OAKLAND -- Thornhill parents met to discuss the recent termination of the school's beloved, longtime physical education teacher fondly known as "coach."
District officials addressed a standing-room-only crowd on Feb. 6 of more than 100 people, many angry about the way that the Oakland Unified School District handled the situation.
"Coach," or Gregg Pentony, was employed by the Thornhill Parent Faculty Club to supplement the school's physical education program. Like most hills schools, the Thornhill Parent Faculty Club runs a yearly budget in excess of $100,000, employing staff to augment the instruction of classroom teachers.
Pentony was accused of using physical contact to defuse a situation involving a fifth-grade child's behavior. The Parent Faculty Club investigated the situation and voted "to reinstate Coach with conditions," explained the group's president, Mark Lecker. The situation was brought to Lecker's attention on Dec. 13.
"The board met and consulted with two employment attorneys and got strict rules on what to communicate and how to communicate it," Lecker said.
Although Lecker was unwilling to disclose the conditions of the coach's reinstatement, "I assure you that it was more than a slap on the wrist," he said.
However, the family of the child found the outcome unacceptable and filed a complaint with the school district, which launched its own investigation, led by the district's regional executive officer, Sandra Aguilera. The district's findings prompted Aguilera to decide not to allow Pentony to return to the Thornhill campus. Aguilera reached her decision after extensive consultation with the district's lawyers.
"I'm here to work through this problem with the Thornhill community," Aguilera said. She continued by explaining that for legal reasons she would be unable to discuss the findings of their investigation. The district's investigation consisted of reviewing written statements by the children and the teacher, as well as interviewing the children about the events of that day. The district's investigation took place more than a month after the incident. Parents raised concerns about the district's investigation process.
"You say that the decision was based on the application of consistent practices. Where do we find this information?" parent Paul Walsh asked.
"This is a community in turmoil," Diane Cash said. "We need peace, but this won't happen until we have been heard. We need to know that your investigation was complete."
"Given the history of the Oakland Unified School District, they aren't trustworthy. How do we check about a conflict of interest?" Jenifer Reeve asked.
Aguilera confirmed that one of the child's parents worked for the district but said that did not play a factor in the investigation. Cecile Chenevey questioned the investigation process.
"I would like to see a copy of the statement my child made," Chenevey said. "My son had no idea who he was talking to. You're deciding the fate of a man on the writings and conversations of 10-year-old kids?"
"I'm standing in my decision," Aguilera repeated multiple times. "I feel that I had a full account of the incident. I saw a pattern."
While Aguilera agreed to provide parents a copy of their child's statements, she explained that it is permissible to interview a child about an incident without the parent's knowledge if the child was not directly involved in the incident. According to many parents, the child had a history of bullying at the school, and the incident in question was a response to an aggressive act toward another child.
"Why is the district not giving us an opportunity for restorative justice?" asked Marady Hill, a board member for the parent faculty club. Restorative justice is a conflict-resolution system program used at many district school sites. However, it is unavailable at Thornhill.
"It's a missed opportunity to do the right thing and get people together and work it out. It's really wrong," Scott Halbrook said.
"In the spirit of restorative justice, can you take a step back and look at your decision?" Laura Keady asked. "We need to figure out a way to have closure. Can we see him one more time?"
"I know that this is not the decision that most people want," Aguilera said. "I don't want to contribute to the sadness, but we are here to uphold a decision that was made."
"This is a wonderful community," Thornhill Principal Mel Stanger said. "We are going through a very difficult time. It's my strong belief that our strong spirit will get us through this."
The Thornhill Parent Faculty Club has appealed the decision directly to Superintendent Tony Smith's office.