Why the NatureBridge Case Matters

The reported rape on a Garfield High School field trip in November 2012 matters deeply to me. Not only because I care about student safety in general and sexual assault in particular, but because I see this case as a prime example of the central dysfunction in the District. This is a particularly tragic consequence of the District’s culture of lawlessness.

The field trip procedures were completely ignored - the people who organized the trip admitted to the investigator that they didn't bother to read the field trip procedures, let alone follow them. They didn't even read the ones that they attested to reading in signed documents. Consequently, the adult supervision was completely inadequate.

The field trip procedures were completely unenforced - the people who approved the trip and had the responsibility to enforce the field trip procedures admitted to the investigator than they not only didn't bother to read the procedures, they approved the trip knowing that the adult supervision was completely inadequate.

There were no consequences for the violations of the field trip procedures - to this day not one person has been held accountable for the violations of the procedures. Instead, the District has defended and excused the violations. Even when a specific complaint was lodged against the district staff, the superintendent simply denied the complaint. He based the denial not on the question of whether the procedures were violated or not but based on his inability to conclusively determine whether a sexual assault occurred and, therefore, according to some unwritten Chick Hearn rules: no harm, no foul.

The rules were completely ignored - the chaperones acknowledged that the students committed wholesale violations of the field trip rules and the NatureBridge rules of conduct.

The rules were completely un-enforced - there were no consequences for anyone following the students’ wholesale violations of the NatureBridge rules and the field trip rules. Moreover, there were no steps taken on the second night to address the chaos of the first night.

There were no consequences for the violations of the rules - to this day not one person has been held accountable for the violations of the rules. Instead, the District has defended and excused the violations. Hey, kids. Whattayagonnado?

Following the reported rape none of the correct sexual harassment procedures were followed - there are very clear steps to take following an incident like this. They were ignored by everyone all the way up the line, from the teachers and administrators on site to the senior district management.

There was no enforcement of the procedures - the superintendent didn't take any steps to direct staff to comply with the written procedures.

There were no consequences for the violations of the procedures - to this day not one person has been held accountable for the violations of the procedures. Instead, the District has defended and excused the violations. Again, the Chick Hearn rule applied: the superintendent determined that the complaint had no standing because he could not conclusively determine that the contact was non-consensual.

This is the culture of lawlessness projected onto the worst tragedy that I hope we ever see in Seattle Public Schools. It demonstrates how this dysfunction is deeply rooted in the SPS culture - to the extent that nothing - nothing - takes precedence over it. Certainly not student safety. That’s why the case is of interest to me. That’s why I have written about it and will continue to write about it.

If the preservation of the culture of lawlessness is more important to the District than protecting student safety, then there is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. If the District won't address it then I can only hope that state and federal agencies will.

Everyone who is trying to divert the conversation to questions about whether the contact was consensual or not is completely missing the point. That part doesn't matter.

Even if the contact were completely consensual, procedures were violated, rules were violated, laws were violated. Never mind the ones violated by children, I am concerned about the ones that were violated by adults who were responsible for student safety. I am concerned about how District officials have excused and defended those violations by adults - even in the face of this tragedy. Nothing matters more than preserving the culture of lawlessness.

This is the dysfunction at the root of all of the District's problems. This case shows that no one - not the senior district officials, not the general counsel, not the superintendent, not even the Board - holds a higher loyalty to anything other than this broken culture. Any and all claims to the contrary are simply false. And until the District addresses this dysfunction, there is no hope for any positive influence from the central administration in any of the schools.

The duty to address the culture of lawlessness falls squarely on the Board and the superintendent, but they have shirked it. I call on them to either step up or step down. I would prefer that they stepped up, but if they are incapable of that, then they should definitely step down.


I completely concur.

There were no consequences for the violations of the rules - to this day not one person has been held accountable for the violations of the rules.

I think the district would say that since all school staff involved with field trips has had to have new "training," those at Garfield involved have been held accountable in some way.

Now that's not any way that most would call being held accountable.

I know that one staff person involved did take a couple of personal days off directly after the trip, telling students in class that "something" happened on the trip.

I would find that person pretty sensitive if, as a chaperone on a field trip, that person found out a couple of kids had sex during the trip.

Is the fact that a couple of kids had sex that upsetting? Or would it be the case that you might really be distraught enough to not want to go to work because it was not-consensual?

I know that the Board received a very narrow charge of review when the Superintendent's ruling on the issue was brought before them.

Now why the Board didn't push back and say, "Neither you nor we are charged with figuring out if there was a crime. Our job is seeing if staff followed procedures (no matter what happened)."

Because that - and not being detectives - is the Superintendent's and Board's charge - district policies and procedures.
Stu said…
Obviously, I agree with all of this. But, of course, they've finally sorted it all out and come up with the consequences! Since it's been almost 2 years since this happened, they're going to punish the current student population but banning overnight trips. That'll teach these kids to follow the rules, especially those scofflaws in the band. Sure, they were planning on going to major jazz events in Idaho at the end of Feburary, Reno in late April, and then, of course, Essentially Ellington in early May, and sure the chaperones have been well-trained and responsible on these trips in the past, but making the innocent suffer is really the only way the principal and administration are ever going to learn! I'm sure just looking at those sad faces will really drum home how important following the guidelines might be and, though the band and orchestra might suffer in the short run, in the long run those in charge can feel as though they finally did something.

Anonymous said…
Just a couple of points.
1. Regarding the "you can't guarantee kids won't get together" excuse being discussed in the last thread: Just suppose the chaperoning had been appropriate. Although less likely, this *could* have happened anyway. However, the district would be in a much better situation. They might have angered the family so much with their behavior the family might still have gone public, but the case wouldn't have the traction it does.

2. On the issue of sexuality and culture: Imagine someone, maybe a male, had a serious and life-altering injury while partaking in risky behavior on an extremely under-supervised field trip. How would the situation be different? Would we be saying "kids will be kids!" or would we want heads to roll? This is a way to disentangle the sexism from the issue of adult responsility.

3: Regarding group punishment: Usually it is applied when targeted punishment is not possible. So Ted Howard found it impossible to dismiss his AP, impossible to discipline teachers, and his superiors found it impossible to discipline him. So in some incredibly circular and ironic turn of events, he punishes all the students! I agree it's wacky, but in this district, nothing is surprising anymore.

Chris S.
Good comments, Chris, especially around decoupling the sexism.
Anonymous said…
On Sept. 25, 2014 the parents of the Garfield assault victim reiterated their request to the District to investigate and hold accountable all the parties who failed to follow the laws. The parents also provided a list of the WACs that the District staff violated. See complaint at: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0Byn9IiBNNXy9cDEzZE5kZ1lxYnc/edit

Instead of answering our comprehensive complaint, the District provided one of its regularly attorneys a few distorted questions to “investigate.” This allowed the culpable parties to be exonerated in Aug. 2014. They should be sanctioned according to the appropriate policies including 5281.

Clearly, the Seattle School District is incapable of providing a transparent investigation when it denies the very misconduct shown in its own records. Please email the Seattle School Board, Dr. Nyland, and the Educational Service Districts named below asking for an independent investigation by the Office of Professional Practices and the required consequences for those who violated the WACs.

We must implore the District to stop covering up misconduct/negligence/lawlessness with sham investigations. Because teachers and principals knew there wouldn’t be consequences for their actions, they have acted with flagrant disregard for the laws that exist to protect students.

“Dr. Nyland and All ESDs: It’s imperative that you request the Office of Professional Practices to conduct a transparent investigation of the misconduct/negligence/ other professional deficits associated with the Garfield rape case of Nov. 2012. Those responsible for the misconduct, negligence, and other violations should be disciplined as required by law. Demonstrate that you take matters of student safety seriously by requesting an independent investigation.”
Larry Nyland
Catherine Slagle OPP , State Superintendent Randy Dorn , ESD 101 , ESD 105 , ESD 112 , ESD 113 , ESD 114 , ESD 121 , ESD 123 , ESD 171 , ESD 189 , SchoolBoard

doyourjobs said…
Perhaps Superintendent Nyland can take some lessons from this also new Superintendent in Palo Alto about how to deal with OCR cases:


How much have taxpayers spent to pay for attorneys/district staff to mishandle the NatureBridge case?
Puffin said…
Superintendent Nyland and the Board claim they have learned from the NatureBridge field trip disaster. What have they learned?

On the NatureBridge field trip, students ignored the camp rules. Boys and girls co-mingled in each other's cabins after curfew. The chaperones did not enforce the rules the first night nor administer consequences. Why should the students adhere to the rules when they're not held accountable? So the students believed they had the green light to continue to flaunt the rules the second night, when the assault occurred.

SPS staff ignored the procedures that were in place to help ensure student safety. The District administrators ("chaperones") do nothing to enforce the rules or hold staff accountable for misconduct. Instead they create new rules. Why should staff adhere to them when they aren't held accountable for compliance with the original rules?

The parents file a complaint with the District over the negligent chaperoning that created the conditions for a sexual assault to occur. The general counsel's office tells the Superintendent and Board that the complaint is about whether a rape occurred, and that the District will be sued unless they agree that there was no sexual assault or harassment, even in the face of objective evidence to the contrary. So the Superintendent and Board agree.

The parents file a complaint with the District over the unprofessional conduct of the SPS staff in planning and supervising the NatureBridge field trip. The District makes its "investigation" about whether staff acted with deceptive intent, even in the face of objective evidence of noncompliance. The general counsel's office likely informs the Superintendent and Board that if staff misconduct is found, the District will be sued. Will the Superintendent and Board again agree?

What, exactly, are the lessons the District has learned?
Doyourjobs, fascinating link. I love this:

"It took newly-arrived Palo Alto school Superintendent Max McGee about six weeks to figure out what the school board still hasn't: The way to head off costly legal entanglements when problems arise is to communicate quickly, acknowledge mistakes, make corrections, and stay focused on the needs of every student.

That's how McGee opted this month to solve the newest complaint of a frustrated Palo Alto parent who turned to the federal Office for Civil Rights for help after believing district staff had not handled their child's disability accommodations properly.

McGee didn't bring in the lawyers. He didn't try to question the appropriateness or authority of OCR's involvement, nor the motivations of the family. He didn't cost the district a dime.

Instead, he quickly pulled together a chronology of what had happened, including the errors made by the district in handling the student's 504 plan accommodation, and outlined what the district had already done to both fix the problem for this particular student and to change procedures so it wouldn't happen again. He provided all this to the OCR, which he says appears to have resolved the matter.

McGee also proved that a complaint can be publicly disclosed and discussed while at the same time fully protecting the identity and privacy of the student. The school board and its attorneys have consistently used student privacy rights as the reason for refusing to discuss complaints or the district's actions in dealing with complaints.

Board members and district lawyers, please take note of how problems can be handled in a different way from the path you have chosen."

Apparently, it can be done.
Anonymous said…
@Puffin: Read MW's comment above. The board wasn't as involved in the investigation and/or liability determinations as you suggest. They were in an appeal & review capacity, and I know some aren't happy with how the district acted, nor have we heard the last word from them on the subject.

Also, does anyone see the irony here of how the Times used to rant about the Board's micro-management? Here the board left matters to staff to handle, and look where we are? Hey, Times Ed Board: Where's that anti-micro-management diatribe now? How's the "hands off the staff" thing working out for us?


P.S. Thank you, NoNameToday, for your last post on the earlier thread. Good place and manner to wind it up.
Anonymous said…
Mirmac1: How long before the Times tries to hang the entire tragedy around the Board's neck in their push for Mayoral Control? Any bets?

Remember all: THIS Board has been together for all of 10 months. Watch the Times conveniently omit that fact, over and over again.

Anonymous said…
Re The Seattle Times:

The Seattle Times has had all the documents concerning this case from May 2013. They failed to even report on the opening of the federal investigation when national and local media did report. They failed to do any investigative reporting like we saw with Al-Jazeera, Kiro, Komo, King, the Stranger, and others. Let us see whether The Times "gets" the request that Dr. Nyland ask the Office of Professional Practices for the objective investigation his district failed to provide. Let us see if The Times can figure this out.

Anonymous said…

Not to worry. We are forming a national non-profit whose mission statement includes the Seattle School District as the impetus, as also stated on our FB page. There is so much internet archived exposure now that nothing the District can do will erase this from the public eye. Join our work so we can push for the law you recommend. Stopsexualassaultinhighschool at FB

mirmac1 said…
Wow doyourjobs! Thanks for that! I saw a sunbreak in the clouds. we must clone McGee.
Anonymous said…
Instead, he quickly pulled together a chronology of what had happened, including the errors made by the district in handling the student's 504 plan accommodation, and outlined what the district had already done to both fix the problem for this particular student and to change procedures so it wouldn't happen again. He provided all this to the OCR, which he says appears to have resolved the matter.

SPS NEVER admits mistakes. Our current OCR lawsuit is going to cost SPS around $80K in legal fees.

The tax payers should be outraged!

never learn
Charlie Mas said…
Yeah, it's a funny thing. The District can somehow claim "lessons learned" and, and the same time, claim that they did nothing wrong. Well, if you did nothing wrong then what lesson do you have to learn?
mosfet said…
The district just doesn't expect people to do their jobs.

These are people that are in charge of children. Children who are going to grow up to be doctors, engineers, lawyers, law enforcement, etc. People who need to act with integrity. People who need to do their jobs properly or else people will die. And what are these children learning from the district?

That it's acceptable to not take your job seriously.

That gross incompetence is completely fine.

That the law is something to be ignored.

That if you make a grievous mistake and harm someone, the right thing to do is to try to cover it up.
Anonymous said…

The administration doesn't exclusively own CYA there's plenty of that going on at the schools.

Hey what's good for the goose!

The Fonz
mosfet said…

Thank you for pointing that out. I agree that individual school administrations are part of the problem and that -- at least at Garfield -- they're also setting abysmally low standards.

I blame the Garfield principal for not demanding that his staff do their jobs, but I also blame the district leadership for not demanding that he do his job and firing him if he doesn't.
I just got back from the Garfield PTSA meeting. Some very incoherent, unclear statements made by Principal Howard and Director Blanford.

Story in the morning.
Charlie Mas said…
Right now it appears that no one in Seattle Public Schools is held accountable for violations of procedures, policies, regulations, or law, no matter what rule they break or how tragic the consequences.

What can Dr. Nyland do to dispel that sense? What can he do to assure the community that district staff are held accountable when they break the rules?

More to the point, what can he do to show district staff that they will be held accountable if they break the rules?
Anonymous said…
"Everyone who is trying to divert the conversation to questions about whether the contact was consensual or not is completely missing the point." That part doesn't matter."

Good point, Charlie. But do me a favor: Read the first sentence in your post, then say that again.

I understand your point that ideally it shouldn't matter. But this didn't happen in a "district lawlessness" vacuum, and neither the interest, nor the outrage, nor the national media coverage, nor the Facebook page would exist if it didn't matter.

You can split off whatever aspects of the incident you want to discuss and focus on. Certainly many different issues and causes are involved, but focusing on only part of the problem seems ill-advised to me. If it is your position that fixing the rules and enforcing accountability is only step 1, then we may be on the same page there.

The genesis of this discussion began with what transpired between two kids in a cabin full of other kids, and to me, this case is about what to do when all the systems fail and kids are left on their own, which is as certain as rain in Seattle to happen again in some form or fashion. To that end, if we take the focus off consent, and focus exclusively on fixing bureaucracies instead, we're doing ourselves and our kids a huge disservice.

CA's recent switch to "Yes" means "yes" is proof positive that "No" means "no" wasn't enough. While the former may have been useful to charge or convict, it didn't suffice to prevent enough harm in the first place. People were satisfied and self-assured when "no" means "no" laws took effect, thinking that would fix the problem. Well, apparently it only made a dent, prompting yet another change in the law.

We can have the best laws possible on the books, and the strictest of law enforcement, but will that fix the problem? How'd it work with drugs?

I suggest we look beyond the rules and procedures if we want to make lasting change in this area. Until drug abuse was seen as a public health problem, it was all about crime and punishment.

Thus, I believe we ignore the full story to our peril.

Puffin said…
As for parsing what consent means in this case, at the time of the reported rape the victim was 15, which is under the age of consent in Washington. Because of the age differential between the students involved, this case does not meet the legal requirements for statutory rape in Washington. So what consent means in the context of this case is different from what it would mean for college students described in the California law.
Anonymous said…
Just because the FBI says they would "never" tell a school to wait until their investigation was complete before doing the school investigated, doesn't mean that someone didn't say it. The FBI would have said it out loud not in writing, then it could be denied later, or the spokesperson might not know what was said, plus the spokesperson is not under oath. When I have met FBI agents making background checks on people, they write in a little notebook, not by email, not by phone, etc. They just show up without an appointment and do things face to face. So, that does not relieve SPS or GHS from Title IX responsibilities, but to those who make judgments based on that comment from the FBI, think about that the FBI might have said that to TH/GHS.

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