. Now they’d be recorded and investigated. Now there would be new discipline codes. And now, coincidentally — or perhaps not so coincidentally — there would be a new school superintendent.

The race issue was costly to the school district, both in prestige and money. It made national news; each of the five student accusers walked away with $50,000 while their lawyers took $400,000.

Today the Hart district faces a legal claim that is no less disturbing. It accuses the district of allowing Golden Valley High School’s head counselor to rob a then-14-year-old boy of the last moments of his adolescence.

We needn’t explain the legalities, or the fact that sex between a youth and an adult in a position of authority violates a trust. What draws our attention is the similarity between the school district’s reaction to these allegations and its initial reaction to the allegations of racism.

According to the boy’s mother, the female counselor was involved with her son as early as January 2007. Mom told The Signal she contacted a social worker, law enforcement and school officials, but nobody believed her because her son denied the affair.

The following semester, the boy was assigned to the same counselor.

Two problems. One, why would school officials believe the boy instead of his mother? Two, even if the mother was wrong, why wouldn’t the district transfer the boy to a different school so everyone could make a clean start?

A year later, the counselor was arrested while attempting to check into a San Fernando Valley motel with a student — a different student.

Armed with this knowledge, what did the school board do to make amends with the 14-year-old? It rejected his claim for redress. His mom is now headed for court.

If this were an isolated incident, the bureaucratic bungling might be dismissible. It isn’t. The same day the counselor was whisked away, a volunteer football coach at Canyon High was arrested on 12 felony counts of assaulting a female student at the school in Van Nuys where he worked.

On Wednesday the Hart school board considered — but did not vote to approve — a new policy that would authorize the school superintendent to “develop and implement a plan for recruiting, screening and placing volunteers” and to check them against the list of registered sex offenders.

It doesn’t end there. Three teachers, one each at Canyon, West Ranch and La Mesa Junior High, were placed on administrative leave this year pending police investigations into inappropriate contact with students.

If five cases sound like a lot at one time, we’d have to agree.

Nobody is suggesting that these allegations of misconduct are indicative of what’s going on in the minds and hearts of 99.9 percent of our teachers — no more so than the notion that our teachers would condone racism. The trouble is the reaction from school district headquarters.

Dead silence.

Sure, the district places teachers on paid administrative leave once it learns the police are investigating.

What does it do when there is no police investigation, or when the child denies the misconduct, as in the case of the 14-year-old? Is the validity of the accusation determined by an on-site administrator and forgotten, as were the allegations of racism?

Parents deserve answers. They deserve to know how the district deals with allegations of sexual misconduct before an arrest is made.

They deserve to know their kids are safe, that they’re developing socially at their peer level, and that they’re learning the sorts of things they should be learning in school.

The school board must not hide behind the veil of “pending litigation” the way it initially did with racism.

We’re looking for leadership. The school board can’t pass the buck to Mike Antonovich every time.

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