Tuesday, April 29, 2014

(Monterey County) Civil grand jury launches 2014-15 advertising campaign

Monterey County’s civil grand jury launched an aggressive advertising campaign this week seeking to fill the slots for the 2014-15 term.

For the second time in as many years, sticky-note ads pasted to the front of daily newspapers throughout the county offer three informational sessions regarding the civil grand jury.

“Interested in examining how local government agencies work and joining in to make recommendations for improvements?” the ad asks. “2014-2015 civil grand jury needs you!”

Sessions will be held at 2 p.m. May 20 in King City, May 21 in Monterey and May 22 in Salinas.

Annually, the civil grand jury is charged in a watchdog capacity to investigate conditions at local jails and prisons, audit local government operations and look into citizen complaints about government agencies. Applicants must be United States citizens, at least 18 years old and residents of the county for at least one year, and have sufficient understanding of the English language.

The positions are held on a voluntary basis. Thirty seats are available.

Apply online by May 16 at www.monterey.courts.ca.gov/grandjury.

For more information, please call 831-775-5400, ext. 2081.

Allison Gatlin, agatlin@thecalifornian.com. On Twitter @allison_salnews #salinas.

EDITORIAL: Improve Fresno County with grand jury service

By The Bee Editorial Board

April 27, 2014

You can help our community. The Fresno County grand jury is accepting applications for jurors for the 2014-2015 term through May 2.

A county civil grand jury is composed of 19 citizens, who provide a "watchdog" role over government operations.

The jury's work makes government more efficient and exposes problems. And sometimes it sorts out the truth about political claims dividing our community.

In addition, the grand jury is mandated by law to respond to citizens' complaint letters and to inquire into the condition and management of public detention facilities within the county.

Not only do grand jury reports garner media attention, but the law requires that government agencies respond to the grand jury's findings and recommendations.

The Fresno Grand Jurors Association and the Fresno County Superior Court want the grand jury to represent the entire county -- not just Fresno and Clovis. We urge residents living outside the metro area to apply.

The minimum qualifications to serve include being a U.S. citizen, at least 18 years old, a Fresno County resident for at least one year and the ability to speak and understand English.

But, as Judge Robert Oliver, chair of the Superior Court Jury Oversight Committee, said in a Letter to The Editor on Sunday: the "most important qualification to serve on the grand jury is an interest in improving county conditions."

And we believe that Oliver hit the bull's-eye when he said, "Because the grand jury investigates and reports on civil matters related to Fresno County government, it allows ordinary citizens to voice concerns and hold local government accountable on a variety of matters. If you ever wanted to improve government operations, this is your opportunity.

"Your experiences give you unique skills and perspectives that could significantly contribute to the grand jury's work."

Jurors serve a one-year term, which runs from July 1 through June 30. The grand jury meets about 20 to 25 hours a week. Jurors receive nominal compensation and mileage reimbursement.

The real reward, Oliver says, "is leading a process that identifies problems and solutions affecting our area, now and in the future."

For information on how to apply, call Sherry Spears at the court's Jurors Services Division, 457-1605, or visit the website at www.fresno.courts.ca.gov, click on Jury, then Grand Jury. The website has an excellent video explaining grand jury service.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/04/27/3895389/editorial-improve-fresno-county.html?sp=/99/274/#storylink=cpy

Monday, April 21, 2014

Troubled Central Basin Water District may lose insurance

The Assn. of California Water Agencies Joint Powers Insurance Authority has recommended to its board that it drop the district's employment liability coverage due to 'dysfunction' and increasing lawsuits.

By Hector Becerra
April 19, 2014, 8:10 p.m.

A controversy-riddled water district involved in a federal corruption investigation is in danger of losing its insurance, a political black eye that could have implications for the agency and its 2 million customers.

The Assn. of California Water Agencies Joint Powers Insurance Authority has recommended to its board that it drop the employment liability insurance for Central Basin Municipal Water District, citing the circus-like atmosphere at the agency.

The authority insures hundreds of water districts across the state, and this would be only the second time in its 35-year history that it canceled coverage for a water district.

"It appears to an outsider that there is a sense of dysfunction on the district's board," the insurance authority wrote in a letter to Central Basin. "This dysfunction is resulting in an inordinate increase in litigation against the district."

The insurer noted that Central Basin had an usually high number of legal claims against it, and said that, more important, the ongoing threat of more litigation posed too great a risk for other members of the insurance pool.

Central Basin, or its members, has been the subject of several investigations in recent years. Its own lawyers say it violated state law by secretly creating a $2.7-million fund for a groundwater storage project. The district has been accused of doing favors for the family members of politicians. And its elected leaders have faced their own troubles, including one suspected of impersonating his brother, a fellow politician, to get out of a DUI conviction, and one accused of sexually harassing a district employee.

Losing its insurance could hurt Central Basin's standing in financial markets and its ability to get loans, and would mean the district would have to find another insurance provider, possibly at a much higher rate.

Gary Milliman, a municipal insurance expert who once served as South Gate city manager, said Central Basin would be hard-pressed to find replacement insurance without paying considerably more. Losing its insurance could make it harder to secure loans and grants, and even to proceed with projects.

"The general fund of your agency would be at risk for losses that would normally be insured." Milliman said. "Reputation really does matter when you're going into the financial markets."

Central Basin serves a largely working-class area of southeast Los Angeles County. The district has been criticized in the past for raising water rates.

The agency's finance director, Richard Aragon, said he was confident the insurance situation would not lead to rate hikes.

In 2010, the troubled city of Maywood laid off virtually all of its employees soon after another provider dropped its insurance as a result of a history of lawsuits. The city ended up contracting its operations to neighboring Bell, which was soon engulfed in a corruption scandal that culminated last week with its former city administrator, Robert Rizzo, being sentenced to 12 years in prison.

The water district was also enmeshed in a federal investigation of a state senator and his brother, Tom Calderon, a former assemblyman and Central Basin consultant.

One longtime board member, Robert Apodaca, is the subject of a $1-million sexual harassment lawsuit against Central Basin filed on behalf of a former employee, who alleged that he had a well-known pattern of "improper sexual actions and conduct with subordinates." Apodaca declined to comment through a water district spokesman.

Last year The Times reported that another one of the directors, Art Chacon, may have impersonated his brother — a Montebello school board member — after being arrested on DUI charges in 2011 in Whittier.

Another board member, James Roybal, is spending his workdays at a Los Angeles Unified School District facility for teachers who are under internal investigation for accusations of poor performance or improprieties. LAUSD spokesman Thomas Waldman confirmed Roybal was there but would not elaborate on why. Roybal has declined to comment.

Central Basin has made some efforts at reform. Earlier this year it reached a peace agreement with a rival water agency in a conflict that had cost the organizations nearly $5 million in legal fees combined.

Last year it also ended the contract of a longtime consultant and former assemblyman, Tom Calderon. He and his brother, state Sen. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello), were indicted earlier this year in a massive federal fraud case. The FBI subpoenaed large amounts of documents from Central Basin in the case.

Paul Dyson, a director at Standard & Poor's, said Central Basin's new management made some recent moves — including cost-cutting — that will give the agency a projected $16 million in reserves by the end of the fiscal year in June. The bond-rating agency will monitor the water district, but Dyson said he believed the reserves would help it weather the potential loss of its insurance for a while.

Still, the district remains a political battleground, with board members attacking each other in the local media, from the dais and at news conferences.

The water agency insurance authority has complained that the agency is in the news a lot but usually doesn't come out in a "favorable light."

The insurer has proposed several steps the district can take to preserve its coverage, such as bearing the financial cost of some of the claims against it, including the Apodaca case, and forgoing some insurance coverage for six months. The Central Basin board has discussed the insurer's proposal and is weighing other options, including finding another insurance provider.

Phil Hawkins, a former state assemblyman who is the president of Central Basin's board of directors, said the elected leaders needed to try to put aside their differences for the good of the public agency.

"We need to get the emotion out of this and get back to the business of water issues only," he said.

Tony Perez, Central Basin's general manager, said the district hoped to find a compromise, which could include the water district taking financial responsibility for some of the claims instead of passing them off to the insurance authority.

As for ending the political infighting, that's a work in progress.

"There's the business of the district, then there's the relationship the directors have with each other," Perez said. "The relationship between the directors? Staff is working really hard to compartmentalize that and go ahead and do the good work of the district, which I think for the most part we're succeeding at."


Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

Santa Barbara County, courts look to north for grand jurors

Supervisors, other leaders step up recruitment efforts

April 20, 2014 12:45 am  •  Erin Lennon/elennon@lompocrecord.com

When 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino met with the Santa Barbara County Civil Grand Jury last year, he didn’t recognize many faces from the North County, including Santa Maria, the county’s most populous city.

Now, he and other county leaders have teamed up with Santa Barbara County Superior Court to inform North County residents about the grand jury, hoping to see more interest from around the county as the May 2 application deadline approaches.

“Whether it’s people from the north or south, if there’s a view from all points of the county, you’re going to have more complete investigations, reports and discussions,” said Lavagnino.

The grand jury is a division of the Superior Court that oversees numerous government agencies, cities and districts throughout the county. Its 19 volunteer jurors are blindly pulled from a drum of 30 names after applicants from throughout the county are screened and interviewed.

Despite the jury’s far-reaching impact on countywide issues, less than 36 percent of jurors and alternates serving on the grand jury in the last five years resided north of Goleta, according to the Superior Court’s Judicial Services Department. The majority of jurors came from supervisorial districts one and two, encompassing Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Montecito, Summerland and Cuyama to the north.

Court Executive Officer Darrel Parker can’t pinpoint an exact cause for the disparity, but he has begun exploring strategies to close the participation gap.

The first step is to make sure people know about the jury, said Parker. While this year’s advertising and outreach budget is nearly gone, Parker said he’s gotten some free advertising resulting from the community’s growing interest in the grand jury. Parker and Presiding Judge Arthur Garcia are scheduled to discuss the jury’s work with Lavagnino on the weekly 1240 KSMX radio show, “Our Town,” on Friday.

The show airs weeks after the county created and released a recruitment video in which Foreman Ted Sten answers questions about the civil grand jury. The video is available on the county’s Facebook and YouTube pages.

“I’ve given talks to service clubs throughout the county, from Santa Maria to Carpinteria,” said Sten, who has sat on the jury a number of times. “I always take applications with me and just hope that even if the people there don’t see themselves applying that they may have a friend or relative who might be interested.”

Despite the court’s countywide advertisements and outreach efforts, Judicial Services Manager Mark Hanson said over the last 10 years there have routinely been more applicants from the southern part of the county than from the north.

“It has nothing to do with the north-south divide or the way they view the world,” said Lavagnino. “It all comes down to the drive.”

He and 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam said the drive from their northern districts to the jury’s headquarters in downtown Santa Barbara is a major roadblock for their constituents. They’ve suggested that the jury rotate its meetings around the county and possibly focus on meeting in the midcounty region.

This concept isn’t new to Sten, who has been appointed foreman five times since 2005 by presiding judges from both the North County and South County. He said he’s made it a priority during his terms to hold meetings throughout the county, including the unincorporated areas. The 2013-14 jury has completed 13 meetings outside of Santa Barbara since it began its work last July, according to Sten.

Parker is open to furthering this idea and has started looking into the costs associated with different meeting locations. But he conceded that few spots have the space and security necessary to accommodate the work of 19 jurors. In Santa Barbara, the jury has an established and secure conference room where jurors can keep their files, notes and exhibits in one place.

Parker is also investigating transportation options to ease North County jurors’ drive to Santa Barbara, should the jury stay anchored in the south. He has looked into possibilities such as an affordable shuttle or other type of group transit option as well as a possible carpooling system, a strategy that has been used in the past. Parker said there’s also the option of video and teleconferencing between conference rooms in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara.

But Lavagnino said there may be fewer constituents in his district, which includes Santa Maria, and throughout the North County than farther south who have the time, means and desire to dedicate at least 20 hours per week to jury work, even if meetings become more accessible.

“A lot of the retired folks in the South County are worrying about where they’re going to spend their vacations,” said Lavagnino, who suggested that many applicants are likely retirees. “People up here are working later in life and perhaps worrying more about their incomes and issues like that.” The 2010 U.S. census shows the median household income in Santa Maria was nearly $12,000 less per year than in Santa Barbara, with 19.8 percent of Santa Marians falling below the poverty line, compared with 14.7 percent in Santa Barbara.

“I’m hoping my efforts will mean a few more applications,” Lavagnino said. “But if not, we’ve got to go with who’s applying.”

Grand jury applications are due May 2, with interviews taking place in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara during the second and third week of May. The 2014-15 grand jury will be sworn in July 1.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Editorial: Marin grand jury finds disconnect in school discipline

Marin Independent Journal Editorial

Posted:   04/15/2014 04:14:00 AM PDT

THE MARIN COUNTY Civil Grand Jury says Marin school administrators and trustees have some homework to do.

In a not-so-glowing report, the grand jury found that Marin public schools don't all follow uniform or up-to-date guidelines when it comes to dishing out discipline, in particular suspensions.

In fact, Marin schools suspend a lot of kids when state law calls for districts to do much more to keep those kids in school, learning.

One local educator told the grand jury, "Some parents and faculty don't want fluffy diversion stuff."

That attitude may not be pervasive across Marin schools, but the number of suspensions from local high schools exceeds the state average for cases that don't involve violence or breaking the law. Such suspensions account for about one-third of Marin's total.

The grand jury asks a good question: What good does suspending kids do for the education of those youngsters? How are those kids learning by not being in class?

"Most school suspensions inflict more harm than good," the grand jury writes in the opening sentence of its report.

The issue is even more troubling when statewide statistics show that most kids who are suspended frequently have struggles at home — poverty, abuse or neglect, possibly all three.

In addition, the state Education Code was changed last year to require that student suspensions for nonviolent offenses should be imposed "only after other means of correction fail."

The grand jury, which conducted 30 private interviews over five months, found that most local administrators or trustees had no clue about this change in the state code, yet they were making decisions about whether to kick pupils out of school.

As the ones with the responsibility and power to make such decisions, they should be up to date with changes in state policy.

Maybe the state standard is too "fluffy" for some local educators, but you would expect local school leaders to be following the rules and making sure that their rules are in keeping with state law.

The grand jury called this issue "a significant lapse in administrative oversight. This seems to be a case where a mandate slipped between governance cracks."

That's one of the reasons districts pay a lot for lawyers.

This disconnect should prompt questions from local school trustees.

Turnover of administrators, especially principals and vice principals, was cited by the grand jury as one of the reasons frequently given for why there may be a lack of clarity and uniformity about disciplinary policies from district to district, or even school to school.

That's not necessarily a good excuse, particularly when, as in some recent years, 500 to nearly 700 kids were kicked out of class.

The grand jury did its homework and found that local educators haven't done theirs.

Dealing with disciplinary issues is not an easy job, but when those handing out the discipline aren't sure about what's right or wrong, that's a problem that should be rectified — promptly.

Want To Be On A (San Francisco) Civil Grand Jury? You Can!

The San Francisco Superior Court has put out a call for residents to apply to serve on the city’s Civil Grand Jury for the upcoming year.

The Grand Jury is made up of 19 members who look into city government by investigating its departments, agencies and officials during a year of service.

The next jury will serve from July 1 through June 30, 2015.

The jury selects its own topics for investigation and puts together reports, which are sent to the appropriate department heads and are reviewed by a committee from the city’s Board of Supervisors.

Dan Chesir, 71, currently sits on this year’s jury. He retired about a year and a half ago and saw the jury as a way to get involved in local government.

With a background as a lawyer and working at Kaiser Permanente’s legal department, he said his fellow jurors have varied experience with some still working, others self-employed and some with backgrounds in law, hospitality, business insurance and other careers.

He said he puts in up to 15 volunteer hours a week to the jury.

There is a small $15 per diem jurors receive for days attending meetings.

To choose which topics to focus their investigations on, Chesir said “it was a collective effort” that took about three months of discussion. As the jury is still in session, Chesir was unable to disclose any details of the jury’s work.

With a report of their findings slated to come out in June, Chesir said his commitment is ramping up with time spent putting together reports after doing research, touring facilities, auditing records and interviewing department heads and workers “familiar with how city government works.” He said his committee also connected with workers in the private sphere who are experts in their fields.

“One of things I’m really enjoying, frankly,” he said, “is sitting around a table with fellow residents of San Francisco and talking about things affecting the city.”

He called it “serious talk” that he finds enjoyable.

“We’re making what we think are realistic recommendations” that may lead to legislative action at the Board of Supervisors or push forward changes at the departments that are affected, he said.

Aside from the experience working with department leaders and the insider look into the city, Chesir said a “secondary benefit” was “meeting people I never would have met before.”

Chesir, who lives in the Castro District, said his fellow members come from all over the city, but he worries that Latino and Asian representation is lacking.

He encouraged members of those communities, and other minority groups, to apply to the jury.

The deadline to apply is April 30. Only San Francisco residents over the age of 18 can apply.

Superior Court judges interview qualified applicants and recommend a pool of 30 jurors. From that pool, 19 members are randomly selected and the remaining 11 serve as alternate members.

More information about serving and the application is available online at http://civilgrandjury.sfgov.org.

Sasha Lekach, Bay City News

Saturday, April 12, 2014

(El Dorado County) Grand Jury questions county fee waivers

A midterm report by El Dorado County’s Civil Grand Jury is questioning the Board of Supervisors refunding or waiving permit fees for some projects but not for others.
The grand jury reviewed a list of waived fees from 2009 through Oct. 3, 2013. Almost all of the fees were waived by the County Administrative Office according to specific county policies, the grand jury states in its midterm report.
Three exceptions included the Board of Supervisors refunding a fee for grading and asbestos dust mitigation on a private road; waiving a fee for construction of a wheelchair ramp after a catastrophic injury suffered by the homeowner’s teenage son; and waiving fees for homes damaged or destroyed by the Angora Fire.
“The waivers appear to have been granted without an attempt to reimburse permit fees paid by other owners for grading permits, homes remodeled to accommodate the needs of a family member incapacitated by a catastrophic injury or properties destroyed by a fire other than the 2007 Angora fire,” the grand jury states.
“The Board of Supervisors reimbursed permit fees in each of these situations without stating the public purpose that made it appropriate to do so.”
Mike Applegarth, principal administrative analyst for El Dorado County, said his agency and the Board of Supervisors will formally respond to the grand jury’s midterm report, as required.

Fees were waived for people rebuilding after the Angora fire, but only if they had paid fees for their homes to be built and were replacing what had been reviewed and permitted, Applegarth said.

“Those homeowners already paid their fees when those homes were built, and we had reviewed those plans. They were simply replacing what had already been reviewed and permitted. If there was any expansion of their existing footprint, then we did collect fees for anything not previously permitted,” Applegarth said.
Applegarth said the county did reimburse fees for a grading permit and asbestos dust mitigation for a private road, and that such a decision could be debatable.
“I can see their point, but that road serves 18 parcels. So that’s quite a few people affected, and there’s a strong argument that does meet the public purpose threshold,” he said.
Applegarth agreed the county also waived fees for a homeowner to build a wheelchair ramp. “I hope the grand jury is not suggesting those people shouldn’t be able to put ramps on their house before they pay the government anything,” he said.
Other subjects the grand jury explored in its midterm report and will receive formal responses on include:
• the Iowa Hill Pumped Water Storage Facility and an El Dorado County and Sacramento Municipal Utility District agreement outlining financial payments to the county;
• the condition of El Dorado County jails in Placerville and South Lake Tahoe, and a finding that both should be evaluated for replacement or refurbishment;
• the condition of El Dorado County juvenile detention facilities in Placerville and South Lake Tahoe;
• the condition of the Growlersburg Conservation Camp, which is operated by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection;
• and the condition of the artificial football field at Ponderosa High School. The grand jury found the field’s condition is a significant safety and liability issue for the El Dorado Union High School District and its taxpayers.
For more information:

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

UCSB Student Government Wants (Santa Barbara Civil) Grand Jury Investigation of Deltopia Riot

In the aftermath of Saturday night's melee in Isla Vista, the UCSB Student Government (Associated Students of UC-Santa Barbara) released the following statement, including a call for a civil Grand Jury investigation into the disturbance.

Here is the release put out by ASUCSB on Monday afternoon:

What happened the night of April 5th 2014 in Isla Vista was tragic and the students of UCSB are in part to blame for it. Any large event held in such an unofficial capacity is doomed to end in chaos. We, the Associated Students Executive Officers of UCSB mourn the injury of six dedicated law enforcement officers and countless community members.

We believe UCSB and UCSB students must take responsibility for the events of April 5th 2014.

In this spirit it is our belief that part of taking responsibility is calling for more information rather than less, asking for more student involvement rather than less, and asking for more work in Isla Vista by the County and local stakeholders rather than less.

The time has come for a new process by which we address major events in Isla Vista, even those that are not officially sanctioned by the County or the University. The community must be a part of the emergency services planning process. If we give residents of Isla Vista a stake in the preservation of their own safety and their own community we will improve the outcomes of first responder’s efforts.

In no way is this a unilateral critique of the response of Isla Vista Foot Patrol and others on the night of April 5th, but we do have a stake in knowing what happened, when it happened, and why it happened. The community at large, including the rest of Santa Barbara County deserve to know. We will be requesting a Civil Grand Jury Investigation into the events of April 5th. This is in no way motivated by malice towards any stakeholder or party. We simply think that the more information we have on this event the better equipped we will be to prevent it from ever happening again.

Once again we mourn the unnecessary injury, damage to property, and damage to public safety and health that occurred from the night of April 5th. We hope that these efforts could lead to the alleviation of crises in Isla Vista that require resources from neighboring communities. It is in the interest of no one to have emergency responders leaving their original area of responsibility to work in Isla Vista on a moment’s notice.

In the end we want to work on the issues underlying this event year round, not just during a time of crisis. We call for an investigation into the events of April 5th because whatever we are currently doing to ensure the safety of Isla Vista and its residents is inadequate and this is clearly a moment in which we can change Isla Vista for the better.

When the investigation is concluded we look forward to working with all of Isla Vista’s stakeholders to improve the health and safety of our community.

Copyright © 2014 KEYT - NPG of California, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Make a complaint to the (Tulare County) grand jury

Editor’s note:
Today’s letter from Tulare County grand jury foreman Milton Morrison was prompted by comments from two readers on stories published recently in the Times-Delta and Advance-Register. Luis Lopez, a former Visalia Unified School District employee, was arrested for suspicion of child molestation and later charged with multiple counts of child molestation. Morrison wrote to the Times-Delta/Advance-Register to address the comments on those stories.

In the March 26 edition of the Times Delta, in the “Our Readers Respond” section on page 3, one could have found the following — in part: “Since the Grand Jury has been slow on the draw investigating school-child security breaches …” attributed to one Renee Lapin, and “But this dragging by the Grand Jury is very disconcerting.” attributed to a George Liveris. When I came upon those two assertions by presumably well-informed citizens, I immediately repaired to the Tulare County Civil Grand Jury’s Citizen Complaint Log, which we jurors maintain in the grand jury quarters. Alas, my careful research disclosed no citizen complaints about VUSD’s hiring practices, nor, for that matter, any citizen complaints of any subject matter relative to the VUSD. So what to make of this so-called “slow on the draw” and “dragging” on the part of the grand jury? Well, possibly they refer to another grand jury? Well, currently there is no other Grand Jury — neither a criminal grand jury on behalf of the district attorney nor a special grand jury on behalf of the courts. So, what are these citizens unhappy about?

The Tulare County civil grand jury primarily investigates county, city, special district and some related issues on behalf of complaining citizens. The jury will, on occasion, mostly when the need is apparent also initiate its own investigation of some entity here in the county. There has been no recent apparent need to investigate the Visalia Unified School District’s hiring practices. School district hiring is prescribed by law and the Education Code and there has been no cause apparent to the grand jury to initiate an investigation of the school district. Clearly, I struggle with “dragging” and “slow on the draw.” I don’t think that the jury will be investigating any agency’s failure to predict the behavior of every employee under every possible scenario. Whatever else there is about human nature, it is inscrutable in its darkest recesses.

For you readers who are unsure of the process, please know that the grand jury will respond to citizen complaints. It is helpful to include in a complaint the name and contact information for people who may have knowledge of the situation. Also, some suggestions of the action one wishes for the jury to take is helpful. Grand jury complaint forms are available on the grand jury’s website: www. tularecounty.ca.gov/grandjury

Milton Morrison

Foreman, Tulare County Grand Jury

Thursday, April 3, 2014

(Marin County) Schools 
diverge on discipline

By Christopher Peak

A group of intoxicated Tomales High School students busted through locked gates and spun donuts on the football field’s new grass late one night in February, causing an estimated $20,000 in damage. Eight of the students were suspended from classes. One girl, a freshman suspended for five days, later said she regretted being there. She fell behind in a backlog of time-consuming work she had missed, and recently finished making up assignments.

A new (Marin County) Civil Grand Jury report released last month questions whether such disciplinary action may cause more long-term harm to the student and the school environment than the wrongdoing a suspension is intended to correct.

One in every 14 students at Tomales High School was suspended during the last school year, almost twice as high as the county’s total rate and slightly higher than the state’s. Tomales Elementary also suspended seven students the last year, putting it slightly above the county average. San Geronimo Valley Elementary and West Marin Elementary each suspended one student, and Lagunitas Elementary suspended three. The region’s other elementary schools—Bodega Bay Elementary, Inverness Elementary and Bolinas-Stinson Elementary—did not have any suspensions last year.

While the county as a whole dropped suspensions by 14 percent during the last school year, Lagunitas and Shoreline both slightly increased their suspension rates.

Across the state, school districts have begun to adapt their disciplinary policies to more progressive ideas of restorative justice. After the state banned corporal punishment in schools—as late as 1986—many school officials did not want to appear weak and instituted zero-tolerance policies with harsh penalties for misbehavior.

Only recently have schools responded to a growing body of research that shows punitive policies disproportionately affect minority students, often fail to change behavior and can lead to heightened drop-out rates.

“What we know for certain is that in order for students to achieve their goals related to school, they have to be present,” said Mary Jane Burke, the county’s superintendent of schools. “In some very limited instances, in fact, the option of a suspension might be the right option, but it should be in limited cases. The goal is to keep kids in school, keep them engaged and do everything we can to meet them where they are.”

The state legislature has attempted to remedy the problem by revising the education code—which sets out 20 behaviors that can qualify for a suspension or expulsion—to discourage suspensions except when “other means of correction fail.” But even though the new law has been in place for more than a year, few of the county’s school boards have formalized the change in their own student handbooks or district policies.
“The popular explanation behind discretionary power has to do with the uniqueness of every locale. Who better to understand what is appropriate than those on site?” the grand jury report states. “Others argue, however, that such profound power is a recipe for inconsistency, with every school having its own mix of solutions and consequences.”

Tomales High’s student handbook lists 31 violations—from brandishing a knife or committing sexual assault to speaking profanities or arriving tardy to class—along with minimum and maximum punishments.
At minimum, more than half of the violations automatically qualify for a suspension and often a police report that could land the student in juvenile hall. Most of the suspensions at Shoreline last year were related to illicit drugs, with 11 out of 24 suspensions drug-related.

Two Tomales High staff declined to comment for this story, and another three administrators—Superintendent Tom Stubbs, Principal Adam Jennings and Counselor Steffan O’Neill—did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The lack of specificity in the education code over how to punish wrongdoing gives school administrators leeway in deciding the best way to respond. “If a student violates the items listed in that code section, suspension or possible expulsion is the course of action,” said Jane Realon, the principal at Tomales Elementary. “Luckily we rarely have to go there with our kids,” she added.
But where theft of personal property could mean a police report and a several-day suspension at Tomales High, according to the student handbook, Lagunitas Elementary School might resolve the problem differently, said Principal Laura Shain.

“We do try to use the restorative justice model when feasible and practical,” she said. “For us, at the K-8 level, a lot of it involves discussion and looking at the consequences of behavior.”

Ms. Shain put the principle into action a few weeks ago when one child was secretly stealing food from other students’ lunchboxes, an ongoing problem they could not solve for weeks. After a culprit was finally identified, the students sat on the floor of the library and told how they felt to have something stolen and to distrust their classmates. The boy who had been stealing was so emotionally moved that he wanted to make it up to the other students by bringing them pizza, cookies or other treats.

“The students who originally felt harmed were so incredibly forgiving. They said, ‘You don’t have to do anything. Your apology is enough,’” Ms. Shain recounted. “Not only did the behavior change, it never happened again. It made the community closer. Often when a student is misbehaving, it is because they are not connected to the community in some way.  To actually send them away is counter-productive.”
Ms. Shain said she would consider suspensions when a law has been broken or family involvement is necessary. Keeping a child home from school can often be a hardship for working parents, so she said she tries to restrict the use to those times when parent involvement is sorely needed.
At West Marin Elementary, Principal Matt Nagle said the environment of a small school and an actively involved community allows more resources to be devoted to prevention, rather than

“I consider it to be rather a failure when we have to suspend a student. We do everything we can to prevent having to get to that point. That’s a luxury at most schools,” he said. “We try to really develop these relationships from the get-go and grow that relationship through the whole year before you get to that point were you have something that warrants a suspension.”

At his former jobs, with three or four times as many students, Mr. Nagle said he became more accustomed to suspending students for fighting. Often, the students who were acting out felt marginalized, perhaps because they did not have care from their parents and felt they were not receiving enough attention at school.

At his current job, he hosts monthly assemblies to foster a positive environment by recognizing student’s achievements and to address a few areas for improvement. The last meeting focused on preventing cyber-bullying.

“While we have made great progress in the last five years, we still have a ways to go,” Ms. Burke said. “What were trying to do is look at the best practices countywide, see which parts fit in a different community and then adapt to keep that cycle of learning.”

Judith Bravo contributed to this article.