(11/20/15 Update: The recording teacher’s name (Summer Martin) was added. Her name appeared in the investigator’s July report.)
Part 2: You get to be investigated! And you! And you!
Wait, are you recording this . . . .?
We get a little jumpy about taxpayer-funded investigations into private citizens and what they said on their off time.
Let’s start here: If you’re an elected official and you’re going to use taxpayer dollars to investigate people, you should have an exceptionally clear and convincing reason for doing so. (Hint: it can’t be that you just don’t like what they said about you or that you don’t like them.) You should know at the beginning exactly what you are investigating and why, and you should clearly identify who is directing the investigation.
As the months have dragged on and some have objected, we have heard the following defense of the Hillsboro investigation:
This investigation is the result of a harassment allegation.
The board is not running this investigation.
Teachers are not being investigated.
This is just about whether a political meeting was mandatory.
It has nothing to do with investigating and punishing teachers for their free speech.
Board members clamored on April 2 for an investigation based on a six-month-old edited audio recording uploaded to YouTube and aired on WTN 99.7 that day. The radio hosts who aired the audio said the meeting was during the school day, on school grounds, and that it was a “mandatory” teachers meeting run by Williamson Strong. They named Williamson Strong parents with kids at Hillsboro and said we were at the meeting. (For more on the audio and the launching of the investigation, see Part 1).
All of this was false.
Did board members push for an investigation based on these false statements on the radio? Did they get the same false pitch from a fellow board member or from someone else? If so, they pushed for and got a taxpayer-funded investigation of private citizens on false pretenses.
As we have said before, we weren’t there, and it wasn’t our meeting.
We actually hate pleading “but we weren’t there!” because it would have been fine if we or any other parents had been there. Teachers and parents get to talk about whatever we want on our personal time; it is wildly offensive for elected politicians to “scream” (Mezera’s word) for an investigation into meetings of private citizens because they do not like what those citizens said about them. It is even creepier (paging Mr. Hoover. Mr. Hoover to the red phone please…) to use covertly-made recording of other people as a tool for political purposes. We honestly can’t believe we have to point this out.
What is being investigated?
At first, this looked like a modest investigation. The same day Bobby Curlee uploaded the audio to YouTube and WTN 99.7 started their wall-to-wall coverage of the audio, Chair PJ Mezera and board members Susan Curlee and Mark Gregory lobbied Dr. Looney to investigate the teachers’ political meeting based on the audio. Dr. Looney agreed to get an independent investigator and told the press the investigation would cover if the political meeting was mandatory, if it was held during the school day on school grounds, and if school resources were used. This was not in response to a harassment allegation. There wasn’t one.
The new (to Hillsboro and WCS) teacher who had covertly recorded her coworkers in September sent a letter to the school board dated April 5. That’s three days after the investigation was started. She said the political meeting she covertly recorded was at a park and after school and that no “parents or community members” were there. She also said she was “encouraged” to attend but does not say by whom. She wrote this letter to ask for paid leave, as she had “been placed in a position not of [her] own choosing” (?) due to the audio being broadcasted and could not return to Hillsboro where she could be “vulnerable to reprisal and retribution.”
So nobody involved said the meeting was at school or during school hours. Nobody involved said Williamson Strong founders were at the meeting or ran the meeting. Nobody involved said it was mandatory. Nobody. About a dozen people were there out of 55 faculty at the school.
So what is left to investigate, then? Was anyone pressured to be there as a condition of their job? That’s it.
This is NOT about teachers’ free speech at all! (But name names and tell us who said what and why)
But this scope of investigation is not the ‘operating system’ all board members are working from.
Board member Susan Curlee said right off the bat that the investigation was about what people said on the audio. She said that certain statements on the audio “clearly violate our policies and could violate federal civil rights law… As a board member, ensuring accountability is our job and it would appear some take issue with that.”
(Click to read)
[We do! We take issue with a politician saying she will hold teachers “accountable” for what they said on their own time and use secretly made recordings in order to do so? Yes. Yes we object!]
So what were those ‘investigated’ actually asked? On April 15, the first educators were called in to be questioned.
The educators questioned that day were told to name all the people on the recording and at the meeting. They were “required to identify their own voices on the audio recording and explain the reasons for their statements.” They were asked about previous jobs, a lot about friendships with certain parents (including some of us), and about “their relationship with central office administration.” One question was about their opinion of Mark Gregory’s ButtleOpener.
How is this not an investigation into their speech? Why is this so different from what was originally outlined as what the investigation was about? Who is driving this train?
The board has nothing to do with this investigation! (Except writing the questions, talking to the lawyers, and determining the scope of the investigation)
Board members push for it: Board members “screamed” for this investigation and got it. They kicked it off on April 2, the same day the audio was released to the media. They didn’t vote on it. It wasn’t in response to a harassment complaint because there wasn’t one. (That rationale was wedged in later even though the recording teacher’s (Summer Martin) letter refers to being afraid of future harassment.) Dr. Looney agreed to get an outside lawyer to do it.
Board members push to get Looney removed from oversight: Then, over the next several days, various board members including Bartholomew and Burgos weighed in to say the investigating attorney should not report to Dr. Looney and he should be completely out of it. Dr. Looney agreed to that condition, too.
Chairman says the board is running it: Mezera made it clear that the investigation was being overseen by the board. On 4/9 he wrote in an email to Tifany Borgelt that the investigation was being conducted by “an independent investigator under the direction of the board.”
Board members write questions for the lawyers: Board members (including Chairman Mezera) said that Mezera and Burgos wrote investigative questions for the lawyers. The school district claims these questions are protected by attorney client privilege.
Individual board members communicate directly with the lawyers: The school district has redacted emails, so we do not know what questions and prompts were sent from the board or from individual board members to the lawyers. We can see that Individual board members sent information directly to the attorneys on multiple occasions (though the text of the emails is redacted). Do all board members know what individual board members sent to the lawyers?
Board members get updates from the lawyers: In addition, the board received updates and reports on the ongoing investigation in executive session.
After the ACLU objected to this investigation into the free speech of educators, the story changed… The board had nothing to do with the investigation and thus could not stop it.
“The Board is not involved in the investigation. The Chairman of the Board helped in establishing the independent nature of the investigation at Dr. Looney’s request, but the Board has NOT established this investigation. The Board has taken no action in this matter, whatsoever. Since the investigation was not established by the Board, it is imprudent to require the Board to end such an investigation. The Board is not involved in this investigation by any direct means.” – Chairman PJ Mezera (Williamson Herald, 4/23/15)
But this is just about administrators! (Except also teachers! But not really! We love teachers!)
Teachers and administrators at Hillsboro were under investigation as of 4/2.
PJ Mezera and Mike Looney issued a press statement on 4/27 after the ACLU got involved:
“There are no allegations of wrongdoing by teachers; teacher conduct is not under investigation.”
This was news to everyone, including the TEACHER who had been already questioned for more than 90 minutes about what she said on the audio, her friendships, and her opinion of a vulgar novelty item.
Williamson Strong Derangement Syndrome is alive and well: parents are under investigation too. Who knew?
Williamson Strong Derangement Syndrome is a condition in which one perceives everything critical or bothersome to oneself as Williamson Strong.
Most reasonable people know that individuals and groups of people all over the county ask hard questions, engage as citizens, parents, and taxpayers, and sometimes (gasp!) say critical things about their elected officials.
They are not all Williamson Strong. The Mark Gregory petition about the ButtleOpener? Not Williamson Strong. The Brentwood parent meeting in October? Not Williamson Strong. The “Support WCS and Dr. Looney” petition? Not Williamson Strong. The request for censure of a board member? Not Williamson Strong.
Again, we think all of these were perfectly reasonable things for engaged citizens to do, and they were not done by Williamson Strong.
Likewise, the people secretly recorded while meeting on their own time were all school teachers and administrators. They know us as our kids go to school there. This appears to be their great crime.
Parents did not organize it and weren’t there. So why is the focus on Williamson Strong? Who decided to investigate us? What does that look like? (The quotes below are from emails obtained by public records request.)
Susan Curlee to board, 4/2:
“This goes beyond employees. Members of Williamson Strong, members of various PTOs are named and mentioned in the audio. This is more than a simple HR matter.”
[Um, OK. Our names are mentioned as part of Williamson Strong so we need to be investigated?]
Paul Bartholomew to Mezera, 4/2: Just read this one for yourself. Bartholomew said parents (who were not at the meeting) should be “permanently banned from school meetings/premises and reported to the appropriate Government agency!” He also blamed the very teachers who were secretly recorded and then had their private conversation aired on the radio six months later, saying “AND, this is all breaking during the most sacred of times, Passover and Easter. The enemy knows no boundaries.”
(Click to read)
[The teachers neither knew their conversation had been recorded nor released the six-month-old audio to the media. They cannot be blamed for any of this chaos and upheaval.]
Curlee to board, 4/3:
“My concern is the integrity of an investigation given the extent of involvement between Williamson Strong members and central office.”
[What’s the allegation here?]
Curlee to Dr. Looney , 4/3:
“What I don’t see you doing, Dr. Looney, is denouncing the actions of the group, Williamson Strong. I find it very telling that you will use such strong language with me, however, you will not with a group that has obviously crossed a line.”
[Again, we weren’t there and it wasn’t our meeting, so alleging that we ‘crossed a line’ is odd. Though again, and we’ll say this slowly, it is ok for parents and teachers to meet and talk after work… and say anything they want.]
Curlee to board, 4/6: After the recording teacher’s (Summer Martin) letter clearly states that no parents were at the meeting, Curlee continues with her Williamson Strong focus. She sends the lawyer Williamson Strong information as well as a teacher’s Facebook post from September supporting Williamson Strong (the teacher is later interrogated).
[We are not investigating teachers, but here’s a teacher who likes Williamson Strong. Let’s question her!]
Curlee to the board, 4/6:
“I cannot see us subjecting the [recording] teacher to such an environment where parents involved have children in her class.”
[Parents involved in what? Parents weren’t involved in this meeting.]
Vice Chair Beth Burgos in response to the recording teacher (Summer Martin) who wants paid leave, 4/6. Note she includes the ‘recording teacher’ (Summer Martin) on this email:
“I feel strongly about taking care of our teachers and she is asking for our help. I have been willing to sit back and take personal attacks on my character and motives for running for this position because I knew they were lies. I am not willing to let those same people to attack our teachers who are now standing up and exposing the truth of what happened in OUR schools under our watch. I have excluded Rick [Wimberly], Bobby [Hullett], and Dr. Looney from this email purposefully because all three have known friendships and even alliances with Williamson Strong and those under investigation.”
(Click to read)
[Um, again, we weren’t at the meeting and didn’t organize the meeting. Sometimes other people do things and think things that one may not like, even things that are unfair or inaccurate. We should know. It’s interesting that Dr. Burgos wants to protect Hillsboro from us parents. It is not clear if Dr. Burgos has ever been to Hillsboro School. Several of us have spent years there, coached teams there, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, sold T-shirts, and sold hundreds if not thousands of slices of pizza. Also, OUR KIDS are there. Dr. Burgos is going to protect Hillsboro from us though.]
Curlee to board, 4/10: Curlee emails the board attorney several additional documents about Williamson Strong.
Burgos to Mezera, 4/11, says Williamson Strong is “under investigation.” A WCS dad married to one of the Williamson Strong founders had done an analysis of the audio and determined the date and time consistent with its uploading. He sent his findings to Chairman Mezera. The chairman originally thanked the parent and said he would pass it on to the attorneys. But then Burgos said to the chairman that she did not think the information should be passed on because of its source, someone married to one of those in the group “under investigation.”
(Click to read)
[What exactly is the legal authority of the attorney hired by the school district to investigate parents?]
In case you’re having a hard time following:
This is not about freedom of speech (except the board is investigating who said what and why);
This is not driven by the board at all (except the board pushed for it, wrote the questions, and multiple board members have communicated with the lawyers on the taxpayers’ dime);
We are totally clear about the scope of the investigation (except the board has changed it several times);
Teachers are not being investigated (except the board didn’t tell them that until after the ACLU was involved and after they questioned a TEACHER about her friendships and her comments on the audio for 90 minutes);
The board will investigate Williamson Strong because this is really Williamson Strong, even though parents weren’t at the meeting and didn’t organize it.
See The Hillsboro Investigation Part 1 background information.