Nov 6 2017

OPINION: Process and Facts Required to Address Sexual Harassment

Mark Cowherd, a Piedmont High history teacher, resigned shortly after a display of Piedmont parent outrage at the October 25, 2017 School Board meeting. News media were invited to amplify that outrage and broadcast it widely. Now that the spectacle has begun to pass, and our community attempts to heal, we write to encourage us all to reflect on how our community handled this matter.

As parents, we care about the safety of our students. We are proud that four students felt empowered to voice their concerns about this teacher. In the future, we want other students to bring forward concerns about similar conduct. People around town say that students stay quiet due to fears – of retaliation in the grades they may receive or of unwanted exposure if they speak up. We worry about chilling student complaints for a different reason. Students may well have absorbed the lesson that, if they feel uncomfortable about a teacher’s conduct and lodge a complaint about it, the situation may not simply be reasonably corrected, but the teacher, one way or the other, will be summarily removed and publicly humiliated. Students may choose to stay silent to avoid the enormity of this burden.

The community must also consider the ripple effects on teaching staff. Although this particular teacher engaged in behavior uncommon in our District, other teachers may nevertheless distance themselves from students or parents. It is easy to imagine teachers feeling wary, concerned that a student’s or parent’s response to a teacher’s conduct could trigger the parent community into a fiery humiliation.

This activated parent group attacked our Administrators and our elected School Board representatives, all of whom, we believe, choose to serve our educational community because they care deeply about students and education. Parent demands, without regard to the law and without knowing all of the evidence gathered through both the District’s and the Piedmont Police investigations, could undermine District morale and confidence in educating our children going forward.

We do not believe that our school administrators, local police officers and board members, who did not ignore these students’ complaints and had access to all of the facts uncovered through their investigations, which the community at large did not, would protect a sexual “predator” and knowingly put our students at risk.

District Administrators and School Board representatives must, and did, comply with the law. After receiving the students’ complaints, the District placed the teacher on administrative leave, investigated the claims, found inappropriate and unprofessional conduct, and took disciplinary action against the teacher (privacy laws prevented the District from detailing what those actions were). The Piedmont Police apparently found no criminal conduct.

Where, as here, the investigations revealed a tenured teacher who had crossed one line (unprofessional and inappropriate conduct, including comments of a sexual nature), but had not crossed another (criminal conduct, such as sexual molestation), the teacher is allowed, under the Education Code Section 44938(a), a 45-day “opportunity to correct his or her faults and overcome the grounds for the charge.” The District provided this teacher his short window to try to redeem himself. During this time, the District monitored the teacher’s classroom to ensure student safety. The Administration also circulated numerous communications encouraging anyone with any complaints to bring them forward.

Without knowing if this teacher succeeded in correcting his conduct or what the District’s decision may have been at the end of these 45 days, which had not yet passed, parent speakers at the October 25, 2017 School Board meeting expressed their anger that Mr. Cowherd had not already been fired. We share people’s disgust about sexual harassment and sexual assault – the news about its prevalence in our society keeps coming – and we, as a society, have a lot to change. But the speakers’ references at the Board meeting to and innuendo about violence, molestation, sexual assault, and Harvey Weinstein far exceeded any allegations we have seen against Mr. Cowherd or what the District and Police investigations found. We further believe that it is both ill-considered and inappropriate to denigrate our representatives for “impotence” when they engaged fully and promptly in necessary due process, including prompt investigations, monitoring student safety, and teacher discipline.

We can all agree that Mr. Cowherd’s conduct betrayed our educational community. At the same time, we must remember to stay honorable and just when defending the honorable and just. The community must now reckon with the consequences of the parent outrage, and rebuild trust in Piedmont.

Barbara Giuffre

Rick Raushenbush, Former School Board Member

Editors Note:  Opinions expressed are those of the authors.

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