As a parent of two children in Santa Monica public schools, I am dismayed by recent SMMUSD statements on the crucial matter of child safety. The SMMUSD should not try to intimidate parents with vague legalistic threats and should not ask parents to destroy information and restrict their discussions. All documents mentioned here are available at the web site http://www.chwe.net/safety/marken. On December 4, 2008, Asst. Superintendent Mike Matthews stated in a letter that the SMMUSD had found that Santa Monica HS math teacher Mr. Ari Marken had sexually harassed a thirteen-year-old ninth grade girl in one of his geometry classes, in violation of SMMUSD policy 5145.7. Mr. Marken was removed from his classroom for five weeks while the investigation took place. On December 3, 2009, Mr. Patrick DeCarolis, an attorney representing the girl’s family, sent Asst. Superintendent Matthews copies of Facebook communications between Mr. Marken and another young woman which began in June 2007, before the young woman had graduated from Santa Monica HS. The SMMUSD initiated an investigation and placed Mr. Marken once again on leave. Mr. Marken did not return for the entire 2009-2010 school year. On August 30, 2010, Mr. DeCarolis, having learned that Mr. Marken would be returning to Santa Monica HS for the 20102011 school year after being put on leave twice, sent an email to roughly 20 district teachers and 200 district parents asking for any additional information about Mr. Marken. On August 31, 2010, Superintendent Tim Cuneo sent a memo to parents saying that Mr. DeCarolis’s email ”involves a confidential personnel matter, the release of which is subject to legal protections. Please destroy all copies of the email and do not forward it or discuss the content of the email with others.” Given the specific phrasing of Superintendent Cuneo’s request, I wondered whether he was claiming that parents are legally obligated to destroy the email and not talk about it. On September 8, 2010, I sent an email to Superintendent Cuneo asking directly whether parents are legally obligated to destroy Mr. DeCarolis’s email. In his reply on September 9, 2010, Superintendent Cuneo did not answer my question or address it in any way. Instead, Superintendent Cuneo wrote: ”The further dissemination of inaccurate information, which may include slanderous accusations, comes with it legal risk or liability. As such, the District response to the recipients about the information did not mince words in describing the seriousness of further dissemination.” I am forced to conclude that the SMMUSD, by not answering my question, is willing to intentionally mislead parents. Of course no parent is legally obligated to destroy any emails, regardless of implications for the district. Mr. DeCarolis’s email did not contain state secrets. By asking parents to destroy Mr. DeCarolis’s email and not discuss it with other parents, the SMMUSD demonstrates a misunderstanding of basic democratic values. The SMMUSD has no business telling parents what they can and cannot talk about. Indeed, in his reply, Superintendent Cuneo again engaged in vague legalistic language which in my opinion verges on intimidation. Of course in general disseminating slanderous accusations carries legal liability. But Superintendent Cuneo makes no specific claim that Mr. DeCarolis’s email is slanderous. If any aspects of Mr. DeCarolis’s email are inaccurate or slanderous, the SMMUSD should be able to point them out. To cite a related case, in April 1996, Kenneth DeLuca, a teacher in Sault Ste. Marie, in Ontario, Canada, pleaded guilty in 1996 to 14 sexual offenses involving students over 21 years. Several parents of victims, when making a complaint about Mr. DeLuca, reported that the Sault Ste. Marie School Board had ”threatened that they could face a lawsuit for slander.” In his report, the Honorable Sydney L. Robins, former Supreme Court Justice of Ontario, states that such a threat would ”obviously constitute a further inappropriate response to students’ complaints.” Parents and the SMMUSD should be able to agree that the safety of our children is our single most important value. Toward this end it is essential for us to talk to each other with respect and good faith, not condescension and equivocality. If the district is concerned about inaccurate information circulating among parents, it should supply better information, not ask parents to shut up. On December 22, 2008, Lincoln Middle School teacher Thomas Beltran pleaded guilty to sexually molesting 11 students over a period of more than ten years. Mr. Beltran was finally arrested after a student went to the Santa Monica Police Department on May 2, 2008. I don’t think that the SMMUSD has fully learned from this tragedy. If any of the other ten students had felt comfortable enough to make a complaint in all the previous years, or if any two of these students’ families had received support from each other, untold suffering might have been prevented. We already know that in March 2006 one of these students 1
made a complaint to Lincoln Principal Kathy Scott, which was investigated by the SMPD, but after Mr. Beltran was arrested, the SMMUSD claimed to have no knowledge of this previous complaint. To this day the SMMUSD has not explained how exactly it forgot what the SMPD had remembered. A student or a parent of a student who has experienced harassment or abuse by a teacher already feels alone and isolated. She already worries whether other people will believe her. For her to make a complaint, which can protect herself and students for years to come, she must feel assured that school administrators will take her seriously and there will be no negative repercussions. She must be able to reach out to other students and parents for support. A parent reading Superintendent Cuneoâ€™s statements above can logically conclude that if she were to report harassment or abuse, the SMMUSD would be willing to isolate her from other parents, call her claims inaccurate with no stated justification, and use vaguely threatening legalese to keep her and other parents from speaking out openly. I should also add that Mr. Marken is currently teaching at Santa Monica High School. Parents have the right to know the details of his two suspensions so that they can make the best possible decisions to ensure the safety of their children.
Published on Feb 7, 2011