Updated to add: I am a taxpayer in the Redwood City School District. All of my children are adults; none were educated in the Redwood City School District.
Update, 3/15/2012: I have added District Superintendent Jan Christensn's comments from the article in blue italics. My summary of the issues is in red italics is at the bottom of the piece.
Update, 3/15/2012 at 4 pm: I have added additional information from the District.
This morning, our local Patch ran the following piece, Why I Filed a Child Abuse Report Against a Special Ed Aide. In my view, Redwood City Patch failed in its duty to the community by publishing this piece. I detail my reasons below.
If you don't know what Patch is, or don't live in communities served by the Patch empire, here's a sketch:
Simply put, Patch is a new way to find out about, and participate in, what’s going on near you.
We’re a community-specific news and information platform dedicated to providing comprehensive and trusted local coverage for individual towns and communities.
I live in one of the California communities served by Patch (we also have several print media news organs). For the purposes of understanding the issues, there are four things you need to know about our local school district:
- Our district's budget has been cut to the bone over the last four years. Enrollment has increased by 13% while the budget has decreased by 20%. The district was far from wealthy in 2007; but for every per-student dollar in 2007, the budget now has about $0.70 to spend. These catastrophic cuts come to a district that is 48% English language learners and 64% on free or reduced-price meals.
- Our district in the midst of a very high-profile special education abuse case, unrelated to the opinion piece printed today. In that case, a special-education preschool teacher was recently charged with abusing two pre-schoolers in her classroom. As a matter of legal obligation, eight teachers and adminstrators were placed on paid administrative leave while an independent investigation was undertaken. Note that the employees were put on leave before any legal hearing for the accused teacher had taken place. At a school board meeting, special education parents testified about the dedication and professionalism of three of the eight employees on leave.
- The whole case has caused deeply emotional divisions in the community: between parents of children in general education and those in special education; between parents of children in special education, and among community members who are taxpayers in the community but do not have children in the district.
On February 4, 2012, Patch ran an article, Special Education Teacher Arrested For Child Endangerment.
On Feb 8, Patch employees, using the photograph of the accused, but not yet tried, teacher, flatly asserted that the accused teacher "slapped a student, twisted a student’s wrist and was charged with other allegations" and invited the public to speculate on "What Constitutes Teacher Abuse?"
Why did the Patch do this, other than to boost readership?
On March 13, 2012, Dorie Johnson posted several comments to the February 4, 2012 and the February 8 articles. Update: Stacie Chan interviewed Johnson after the close of business on March 13, and asked the district via email for clarification, again after the close of business.
By 5:50 am, March 14, 2012, the Patch editor Stacie Chan had posted a highly inaccurate and inflammatory under her by-line, with by Dorie Johnson, "as told to Stacie Chan." Chan wrote: The Redwood City School District was not available for immediate comment, so Patch will be providing updates throughout the story as they become available.
Is that fair and balanced journalism? I don't think so. The Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics states,
- Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
- Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
In other words, Chan accepted Johnson's accounts as true, without any balance from district. This is hardly "comprehensive and trusted local coverage". It's Chan on a vendetta against the district, for reasons I yet to comprehend.
There are other issues that Chan did not reveal.
On January 3, 2009, Dorie Johnson's 15-year-old son Matthew was out on an overpass at 1 am in the morning, throwing rocks and bottles at cars passing by underneath. His missiles hit a car, the teen-aged occupants of which chased him down and fatally stabbed him. The murderer wasn't apprehended for a year; the murder trial began November 29, 2011; the accused was found guilty of second-degree murder on December 16, 2011. According to the Facebook Memorial Page for Matthew Johnson, the family did not know until March 2, 2012 when the murderer will be sentenced. The sentencing will be heard April 20, 2012.
So Dorie Johnson's life has hardly been tranquil or stress-free in the last three years, with the extreme stress of the trial just before the holidays.
According to the "as told to Chan" article, Dorie Johnson worked for the Redwood City School District (RCSD) from 1998 and 2007, in administrative tasks, without much direct student contact. She went back to work for the district on February 10, 2012. According to Johnson, she is employed as a "special education teacher’s assistant". Based on postings at the district office, she may have been either a permanent or substitute instructional assistant for special education. I assume by the itinerant schedule she had that she was a substitute IA, or aide. The qualifications are quite low: applicants must have a High School Diploma/GED, and must pass district proficiency test by at least 70%. Johnson wrote, "I had no formal special education training from the district". This isn't unusual; it's not unique to the Redwood City School District.
Let's put the dates in context, which Chan should have done. Johnson started work 8 weeks after the conclusion of the trial for her son's murderer, with the date of his sentencing still in limbo. The news of the teacher's arrest broke Saturday, February 4, 2012. Six days later, Johnson started work. According to the "as told to Chan" article, Johnson started work on a Friday, and "worked three days" at school #1, then school #2, then moved to school #3 on February 15. The dates don't work out. There were only four school days between Johnson's reported start date and February 15.
School #3 is the same campus (but not the same educational program) where the pre-school abuse case. At that time, the campus was besieged at least twice by TV reporters with their trucks and hoards of reporters, seeking news (it was a slow news cycle).
At school #3, this inexperienced aide was assigned to a classroom where the long-term teacher had left the Friday before for maternity leave. In the "as told to Chan" article, Johnson revealed enough information that I was easily able to find the classroom webpage on the school's website. Why did Chan allow this information to be published?
For the next seven paragraphs, Johnson discusses children's behavior and what she observed about the behavior of other aides, both of which disturbed her. There are only "seven or eight" children in the classroom; the children are thus easily identifiable.
...On Feb. 21, Student 2 was sitting by himself humming in a back and forth motion waiting to come to circle time. Rather than gently asking him to stop, the aide was yelling at him by name saying “QUIET. BE QUIET.”The substitute teacher was sitting there the whole time not even bothered by the tone of her voice.
Every aide has their own child to manage, so, in the most generous terms, it’s possible they didn’t witness this behavior. But the substitute teacher would sit at his desk the entire time and never intervene.
Johnson met with the school principal on March 5, and reported the conversation as follows, "She told me she had heard about my concerns from other aides and asked me if she should call Child Protective Services. " Why did Chan publish this alleged conversation without verifying it with the principal?
Johnson then went on to write about an alleged conversation with the district's behavioral psychologist1, which from the gist of the article, must have occured on March 5. There's only one , The district has only one behavioral psychologist, and as of February 10, (as I understand it), he was one of eight district employees placed on paid administrative leave. He was still on leave as of February 23, 2012. The earliest he returned to work was Thursday, March 1. Updated: the behavioral psychologist returned to work Monday, February 27. From the 27th to approximately the 1st, he was engaged in off-campus work for special-education students who are in out-of-district placements. March 5 was one of the first days he was on-site in the district.
I then went to the district’s behavioral psychologist to explain what I had witnessed over the past couple of weeks. I got the attitude from him as if he were saying “tell your little story and we’ll be done with you.” He never probed for further details or asked more about the aide’s behavior. “The guidelines are stressful,” he explained, as if that excused her actions.
I then asked him what the guidelines were for restraining children. Only if they are a danger to themselves or trying to injure others, he said.
Why did Chan publish this alleged conversation without verifying it with the behavioral psychologist? Why didn't Chan find out what the context of this conversation was -- Was this a formal meeting, or did Johnson grab the behavioral psychologist in passing? Was he between appointments in the hallway?
Superintendent Christiansen wrote: the substitute left campus without permission during duty hours and drove to the district office, where she had an unscheduled meeting with our behavioral psychologist. The substitute asked the psychologist general questions about behavioral intervention in a crisis, and he provided her with information about appropriate applied behavioral analysis (ABA) techniques for dealing with students who have special behavioral needs. ABA techniques are used to keep children safe and never to punish students.
Johnson went on to write,
In my head, I recalled the few times when I had to restrain some children, when they were acting out and even scratched me, causing my arm to bleed. But I locked their arms and legs until I could feel their body loosen, then released them while calmly telling them to “Stop. Stop.”
Why didn't Chan clarify when this happen, in the 2012 classrooms Johnson was assigned to, or when her own children were younger? If in the 2012 classrooms, what Johnson described is called "a basket hold" and is highly questionable for an unskilled person to do. Of course, if it were her own children, that's a different matter.
The following day, March 6, I returned to the school to find out that they had removed me from Room XX
Here Chan has allowed Johnson to identify not only the school, but the exact classroom. This is surely an invasion of the students' privacy.
I was able to find a blog posting about the class with the substitute teacher's name and identifying information, the children's first names, and the classroom aides first names, all in about 43 seconds. This is certainly also an invasion of the substitute teacher's privacy, as Chan allows Johnson to make serious allegations about the sub's ability to conduct himself and the classroom in a professional manner.
On sometime on or after March 6, Johnson made a telephone report to Child Protective Services (CPS) about the conditions she had observed in the classroom, and about the behavior of one particular aide.
On March 9, I called the Superintendent. Her secretary told me that she’d call me back and was available March 19. Eleven days after I had called to report a very serious matter.
This is "as told to" piece. Why didn't Chan verify when Johnson called CPS? If Johnson called CPS on the 6th, why didn't Chan find out why Johnson waited until the 9th to call the Superintendent's office? What did Johnson say to the Superintendent's secretary? Did Johnson say that she'd reported abuse, or just wanted a meeting? Chan doesn't say.
Superintendent Christiansen wrote: The next morning, the substitute contacted CPS to make a report. As is standard practice in such cases, we placed the instructional aide whose behavior was in question on administrative leave so that we could conduct an internal review.
The internal review determined that the substitute’s allegations of child abuse were unfounded. The review showed that the incident in question occurred when a dangerous situation arose in the classroom. Keeping all students in the classroom safe was the top priority. The review showed that in order to protect a student from hurting self and others, the instructional aide responded with appropriate (ABA) techniques.
Once an incident is reported to a child protective agency, it is up to that agency to respond appropriately. Based on the report filed, CPS determines when and if an incident is investigated and whether it is turned over to law enforcement. Since the incident was reported to CPS on March 6, no one has followed up on the complaint with any further investigation.
Update March 15, 2012 at 4 pm: I have received further information from the District. The internal review was completed March 9. Of course, anytime additional information is obtained the district can and should review the findings from the previous investigation, to determine if the District should take additional action. Presumably the aide returned to work on March 12. I wonder if the aide's return to work is what caused Dorie Johnson to make her unsubstantiated claims?
I started writing this blog post at about 2 pm March 14, 2012. I didn't return to the article until 9:40 pm, and looked through the comments. At approximately 5 pm 3:41 pm, Stacie Chan posted in the comments:
To clarify, the reason I wrote "The District was not available for an *immediate* comment" was that I had sent an email after hours at 6:15pm Tuesday night. (This was as soon as I got off the phone with Dorie Johnson.) It was unreasonable to expect a response that late in the day, which is why I said I would do a follow-up with the district's response.
The reason I decided to run this story immediately was that there had already been comments made by Dorie on another Patch article about this very serious issue. I felt it was more important to clarify her remarks then let them sit in an open forum.
The district has always given me information and a response when I've requested it. We have always had a very understanding relationship, and I appreciate its efforts to give whatever information they can. I knew I only needed to send an email and they would get back to me as soon as possible. They have already been in contact with me and more information will be available shortly.
This is simply not an acceptable reason to post unverified, serious allegations. There was no reason for Stacie Chan to hold the "as told to" piece for 24 hours, to allow the district to respond.
I can only conclude that Stacie Chan is more interested in using sensationalism to build Patch readership than in accurately representing what is happening in Redwood City Schools.
Summary: On March 1, Dorie Johnson witnessed an aide's behavior that she, Ms. Johnson, thought was abusive. On March 6, Ms. Johnson reported the aide to Child Protective Services. That day, or the next, the district put aide in question on administrative leave, and began an internal investigation. Once CPS is invoked, there are legal and procedural limit on what the District can and should do. Those procedures were followed. The child was not at risk. There was no pressing need for the Superintendent to meet with Ms. Johnson, as the child's safety was being insured by the required procedures. The fact that Ms. Johnson was vexed by the Superintendent's scheduling of a meeting some time later has nothing to do with the child's safety. The internal review found that the behavior that appropriate Applied Behavioral Analysis procedures were followed.
My opinion: The Patch behaved irresponsibly and unprofessionally in publising Johnson's piece. The Patch continued to behave irresponsibly by allowing commenters on the piece, including Johnson, to name and shame district employees, who were following the legal mandates of their respective positions.
- Why didn't Stacie Chan wait 24 hours to get the District's side of this story?
- Why did Stacie Chan publish information that allowed the identification of the classroom, the students, the substitute teacher, and the aides?
- When did Dorie Johnson place students in basket holds? Was it in 2012 or earlier, before she was employed by the District?
- Why did the Patch allow Johnson and others to name names in the comments?
The opinions on this blog are my own, and in no way represent the many groups, foundations and communities with whom my name may be associated.
1 I know the district's behavioral psychologist socially. He has never provided services to any of my children.