CP Public Schools

Parents and community advocates told the College Place School Board they are concerned about how the district is taking care of its students and families.

In a hearing Thursday, six people presented about 45 minutes of testimony to the five-person board, outlining past, present and potential issues surrounding discrimination, racism and cultural diversity within the district.

The session at Davis Elementary School was closed to the public and media, in accordance with the district’s policy regarding quasi-judicial proceedings, Superintendent Tim Payne said.

Policy No. 1410 exempts the district from having to give notice of or general access to such hearings, he noted.

The hearing was the result of a request made by Walla Walla resident James Winchell on Nov. 6.

As permitted by the district’s bylaws, Winchell brought a formal compliant against Payne, members of the School Board and College Place High School principal Kirk Jameson, who is currently on family leave and has tendered his resignation effective June 30.

Winchell, retired from Whitman College after a long career in teaching humanities there and elsewhere, said he filed his complaint based on news stories and other information suggesting the three parties failed to take effective action against a culture of discrimination at the high school.

This came after a series of events that started in May with protests from the district’s Latino families that their high school-age children were being treated differently by Jameson than white students in discriminatory and racist ways.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students also said Jameson had discriminated against them.

Earlier that month, about two-thirds of CPHS teachers reported in an anonymous survey they felt unsafe and worried when working under Jameson.

After a packed and emotional community meeting on May 30 and calls for immediate changes at the high school, Payne and board members instituted a number of measures.

Those included a series of summer meetings with parents and community members, forming a superintendent’s advisory board, training staff in the realities of other cultures and an in-depth investigation by consultant Dan Beebe of claims of discriminatory, racist incidents.

Beebe’s findings, released in September, echoed many of the concerns raised by Latino students and their parents. The report said Jameson had “unintentionally” created a culture of fear in the high school. Beebe also noted the district lacked sufficient administrative policies and procedures to handle concerns from those inside and outside its schools.

Although Jameson’s departure checks one box, Winchell said he continues to believe the School Board did not exercise due diligence in its supervision of Payne.

The superintendent was allowed to essentially investigate his own administration by putting limits on the scope of Beebe’s investigation, Winchell contended, including prohibiting the consultant from making any recommendations to the district based on findings.

This, Winchell said, was due to the board deferring to the superintendent instead of leading the district as it should.

Upon requesting a hearing to address these matters, Winchell said he heard not from the school board as expected but from the the district’s attorney. Gregory Stevens of Stevens Clay law firm in Spokane said in a letter dated Nov. 21 that based on the College Place School District’s actions to improve things at the high school, he concluded “the District did not violate anti-discrimination laws in declining to terminate Principal Kirk Jameson.”

Winchell said he rejected Stevens’ statement, noting he had not made an accusation of discrimination against the board for renewing Jameson’s contract.

That annual employment agreement was renewed June 26 at a salary of $129,713, according to College Place Public Schools officials.

Winchell filed a written appeal, then agreed with Payne to extend the date of a hearing from Dec. 19 to Dec. 27.

At Thursday’s hearing, Winchell was joined by others who are asking the district for continuing and meaningful changes. The content of those presentations was later made available to the Union-Bulletin.

Mariela Rosas has been involved with a coalition of College Place Public Schools Latino parents since the beginning of the swell of unrest. As a supervisor of educational programs at the Valle Lindo housing development for Children’s Home Society of Washington, Rosas has many opportunities to interact with Latino parents, she told board chairman Doug Case, along with board members Todd Stubblefield, Mandy Thompson, Brian Maiden and Melito Ramirez.

While the district is making the changes called for by families, trust in the district is not easily repaired, Rosas said.

She suggested dropping a requirement for student grades to be above above a C-minus to be allowed to participate in student clubs and proposed a merging of two College Place Latino clubs — one in the high school and a separate, community-based club. One group, undivided, would increase its chance of success, Rosas noted in her presentation.

Community members and retired educators Cindy and Bob Gregoire also addressed the board. Cindy Gregoire spoke of a Latino parent survey she facilitated last summer that garnered requests for respect and equal treatment for the parents and their children, and for the Latino culture to be valued. Parents also noted the need for more interpreters and bilingual school personnel.

She encouraged the board to continue building a diverse workforce. “The district currently employs far fewer people with Hispanic surnames than is proportional with the 43 percent Hispanic enrollment of students,” she later pointed out.

The board has made some quick remedies. Report cards are “hopefully” soon coming home in Spanish, and the school handbook has been printed in Spanish, addressing some of the problems raised in May’s meeting, Cindy said.

“It’s the hard things now, like being kind, being respectful to everyone.”

Bob Gregoire said he asked if the board had been aware that administrative decision at the high school were creating a hostile environment for Latino and other students. If so, why didn’t they stop it, he wondered.

How can he, a taxpaying district patron, be reassured that noted culture of fear and climate of discrimination at College Place High School has stopped and will not be repeated, he asked the board.

Other issues were brought up, including College Place parent Soledad Salazar’s charge of being ignored by Payne in 2016 when she raised a concern about pocket knives being allowed to be carried by students on campus. Salazar’s statement Thursday, read by Anita Suarez, noted Latino parents need to be made to feel welcome at the College Place schools and  included in the school’s culture.

Bobbie Sue Arias told board members she wants them to address moving forward upon Jameson’s resignation, specifically within the context of racial, ethnic and religious diversity and with a commitment to education excellence and equity for all students, according to the district’s own policy.

The problems at the high school perpetuated by Jameson exposed institutional bias and pervasive discrimination within the College Place School District, Arias said, noting that as a parent she had experienced “blatant acts of discrimination and intimidation tactics” used by Jameson against parents, staff and students. Such actions demonstrate the board’s failure to comply with its own stated vision and policies, she pointed out.

Arias said she also wants the board to answer how it will repair the current damaged atmosphere within the district and present a visible, safe and unbiased process for community and parent grievances.

Jameson, she wrote in her statement to the board, “was notorious for putting high school students in lunch detention for being even one minute late to class. His punishments were often swift and harsh for the smallest of infractions. Yet something as devastating and pervasive as racism and discrimination by your administration carried no consequences and was explained away as ‘unintentional.’ How will you hold yourselves and your administration accountable for the way in which you have failed this community and failed to carry out your duties as elected representatives tasked with governing our schools?”

Winchell said he has asked the board when it became aware of the egregious circumstances outlined by its high school teachers in a “call to action” letter submitted by the Walla Walla Valley Education Association to Payne on May 14. The document noted the anonymous teacher survey results and a willingness to begin litigation to get relief from working conditions under Jameson. What action was taken by the board, when was it taken and to what effect, Winchell asked in the hearing.

After the hearing Winchell said he fears the School Board will stick with Payne and that only action through the state Human Rights Commission will bring any real answers to the community’s questions.

Neither Payne nor Case responded to a request for comment on the results of Thursday’s hearing by press time today.

The board has 30 days to respond to what they heard at the session, but the group of speakers said attorney Gregory Stevens told them he expects a response to come sooner.

He’s proud of the work done Thursday by the people who presented at the hearing, Bob Gregoire said afterward.

“Everyone who spoke gave an honest assessment of what they see in the district.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.