I was fairly astonished and dismayed at what both Principal Howard and Director Blanford said on the subject of the Garfield field trip incident. Some of it was contradictory and some was incoherent. I think they made a confusing situation even more confusing.
But, as Principal Howard told the crowd, he got himself a lawyer and got advice from that lawyer on what to do.
I can only say that loose lips sink ships and I was more than surprised at the comments from both men.
There were three handouts, two quite interesting.
- Letter from Principal Ted Howard to Garfield parents
- Letter from Garfield PTSA to Superintendent Nyland, Michael Tolley, Sarah Pritchett and Richard Staudt (cc'd to Ted Howard)
Our school has been in the media, as many of you know, and Garfield does not step back from scrutiny. We have stepped into the spotlight and are currently taking a fair amount of criticism for taking the slow and deliberate approach, as we look at what we can do to learn from the past and better prepare for the future. I want to be clear with you that I take nothing more seriously than the safety and security of the students and faculty here at Garfield. As you may know, overnight field trips are currently on hold as we await guidance from the District. I am encouraged by their progress and hope to soon have the items that are necessary to me to approve field trips in 2015.
Garfield "stepped into the spotlight" or was pushed; I guess it depends on how you see the situation.
He also put info on the Sexual Harassment Taskforce in his letter.
What is interesting is that the conciliatory tone in the letter was not the tone he took when he spoke. He was less-than-positive about the district's work.
The GHS PTSA memo urges the district and the school to work together to "ensure proper policies are in place as soon as possible regarding field trips." (italics theirs)
"Because the latest version of the field trip policy is unclear and leaves principals, teachers and chaperones open to legal action, Principal Howard has made the decision to cancel all overnight field trips until further notice."
(During the Q&A on this issue, one parent said this was the first she had heard that the new district policies would leave staff unprotected. I had heard this from someone but now this appears to be what is now out there.)
The memo continues:
We support this decision to get district policies in order for the safety of our students and staff.
Cancellation of field trips affects a large percentage of Garfield's nearly 2,000 students, who are involved in the following classes and school activities (then there was a lengthy list).
They also listed issues with the delay/lack of clarity like fundraising and trip planning. They expressed the sincere desire to have the district/school be in compliance with laws and policies.
But, they also said:
Every day in the life of a high school student is precious and valuable; a missed opportunity for new learning, unique experiences and broadened horizons cannot be recaptured, As adults, we think nothing of taking a few months or a year to work out an issue. Keep kids in mind. Please proceed with speed on this.
They ask for a written response/plan by Thursday, October 9th.
The PTSA co-presidents, Marie Doyle and Kirk Wohlers, welcomed parents. There was a brief treasurers' report. Boy, do these parents work hard to support this school. They raise over $250K. They had a pie chart of all the items they support and it's direct support to students and classrooms. They pay for a college counseling office, they pay for student planners and a volunteer coordinator (among many items). They did make me smile because they said they wanted to pressure the district to pay for some of this and I can only say, "Good luck with that."
Director Blanford was introduced and said that this was the first time he had been to a Garfield PTA meeting since being elected last November. He then went on to say there were seven Board members and that two got elected last November (but it was three) and that four will be elected in November 2015. (Why he needed to say all this about elections, I don't know.) He said that he knew the school was grappling with the issue of the field trip policy.
He also said he had two e-mail addresses he could be reached at:
(He also mentioned later on in the meeting that he often has coffee at the Starbucks on 23rd/Jackson so if you ever want to drop in there during the day, you might find him.)
Then Principal Howard took the mic in what was a rambling history of his family's personal association with Garfield which dates back to the 1930s. He himself graduated in 1985 and, when he came into Garfield as principal 11 years ago, was the seventh principal in 10 years. He is also a Garfield parent with a freshman and a senior.
He is quite proud of Garfield to the point where he said that Garfield has been the "focal point of the city for years" and "if it didn't happen at Garfield, it didn't happen." He said it was a "stand your ground meeting place."
He said they are working on changing "the culture" at Garfield. At first, I thought he was talking about the field trip incident but no, it was about the hazing incident.
He got applause when he said their goal this year is "100% graduation." He said they had been working on it for three years and knew it was a big one. He also said something telling (to me) about creating this plan and "we got just so far ahead at looking at data, we forgot to talk to students." I think that is, indeed, one danger in taking in huge amounts of data and trying to massage/analyze it into something when, really, asking students might help.
Then he got started on the field trip. He said he got asked a lot "Did you have to stop all the field trips?"
- faculty was refusing to take any students on trips
- that he had hired a lawyer to "protect staff." He said staff is saying no to field trips.
- he signs off on field trips but doesn't go on them.
- the district admitted that "protocols" need updating
- he and his lawyer made "suggestions" to the district. He said they need to make sure that staff isn't being questioned on following protocols.
- that today he would be talking to the district
- that they stopped the field trips because we got "too many changes from the district" and "that made me uncomfortable." He also said that "I want to make sure they are safe and if I can't guarantee it, I won't have trips."
He mentioned - twice - that there is a perception of Garfield being "two schools" and firmly said it is one Garfield.
He said that public education in Washington state had taken a major financial hit over the last five years and hasn't recovered. He said we have laundry list of things to do but not enough resources/staff to get them all done.
He also noted that they have 1676 students when the PTSA's memo said there were nearly 1900 students.
He said parents need to pressure the Legislature to fully fund education. He mentioned school partners like Seattle Central and Seattle University.
The first question came from the front. For some reason, they did not give the speaker the mic and you could only get bits of what the speaker was saying but I heard "field trip" and "hazing." Turns out it was KC councilman Larry Gossett. I was quite surprised that they called on him but maybe he's a parent, I don't know.
Then Howard launched into a lengthy explanation of what he did about the field trip incident.
He said that the FBI "investigated the incident the same day it was reported." He said the teacher reported it to him that day and he called the district. (He then said he didn't want to get into "competing information" but continued on.) He said the student had a social worker and a teacher at the hospital. He said the students came home early from the trip.
He said he "had a conversation" with someone who came forward with information (I'm thinking he means the student who observed/heard the incident in the cabin). He said he told "our police" and the FBI came to Garfield and talked with "everyone on the trip," teachers and students.
He said "we were told to let the FBI do its job and stay out of the way." This supports what district legal counsel told me which was that Mr. Howard was the one who reported that the FBI said the district should wait on its investigation.
I'm not sure that "staying out of the way" means "don't investigate." And why would the district not call the FBI themselves? As well, a reporter from KIRO contacted the FBI office on this statement. What the FBI said was they could not comment on this particular case but that they would not have said told the district not to investigate.
But again, the district should not have been investigating for a crime. They should have had an investigation to see how a crime could have happened under their own procedures.
He continued saying "I don't investigate crimes" but if they have a fight at school, he would but "that's not a crime." The last time I looked, assault is indeed a crime.
He said there was no arrest and no charges filed against anyone. He said if there had been "we would have followed the process and the district would have looked at it."
He said this went two years back and it just came up this summer.
Another question was about the seemingly separate culture at Garfield. Howard answered saying kids make their own choices who to hang out with and that the best thing about Garfield is that you can do what you want to do and take any class you want to take.
He then said the faculty was looking at restorative justice curriculum and that many people don't know that Garfield has more African-American students than Franklin, Cleveland and Rainier Beach. He also said that was a choice students made. I'm not sure if he is aware that no, most students don't have a choice of where they go to high school. Strange.
One of the PTSA co-presidents, Krik Wohlers, said that LinkCo was important when the hazing incident occurred. He said he had attended a Board meeting and that he saw that people want change around sexual harassment.
One parent said his daughter had gone on great trips and he was worried about the mixed messages students were getting.
Mr Howard then said that the "media likes sensationalism." That's an interesting statement given how little local coverage this has received.
He said the school had received "mixed messages" from the district about support.
Then Director Blanford stepped in to speak. He said he had a long conversation with Mr. Howard yesterday morning. He said the incident happened and staff were concerned and parent groups had meetings. He said the district was updating policies to prevent "events like what happened two years ago from happening again." He said there were risk management issues and lots of "different pieces." He said if staff doesn't feel comfortable, they need training and policies to depend on. He said, "We are not at that place yet" and we have to let principals make this choice.
"That tells the district that we have work to do to get training necessary so whoever is escorting your child, everything is in place if something happens and can prevent something bad from happening."
( If I were a district lawyer, or even just a lawyer, I would have seriously considering asking/telling Director Blanford not to say anything else.) But he seemed to sense this and said the district was "focusing on the future, not the past" and the reason is because the incident has "gone to litigation" and so there is little they can communicate.
He said until we have these "assurances" in place, "I think Principal Howard was right to do this." He said my commitment is because when "I heard Howard put the kabosh on field trips" that he knew "we have work to do for the district." He said his colleagues and the Superintendent are "trying to make that happen and we are not there right now."
A question was asked if there was widespread consensus to end the field trips for this year and wasn't there a different way to do things. Howard said this was "one of the big things in the packet" and that there are certain pieces where you "use your professional development" and said that the teachers on the trip thought they had used their "professionalism and look what happened to me" and other teachers see that and wonder "what do I do?"
Howard said he asked his lawyer the same question and the lawyer said Garfield could create their own policies but then he found out thru "Legal" that staff wouldn't be covered.
He said there was general consensus among the "bulk" of teachers about ending field trips but some teachers said they would go on trips.
Another question was asked about an orchestra trip in March. Howard said that he gave the date of January (in his original letter to parents) and he had several meetings on the issue since August.
He said "the way our district is changing policy and the training isn't till later." He said he was told they needed a Title IX officer for the building and the "website has a litany of things to do" and "a 5-minute Powerpoint doesn't train me."
Blanford then said if he were a parent, he would wonder why this is taking so long. He said if you were paying attention at School Board meetings (and he said "I have to be there and I don't encourage you to go" - kind of a weird thing to say given what he said next), that you would have heard this eloquent person saying the district should have a taskforce to look at "all of this." He said it "took Board members awhile to buy in" but they did and the district is creating the taskforce now.
He went and said they need to figure out the policies and practices that "will be the best ones" and that it will take awhile and the challenge is how do we deal with the two things - getting kids ready for field trips and not having anything "like what happened two years ago."
Another question was over Howard saying that there was a distinction between a disciplinary action and a criminal investigation. He said there was "potential overlap" but maybe not enough evidence to charge but you could discipline.
He said he couldn't answer the question as stated but that it gets handed to the district. The person who asked the question said that "this can't be the first time something like this has happened." Principal Howard said, "In 11 years, I have never been faced with this kind of situation." Now whether he meant an assault or a problem on a field trip or what, he did not explain it.
Another parent pressed the discipline issue and Howard said, for example, they have a clear policy on drinking and a clear policy "across the board." He said, "I don't do discipline" and that it was the VP's job and that he only sees students if they are expelled.
He said there are not clear guidelines on what to do if someone is not charged with a crime but has been accused of doing something that could bring charges.
He said the only two people who know what happened on that trip are the two students. (We know that isn't really true as he himself said one student in the room that night gave him information.)
Blanford was asked, "Why do you support Howard's decision to cancel all field trips? Are you telling other principals to do the same?"
He said, "I'm not sure all principals feel the same way on policies." He said they have the discretion to decide on types of field trips and what you are asking me "is there a different rule for School X or Y but we give discretion to principals to evaluate their particular situation but, in the future, we need a policy across all schools or space in-between that would allow one school to let one thing happen that another wouldn't."
He sensed that people could not follow him and tried again. "We count on the discretion of prinicpals to know their school and situation and that was done in this case." He said that Principal Howard was not comfortable with the new policies and that "district staff need to make him comfortable."
It was at this point - mercifully - that this discussion ended and they moved on.
What I got from this is as follows:
- what a huge mess
- but look, if you read the district's report, there is time after time that district policies were not followed. Adminstrators signed off on the trip without necessary signatures and information. Chaperones were not properly vetted. Chaperones, in violation of district policy, did not inform the VP that they were bringing their own children. And on and on.
When will anyone take responsibility or be held responsible for not following the procedures in place? It cannot be a case of "move on, nothing to see here."
-Blanford seemingly says there should be an across-the-board policy but then, in the same breath, says principals should have discretion. Is that some principals (high school) or all principals? How much discretion?
- as well, are other high school principals shutting down field trips? Why is it then, that Principal Howard is the only principal who is so uneasy?
The PTSA is right - these are not insurmountable problems.
High schools plan and take field trips every single year. So unless you are trying to cover yourself from litigation and protect your job, it would seem this district could get its act together for this school to continue on with the greatness that Mr. Howard feels so deeply.
Why is this so difficult if the district staff and the school staff are all professionals?