The Bully Pulpit

If children have a constitutional guarantee of high-quality teachers, why does the LAUSD allow institutionalized bullying to keep great teachers from the classroom?

The Vergara ruling has presented California schools with an opportunity to rectify a catastrophe. Now it will be my responsibility and privilege to ensure that L. A. Unified students have highly competent and effective teachers in their classrooms. This guarantee must be not to some students, or most students. It must be to every single student every single day.

- John Deasy

The LAUSD’s Policy Bulletin on Workplace Violence, Bullying and Threats (Adult-to-Adult) includes in its definition of bullying “severe...verbal act or conduct...committed by an individual...directed toward one or more adults that has or can be reasonably predicted to [have a] substantial interference with work performance.” Superintendent John Deasy was surely in violation of this policy on the morning of September 8, 2011, when he walked unannounced into a classroom at the Washington Prep High School, quickly decided that the work that had been assigned to the students was an “insult to their potential” and proceeded to engage in “a tirade of statements including that the assignment was ‘a total waste of instructional time.’” He then told the teacher, in front of her students, that she should have been “ashamed to have given them such an assignment.”

Had the Superintendent bothered to speak to Patrena Shankling or conducted any type of investigation he would have learned that she was a substitute teacher and was correctly following the lesson plans provided by the classroom’s teacher. The Superintendent does not have experience teaching in a public school. If instead of being, as the students described him, “nasty...aggressive...rude...mad,” he had sat down for a quiet conversation with the actual teacher away from the students and tried to understand the reasoning behind the assignment, he could have offered constructive input. Instead he banned a person whom one teacher described as “conscientious, committed, competent” from teaching in the district.

Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident within the LAUSD. Dr. Deasy has been described as “intolerant of dissent” and “he admits impatience.”  While he complains “of the difficulty in firing incompetent teachers and his belief in the need to change job-protection laws,” he shows the need for these protections when he keeps hundreds of employees out of the classroom in a program commonly referred to as “teacher’s jail.” This program was originally justified as a way to keep students protected while teachers were investigated for misconduct, but it has lost focus and the district will only say that a “vast majority” are “housed “ for this reason. The public, and often the teachers themselves, are left wondering what some teachers have done that keeps them from the classroom. Is this another form of bullying by the Superintendent?

When the best of our teachers find themselves incarcerated in Deasy’s jail, it is the students who suffer the most. Greg Schiller teaches Advanced Placement (AP) Biology and AP Psychology, coaches the fencing team, volunteered to help with his school’s science fair and was the campus’ union representative. When a school employee questioned whether a project being made by a student for the science fair could be used as a weapon, “administrators summoned Schiller, immediately sent him home and suspended him. He was ordered to report daily, with pay, to an administrative office where teachers under investigation must wait out the workday until their cases are resolved.”  He was barred from communicating with anyone from the school, including the substitutes who replaced him. His students were left scrambling to complete their studies for the AP exam and as a result of his absence the fencing team “did not take part in the year’s biggest competition.”

Iris Stevenson is a “beloved” music teacher who has taken her students on field trips to other countries and to perform at the White House. A former student described her as someone “who goes well beyond what a teacher would do. She’s a mother to a lot of these students. A lot of them didn’t have food or their parents weren’t there for them. Ms. Stevenson was there for them.” For reasons that have yet to be officially announced, Ms. Stevenson was pulled from her classroom in December 2013, was not allowed to return until August and was barred from the campus during the entire period. “For an entire semester of school, the Crenshaw music program and choir were disrupted.”

This seems to be another issue where the Board of Education is unwilling to supervise the Superintendent. Even though they passed a resolution last year that requires that teachers be told of the reason they are being pulled from the classroom, it appears that Dr. Deasy is not complying with their policy. Even worse, this seems to be another issue where Board Member Tamar Galatzan cares more about silencing Deasy’s critics than listening to the district’s stakeholders. When Patrena Shankling testified before the board about her experience, she had to receive special permission to speak for more than the allotted time. Ms. Galatzan did not even look up as she cast one of the two opposing votes.