Bertha Cooper

Think About It: This couldn’t be normal, could it?

Beats me what’s “normal” nowadays. Normal may have gone the way of 8-track tapes and writing a letter using an ink pen on paper. Fast and furious 2020 swept us into whirlwinds of the unexpected, the pandemic being the most disruptive to our “normal” lives of shopping for toilet paper, children attending school and hugging our friends.

2020 was the worst possible year to have a presidential election especially one built on a country divided so politically that we can imagine some large force taking a sharp knife and slicing us into near equal halves. In the end, one-half took a slice out of the other and the winning side left the losing side sulking.

The year held enough fear, uncertainty and noise that happenings that would “normally” get our attention became background scenery. Events I would have “normally” written about were left hanging on a branch somewhere in my forest of things to think about.

So, forgive the slow start to this column; it was essential that I purge remnants of 2020 angst that keep surfacing like unwanted pop-ups on the internet. While purging, the unfolding drama of the Sequim School District made a strong appearance among my column ideas forest.

Disappearing leadership in school district

The first thought that came to mind was that someone had put a curse on the District or layered it with a dark cloud destined to bring bad luck. Wait, that would be the conspiracy pop-up and I’m so done with that. Still, too many things are happening that aren’t “normal” for a setting that promises hope and education for children.

Although pandemic disruption is significant, it isn’t the curse because every other school in the county, state and nation is dealing with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is nothing “normal” about what we are expecting of the teachers and staff of the district. How difficult to turn lesson planning on the dime to accommodate the education of children to the newest COVID-19 restriction or loosening of same. The times are the most extreme example of a situation that requires solid, consistent and trusted leadership.

On Oct. 22, about 44 days into the official school year, Dr. Rob Clark was placed on paid administrative leave due to a formal complaint made against him. We were told by the school board President Brandino Gibson, “this is a legal action that was taken to protect all the parties.” No other details were provided or would be provided.

On Oct. 23, Shawn Langston, Sequim High School principal, was placed on paid administrative leave due to what was said to be a separate and unrelated complaint against him.

We were told the complaints were being handled internally through the school district’s human resources and risk management staff. Jane Pryne, a former Port Angeles School District Superintendent who was brought in to provide the above-mentioned essential leadership, said neither investigation involves law enforcement.

Doesn’t it make you wonder if it could, should or will? Just saying. Although, Gibson did implore staff to “refrain from speculation regarding the details surrounding the (administrator leaves) decision.” That’s a bit like asking people not to blink.

More than a month has passed and we know little more. The Sequim Gazette filed a public records request for information into the reasons for the administrative leaves. The district refused the request citing the administrators on leave rights to privacy “due to the highly offensive nature of the allegations.”

I gather from reading the Gazette report that the investigations were not complete and were serious enough that revealing them would somehow jeopardize the administrators until/if/when proven untrue. That would be because the allegations would be “highly offensive” if true.

The length of the investigation is bothersome. The more time that passes, the more time people have to speculate and the worse it seems since it’s taking so long to clear.

To be the subject of prolonged suspicion doesn’t seem entirely fair to me. I don’t know these administrators, but my guess is that they don’t feel like they are on a paid vacation and would like to get back to work as soon as possible.

Why not hire an experienced and independent person to investigate and issue results in an expedited manner? The cost of replacing those on administrative leaves is high in a district already experiencing unanticipated costs due to the pandemic, not to mention the pressure on those remaining and trying to make up for voids in leadership during a pandemic.

History repeats?

About 18 months ago, the district settled a harassment suit for $850,000. The teacher had filed a complaint with the district alleging discrimination involving her sexual orientation. The complaint was brought when the middle school principal failed to act upon her initial grievance. Oops.

The district learned a hard and expensive lesson; the people involved did as well and, no doubt, experienced much emotional turmoil. The principal was transferred out of his position. Another named person took a leave of absence.

Perhaps one of the lessons was to take complaints more seriously, investigate thoroughly and quietly. Unfortunately, the prolonged cloak of darkness and uncertainly has many of the same painful components for all those involved.

Ah, just speculation except the last sentence. Once resolved and the district with the help of the community has stabilized the education of the community’s children post pandemic, the district may be well advised to examine its culture that produces complaints.

This isn’t and should never be accepted as “normal.”

What’s happening that shouldn’t be happening? And, what isn’t happening that should be.

Bertha Cooper, featured columnist in the Sequim Gazette, spent her 50-plus career years in health care administration/consultation. She recently published two books: “Women, We’re Only Old Once” and “Old and On Hold, Aging in Place during the Pandemic.” Reach her at columnists@sequimgazette.com.

Bertha Cooper

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